Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bishops and Books

Where we come from, it would seem, is as significant as where we’re going. The Bishop of Durham, Rt Rev Justin Welby, after only a year as a bishop, is to fill the ponderous sandals of Rowan Williams whom history will record as being the most theologically learned after Anselm.  I for one would have lost the bet, along with many others, the dark horse slipped past the post almost without anybody noticing. Much has been made of his past as an oil executive, but also the fact that he, like the PM and Mayor of London, is a ‘posh boy’, an Old Etonian. It’s all too British for words; the fact that he once worshipped at HTB – as did I – is one of the few things we do have in common and  despite the fact that I went to one of the Very Best, obsessing about school backgrounds is outmoded, a little bit trivial and as far as the Press is concerned, contagious. He’s awfully, awfully senior in the pecking order, being ranked first above all non-Royals, called ‘your Grace’, and given a palace to live in. He’s OK about women bishops – as am I, why not – he is not a supporter of gay marriage; neither am I and, worse, feel the need to justify my opinion. If we go down some kind of sacramental memory lane, the word has great significance insofar as one presents oneself before God and his representatives, the congregation, makes vows based upon a homiletic liturgy about children and so forth and thereby binds two people of the opposite sex to a contract made in heaven. There's just not enough historical leverage to widen the goalposts. Two men or women are unable to bring their own children into the relationship, so some other word needs to be found when they wish to publicly and quite legitimately conjoin themselves, which I support and if the C of E must needs write a special set of words and phrases, then, so be it, but let full civil rights be enough without using the M word. Interestingly, the Catholics don't have 'binding teaching', just a 'preference' - try asking Father O'Brien to marry you if you happen to share the same gender. Welby, who lost his firstborn child in a car accident, might be seen as a dinosaur in this respect alone, everywhere else he may well be (sorry) the man for the iPad generation, where rules change, as in business,  with remarkable fluidity.
Damian Thompson, the Catholic journalist whom the Church Times once described as a ‘blood-crazed ferret’ is someone whose writing I have begun to enjoy, much against my earlier prejudice. His new book is certainly worth a look – he argues that human desire is in the process of being reshaped. Shunning the concept of addiction as disease, he shows how manufacturers are producing substances like iPads, muffins and computer games that we learn to like too much and supplement traditional addictions to alcohol, drugs and gambling. He argues that addictive behaviour is becoming a substitute for family and work bonds that are being swept away by globalisation and urbanization, with which I tend to agree. We part company a little when he argues that the battle to control addiction will soon overshadow familiar ideological debates about how to run the economy, and as whole societies set about “fixing” themselves, the architecture of human relations will come under strain as never before. Let my psych friends take note – if he’s right, it looks like the client pool is going to increase exponentially as decadence and social cohesion decline. I think it’s undeniable that we are experiencing a social paradigm shift of huge proportions and are just dimly beginning to realise that revolutions such as the one sparked by computers-for-all and the World Wide Web is changing us and will change us irrevocably as a species; furthermore our understanding of these changes necessarily lags behind the changes themselves. Which brings me back to where we come from, and, coincidentally, sex.
It has been argued in a firecracker best seller “Sex at Dawn” that human beings evolved in primal hordes of hunter-gatherer groups in which sexual interaction was a shared resource, consequently shared paternity. The authors further argue that the genetic imprint left by such behaviour is manifested today in the seemingly worldwide phenomenon of male infidelity. Men, they argue, are naturally polygamous, sometimes serially, sometimes not, and women, who have a limited number of eggs as genetic currency, tend to want to spend them more wisely. If we are to believe that our species is metamorphosing into primal urban hordes, without the responsibilities of maintaining social cohesion, a return to more primal sexual behaviour is not inconceivable, but, obviously for different reasons, even desirable. The book further asserts that sexual promiscuity in the absence of territorial disputes over land and possessions tends to lead to peaceful coexistence rather that the aggressive masculine behaviour necessary to maintain and subjugate a territory which is ‘owned’. If so, war may become nothing more than a rumour.
All this may be rather more than His Grace is willing to consider at the present time. Perhaps he might start with something less ambitious, like designing a mitre that makes him look a little less like this. Sorry, everyone.

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