OK, just to make absolutely clear – this was my April Fool’s joke for 2012. No Bishops were harmed in the making of this post.
I expect many people were surprised, not least “New Atheists” and devout members of the Church of England, by last nights announcement from Whitehall that Richard Dawkins has been ordained in to the Church of England, and has in very short (holy) order been appointed to an episcopal see. Bishop Dawkins, as he will become on ascending to the office of Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds later this year, has for many years been an outspoken atheist, and indeed his best selling book “The God Delusion” was an impassioned call for a secular culture and end to traditional religious thought, almost as radical as those by Anglican Divines like Don Cupitt or former Bishop of Woolwich John A. T. Robinson whose “Honest to God” caused such controversy in the 1960’s.
Perhaps the greatest surprise to an Anglican like myself is that the obvious diocese for Dawkins was missed – one would have expected him to become Bishop of Durham. Still, with the lack of vacancy in that diocese Bury St. Edmunds is a good choice. My only fear is that his attitudes on religion may be too moderate and too simplistic and literal-fundamentalist for the average sophisticated pew dweller of the modern Anglican church. While I admire his liberal stance on many social issues, including his defining statement on homosexual marriage — “I don’t think it should be compulsory” — I too feel it should be restricted to non-heterosexual laity and clergy alike and non-mandatory– his rather direct and literal reading of a text as complex as the Bible flies in the face of my Neo-Orthodox reading of the Holy Scripture, and will cause him no doubt to have many problems with those who place Tradition and Experience and Magisterium above Scripture – indeed I don’t think we have seen the spirit of sola scriptura and emphasis on the Bible alone as the basis for the Christian faith so loudly advocated since the time of Luther and Calvin, except by certain Evangelicals. The fact Dawkins chooses to refute the whole book is irrelevant – he still accepts a theological principal that that is all Christianity is that has not been fashionable since the days of Augustine (with a few noted exceptions as mentioned), and that would make Origen blush.
Still, the move to appoint Dawkins as Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds is undoubtedly a courageous one, albeit not unsurprising. I seem to recall he is a good friend of former Bishop of Liverpool Richard Harries, and last month debated the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams. During that debate Dawkins made what many saw as a shocking announcement, that he was actually “agnostic”, not entirely excluding the possibility of a god. That this shocked anyone at all was a source of amazement to me, given that his scale of atheism and the words he used were almost verbatim those he has used in The God Delusion many years before. He is comfortably, clearly a pragmatic atheist, while admitting to being a “cultural Christian” — and as such I think he has to be accepted as the perfect candidate to reflect the views of the modern CofE Church attendee.
Of course I fear he may have problems with certain of the defining principles of the Church of England, in particular the first and most crucial of these, The 39 Articles. The first article reads “God is nice: preach this often, but cause no offense to any man, women, child or person of other gender.” In his practically absolute denial of the existence of the deity Dawkins will not got far enough for many Anglican pew sitters, but will outrage others who will ask how the niceness of God can be compatible with His non-existence. I think they should take a moment to reflect on Rorty’s non-representationalism, and non-realism in modern theological language – clearly Cupitt and others blazed a path here, even if Dawkins is slightly too much mired in traditional notions of faith to fully accept their principle that when we say something we don’t actually mean it at all like that, but something quite different, quite sacred, and quite mundane, and quite ineffable, as the word sacred means nothing.
While the new fast tracking system for Anglican ordinands has been controversial, I do like it. I myself am hoping to be raised to be Dean of somewhere one day, or perhaps a Royal Chaplaincy would suit. For too long the Church was a haven for the family idiot, or for Neo-Marxist social liberals who had been thrown out of Outrage for being too outspoken. The new meritocratic system, where merit is measured largely by the colour of ones old school tie promises to bring a reassuring conservatism back to the church, even if it is only a social conservatism not a theological one.
Most surprising to me was that while I can see Lambeth Palace would be enthusiastic for this move, that 10 Downing Street assented. Prime Minister David Cameron must have known that it would make the church relevant to 90% more modern British people than it currently is, and it is clearly a huge coup for the Anglican Communion – Dawkins book sales far outweigh all the Bishops combined since the Colenso affair in the 19th century, and the incorporation of the schismatic “New Atheists” back in to the Anglican Communion albeit with the new “Skeptical Rite” will do huge amounts to to boost church attendance and take pressure on hard pressed roof repairs off jumble sales and bailiffs enforcing Chancel tax. So why did Cameron agree?
Well, in the words of senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby the Church of England is primarily a social organisation, not a religious one, and one must maintain the balance, the Anglican Via Media, between those who believe in God and those who do not. Cameron clearly took this important lesson to heart, and Lambeth, with a long tradition on its side, have appointed the best man to the post. I fear that next month some long haired ex-acid head Graham Kendrick’s chorus singing loon will be appointed to balance the balance: but it for best perhaps, and at long last the CofE has learned from our current government – it is bad to look both heartless and feeble, so do both alternately?
Best wishes to Richard Dawkins on his ecclesiastical preferment. Further reportage here.