Archbishop Rowan and Frank Skinner in conversation
Friday 16th September 2011The Archbishop of Canterbury met comedian, writer and broadcaster Frank Skinner "In Conversation" at Canterbury Cathedral on Friday evening.
Archbishop Rowan and Skinner had encountered each other before, but this was the first time they'd sat down for an in-depth exchange of views on the state of Christianity today.
Skinner, a practising Catholic, returned to the church in his late 20s after a period "in the wilderness" and says the years spent examining his faith have made him better able to defend it. "I think there is a responsibility for any believer in the 21st century to be able to fight their corner."
Talking to Dr Williams, Skinner described himself as "a tough crowd" when listening to a sermon, and said that priests don't try hard enough to make an impact when preaching - prompting an audience member to ask if his sense of frustration might be God's way of calling him to do better. You can hear Frank's response to the idea of becoming a priest in the attached audio.
For further photographs, information about The Gathering, and DVDs of the Conversation (£6), see the Diocese of Canterbury website.
Frank Skinner: Good crowd!
Archbishop of Canterbury: Good crowd. Good evening everyone. And I think we’ve already had some very good input from our cardboard cutouts, haven’t we?
FS: Yes, they’ve made mine slightly shorter, and the Archbishop’s slightly taller. So whoever made them obviously knows which side their bread’s buttered around here. But no, it’s lovely - where are they, we might be glad of them later!
ABC: Frank, lovely to have you here.
FS: Thank you – it’s a lovely place you’ve got. Did you do it yourself?
ABC: Bit of help with the garden. Ever since it was announced that we were going to have this conversation, people doing interviews with me on television have said “Why on earth have you asked Frank Skinner to come?” And I wonder whether you’ve got any thoughts on why people think it’s surprising that I’ve asked you to do this?
FS: Well to be honest when I got the phone call I was a little surprised myself. I don’t know if you know this but I live in a flat which is directly next to Lambeth Palace. We are neighbours basically.
ABC: There goes the neighbourhood.
FS: I thought you basically asked me hoping to get a lift home.
ABC: Well, it is Friday night!
FS: I know you like a drink on a Friday – I’m nominated driver. I obviously was very excited because at the end of the day it's the Archbishop of Canterbury - it's an away game I know, in Canterbury Cathedral, but I’m not going to get a chance like this again. I didn’t hesitate. And also, I'm a bit of a fan of yours if I’m quite honest. Someone once said, not that long ago, “are there any celebrities you’d like to have as a friend?” Because there are celebrities who you might admire, but who you wouldn’t actually want to hang out with. And I said: the Archbishop of Canterbury and Tracy Emin.
ABC: In that order?
FS: Well, alternate nights I thought. We needn’t hang out together if you're frightened. (I knew he wouldn't like a Catholic being in here.) I met Tracy Emin shortly after that, and I wasn’t so keen after. But then I met the Archbishop, and I think you’re a good man. Is it all right to say that?
ABC: Thank you!
FS: At the moment that is – we’ve got 90 minutes to go yet. I might go right off you.
ABC: Coming back to that question, people say, here is one of these cutting edge comedians who swears and tells rude jokes.
FS: That is true.
ABC: Do you want someone like that in a cathedral? I suppose the answer is you want them very much in a cathedral really, to keep them away from other places.
FS: Can I say, I won’t be doing that tonight – I mean, horses for courses. I've always imagined – and you may think this ill of me - that Jesus and the disciples, 13 blokes hanging around, getting food where they can, moving about, there was probably quite a lot of swearing and ribald conversation. I don't find that an unholy thought. I think if God's going to become man it's no good him becoming some slightly pious distanced version of man. He's got to get down there with the people. So, I know it's not in the scriptures but you just wouldn't write those bits down. One of my great regrets about the New Testament is I don't think there is one, what I would call, a good gag in there from Jesus. And I mean that with passion because I think that would have brought more people in. I think it would have made him seem more human.
ABC: That rings a bell, because I remember when I was a teenager, a priest in our parish telling me that he’d come to talk to the Mother’s Union about Jesus, and said “We have to remember that Jesus was a real human being, and he had dusty feet”. Yes, they all nodded. He went on “And he had dirty feet.” Slight intake of breath. “He even had… smelly feet.” And that was the point at which his job was on the line. But I was thinking about just this question - are there jokes in the gospel? I have the impression Jesus is somebody who has an extraordinary gift with words. He is witty. There are sharp, rather barbed asides – there are outrageous similes like swallowing camels, that sort of thing. But it's not thigh-slapping. It’s wit, it’s satire often. And occasionally I suspect there’s a very deliberate undercutting of what people are expecting, which must have had the shock of comedy. The Good Samaritan – Jesus starts by telling a story about a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan.
FS: That’s a classic structure – Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman basically.
ABC: That’s the point because at the time the three categories of people that you talked about were priests, Levites and Israelites. So to people listening to the story – along comes the priest, well, we all know what we think about priests, you don’t expect anything from priests. Along comes a Levite, the religious professional, you know… So everyone in the audience is saying, the hero of this story is going to be an ordinary Israelite like me. And Jesus says: along came a – and you can imagine a rather long pause, then he says – Samaritan. It’s a bit like telling a joke about an Englishman, an Irishman and a chartered accountant. You have the structure and then you break it down.
FS: But it is the structure, because there’s a thing in comedy called the rule of three and that’s exactly how that story works. It’s not that funny, to be honest. You'll know better than I, but I can only think of one laugh in the Bible and I think that is when Sarah is told she's going to have a baby. And she's old. The laugh is not even a lovely, joyous laugh. It's a ha ha ha, its one of those laughs, and God takes exception to it. So the only laugh in the Bible actually doesn’t go that well with God. Obviously what I'm looking for here is some sort of vindication for my whole life. I think it's why the more puritanical faiths are so stern. In case anyone doesn't know I'm a Roman Catholic and I kind of associate Protestantism with a more stern austere kind of faith. It sort of grew up in Northern Europe, didn't it? I always think it’s a result of dark, cold nights where people sit around and think, well let's read the Bible again. They're all sitting like this and they've got nothing else to do apart from tick off things that are bad for them. Whereas I imagine the Catholics in Southern Europe are thinking, let's read the Bible - well yeah, but what about meeting some friends and having a glass of wine and sitting outside and sharing God's love in that kind of warm and natural way.
ABC: So essentially you think the Reformation is the fault of the weather.
ABC: There may have been one or two other issues around.
FS: You can imagine when the news broke – “and now over to the Reformation Office …”
ABC: I think that while there's something in that, if you look at the first generation of Protestants, if you look at Martin Luther in Germany – there’s somebody you couldn’t call a Puritan, somebody with an enormous appetite for life. I think if I were talking to him this evening and people had read some of what he was on record as saying, they’d want to know why I was talking to Martin Luther.
FS: And he used quite graphic imagery and language.
ABC: But it is one of the things which I guess we can't get away from in the Bible, that the laughter is not obviously around. There’s lots about joy. Maybe that's what matters at the end of the day – when the laughter is over, the joy stays. It would help a lot of people, I guess, to feel that it was permitted to laugh in church. We need to work a bit at that. I'm even inclined sometimes to think, and this is pushing it a bit I know, that without some kind of religious approach to reality, some kind of faith, it's actually rather difficult to find things funny, because things are funny because they are incongruous, they jar against something. If anything is as predictable as anything else then nothing is very funny, is it?
FS: I like the idea that we are funnier than the atheists, as you can imagine. I don't imagine that Richard Dawkins is a laugh a minute.
ABC: Well I've never heard him tell a joke.
FS: No - but to be fair, he is still evolving. But this thing about the seriousness element is something I struggle with. I don't know what it is like in Anglican churches, but I find churches one of the most difficult [sound fades out]. I’m enjoying this sound – it’s like a Velvet Underground concert. Some people are leaving already. That's a worry. Was it something you said? How is the sound, is it all right? This is how I imagined tonight - one Catholic at the front. You can't hear? I knew I'd get shouted at, it was that kind of night. I'm going to keep talking and if I say anything really funny, pass it on. I’d be interested to find this out from the audience - are they an audience tonight or a congregation? It's a borderline thing – but when I go to church on a Sunday morning I feel like we are discussing the most profound important serious things in the middle of a children's playground, and I find it quite difficult often just to even hear what's being said in a homily, for example. In the Catholic church I imagine this is even worse, because we are not that big on contraception as you may have heard. So there are a lot of kids screaming and shouting. I think it's a real problem. I think it makes church - I love kids and I love kids being around - but I kind of go there to be inspired. I kind of go there to be given something by the priest that I will take away with me and it will get me through that week. I don’t know what the answer is. Have you ever thought about a crèche? An age limit?
ABC: Not only thought about it – we do it here and so do most parishes I think. It's a difficult balance, because on the one hand it's good that children feel at home in the context of worship, that they feel they are not under pressure with everybody looking disapprovingly. I think it’s good if it feels natural. At the same time I really understand what you’re saying about the need for a place to be serious. I think sometimes we load too many expectations on the Sunday morning event when there may be things that should be done at other times during the week, when you could say, the thing I half-heard in the sermon on Sunday, can I ask you with four or five other people around what it’s really about? Because given the rush people live in it's often difficult to find the extra time for that, so you do load it all on Sunday.
FS: Well I wonder if maybe I’m quite a tough crowd, because I expect a lot when I go to mass. From the sermon, I really want something important – and maybe it is difficult to churn that out 52 weeks a year. I’ve been going to mass since I was about 5 or 6. I had a few years off – I left the church when I was 17 and went back at 28 – I had one of those difficult 'teenage things'. So I must have heard thousands of homilies, and I can think of three or four that had quite a big effect on me. If I was doing gigs with that kind of hit rate, I would not be sitting here tonight. I don't know how much training, how much help, is given to people who have to preach. There was a time when people had to get a licence to preach.
ABC: They still do
FS: They still do? Well you need to review your licensing. I don’t want to sit here and criticise priests, Anglican or otherwise, but I think it’s a big problem. There’s a film by a comedian called Jerry Seinfeld, a very famous American comedian. He goes out on the road after not doing any live shows for 10 years or so, he goes out to try new material in clubs, and he said “being famous gets you through the first couple of minutes, and then after that you’ve got to be funny or you’ll lose them.” Every comic lives on that tightrope, and we don't have a captive audience – we don’t have people coming because of a sense of duty. I wonder if that can make you casual. I wonder if it can make you try not hard enough. I have thought just lately, wouldn’t it be better if we just found a core group of very very good preachers who every week took it in turns to do an absolutely cracking seven minute sermon and that is played on a video screen in every church in the country. That would take some of the load off that priest, and we’d be getting something good. That’s a serious suggestion.
ABC: Pretty much how it worked in the Middle Ages, I think. A lot of parish priests didn't preach, you had experts like the Dominican Friars going round and doing things. But I think the other side of it is that the local priest - or deacon or lay reader or whatever - preaching can key in to what's actually going on in that community at that time. They may not be able to produce memorable coruscating witty sermons but they may just have something that strikes that community for that day.
FS: I’m not looking for gags though.
ABC: No, I’m not assuming you are.
FS: I once heard Cardinal Hume preach, and he told a very very short sermon: he was in Africa and he saw this small child. The child had lost his parents and four brothers and sisters, and was doing this [beckoning gesture]. Hulme said to one of the aid workers “what does that gesture mean?” And they said, we were wondering about that and we think that he’s just calling us in, he wants people to be close to him. Not just to be held but more “please don’t leave me on my own”. And then Hume ended that sermon. And that was plenty for me. I didn’t need three or four topics. I went away and I really thought about that and what that meant, and maybe lots of people have got their own versions of this. Surely we could come up with maybe 104 cracking sermons and we could just have them on a loop so they’d play every two years. It’s a serious problem. Could we have a show of hands, how many people here are generally disappointed with a sermon on a Sunday? Obviously nearer the front, less hands. They even know your spectacles prescription. Row ten, we're alright.
ABC: Years ago I used to teach sermon preparation to students in theological college (which may explain a lot of what you’re talking about!). One thing I used sometimes to say was, imagine you had 45 seconds to say one thing, what would you absolutely have to say? And then build around that – don’t say “I’ve got to fill ten minutes”. Imagine the building on fire and you’ve got to say one thing – start from there.
FS: Can you guess what my next question is, Your Grace? What would be your one thing that you had to say?
ABC: It would depend on the day.
FS: What about tonight? Because I’d like to take something away that would be a glowing ember. Shall I come back to you on that? I thought you’d come out with something just like that.
ABC: No I don't like doing rapid responses. It would depend on what I had heard in the Bible reading. It would depend maybe on what I had seen and sensed in being in the church before I started, because I try to get there early enough to talk to one or two people, to get a feel for things. It would depend a bit on what had come up while saying my prayers. So it's a bit difficult to do it in mid-air. I suppose I could turn it back and say, give me a Bible passage.
FS: I have lots of arguments about religion. I rarely talk to other religious people about religion. Most of my conversations are with atheists, who say how can anyone with any kind of brain believe in God in 2011? How can you be so sure? And my point is, I’m not sure and in fact I think faith, that kind of complete and utter blind faith, is a very dangerous thing. I see myself as a person of doubt, and I think doubt is absolutely at the centre of being a human being, and is important. I worry when I hear religious people who have no doubt, just fundamentalist beliefs, and I worry when I hear atheists who seem to have no doubt at all. I think that that is an essential part of being a human being. And I think that when Jesus is on the cross and says “my Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?” that’s the moment when he completely becomes a human being - and then he can die because he's done the full works. So I don't think anyone in this church tonight who believes in God should feel bad if there are days when they find it very very hard to believe. [Applause.] That's the other thing with sermons there's not enough applause. These people, they need a bit of encouragement.
ABC: Listen to this man! I've heard people say: the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. That is a particular kind of absolute self-satisfaction, I've got it sorted. But faith is, in my book, the confidence to take the next step. Not certainty, not knowing where it's going, but enough confidence to say “I'm not giving up”. What you quote from the Lord on the cross, that is for me as for many people an absolutely crucial moment indicating he doesn’t spare himself the most difficult of human experiences. He really doesn't.
FS: I also think, Your Grace, that that is a very good piece of evidence for the fact that the gospels haven't been too tampered with by the people who wrote them down. Because if I was writing a gospel trying to sell Christianity, I would have edited that bit. There's one or two really difficult bits, some contradictory bits, some just problematic bits – “forget your family”, that bit when he says your family's outside and he says “who are my family? these are my family” – that's quite a nasty bit to say to your mum. I would have taken that out, and the fact that it’s in there suggests that people regard the words of Jesus as too sacred to tamper with. That’s a very good sign that we’re getting real stuff.
ABC: Likewise, I think with the struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, he really is afraid of what’s going to come. You’re talking about a depth of feeling the distance of God, the absence of God. You’re talking about a real fear of what’s going to happen in the Garden of Gethsemane. You’re not talking about a plaster figure, you’re not talking about a superman. I think it’s one of the things that the Church almost goes in waves on - there are generations where people really feel that that is important, there are generations when they kind of lose sight of it and they want him to be a superman. I think it’s crucial to come back to these things, and if it’s not the case that Jesus experienced these things as human, then we’re bound to be feeling ashamed or awkward if we feel doubt or if we feel fear. That Jesus feels them is one of the things that says to us it’s ok to recognise that.
FS: I think that Saint Thomas – Doubting Thomas, as people call him – is the classic saint for the 21st century, because he says “get out of it, I’ll believe it when I stick my finger…” – and then when he’s confronted, he’s able to repent that and just crumble at his lack of faith. He's a bit of a hero of mine – I think he’s got a very bad press. I mean, the adjective “doubting” – you don’t want that tied to you forever. I think the idea that religious people are certain about stuff ... you know, there are days when I think, maybe this is wrong. Maybe we are sitting here now and we are both wrong and there is nothing. And this fabulous place was built on a dream. I think it's ok, anyone who’s thinking that now. I think it’s all right to think that – that’s not going to be held against you.
ABC: I take it you’re not going to ask for a show of hands?
FS: Tell you what I would like to know, how many non-believers are in tonight? Again they're all at the back. It's like the naughty kids at school. Not that many but enough, enough to cause sedition. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Your Grace, but on the comedy circuit now it’s incredibly cool to be an atheist. I was in Edinburgh recently and I saw several comedians’ shows, and even if they were nothing to do with religion they would take a 3 or 4 minute slot where they would say “oh, by the way, I’m an atheist” to make sure they’d ticked the box of ‘cool comic’. You have to wear tight jeans, you have to have hair that looks like a chrysanthemum, and you have to be an atheist if you want to be a cool modern comic. Now, you need to sort that out. It's very bad that being an atheist has got to be the cool position, because that could be very serious as an end result. (Sorry, I will let you talk in a minute!) But we might see them as people who deny global warming. You might celebrate their rights, their freedom of speech and their opinion, to deny global warming. But if they’re wrong and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible terrible disaster for a lot of people. And the church seems to be just letting it get ‘cooler’ and letting it dominate more and more. The God Delusion sold, what, a million copies? What did your last book sell?
ABC: Not quite as many.
FS: Well that can't be right.
ABC: I would also want to know how many atheists The God Delusion created, so to speak. The book sold, but did it make a difference to the number of people who are committed one way or another? I really don’t know the answer to that but I suspect that fashions in book sales come and go. I’m not avoiding the point that the ‘coolness’ of atheism is very much in evidence. But I'm just not sure it shifts people’s serious commitments that much in the long run.
FS: Really? I read The God Delusion, because I think it's important - I don't want to be one of those believers who shuts out any kind of counter-argument. When I held the book in my hand, before I turned the first page, I remember thinking, when I’ve finished this book, I might not believe in God any more. I think it’s important that that’s always a possibility. If someone tells me something that makes me think, no no, there really isn't a God, then I won't believe anymore, simple as that. And there were a couple of moments in that book where I thought “that’s a good point” but I came out of it all right. But because I end up talking about religion a lot (because people think “oh it’s that religious weirdo bloke, this is a chance to talk to him”) I think that agnosticism was the most common stance I came across. People would say “I haven’t really thought about it, but, y’know, maybe not”. I meet more people now who categorically align themselves with science and atheism and the new atheists and that movement. Should we be doing anything about it? Should you be doing anything about it? Or is it that that’s just life and you have to let it unfold.
ABC: Quite a few people have been ‘doing things about it’ in some ways. The problem is that it becomes a bit of a vicious circle. Atheism is ‘cool’, so books about atheism are cool, and they get a high profile. Books that say “actually this, this and this are wrong in Richard Dawkins” don't get the same kind of publicity because atheism is the new cool thing and it’s the ‘dog bites man, man bites dog’ thing. One is news, the other not so much. So it’s quite difficult to break into that. Plenty of people have tried and are trying. I hope this isn’t a cop-out but I think what tends to make a difference to people's sense that faith is real or possible is seeing someone's life where it works. Often that's a very local, very “close-to” thing. Bishop Trevor [the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover] and I were at a bishops’ meeting last week where we had a presentation from the Bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe. He was talking about what it had been like for the last three or four years being a church facing constant brutality and harassment, and how the church had grown in those circumstances. For me, that was something that put any amount of argument in perspective. I was able to say, well, that’s what happens. I can’t see any way of ignoring or trivialising that. It seems to be possible for human beings to grow in their commitment - not certainty, but commitment - in those circumstances. I’d say “explain that Dawkins – what’s going on there?” It’s not a knock-down argument, it’s just saying: that’s actually what reaches people’s guts. Which is why the very fact of somebody like yourself professing their religious faith may be more important than your ability or mine to answer Richard Dawkins in detail.
FS: I guess it depends on what they think of us. I think anyone who professes a belief automatically becomes a sort of representative of it. Even if you just seem happy.
ABC: That’s a start isn’t it?
FS: I sometimes wonder if maybe it's not a bad thing that churches don't have as many people in as they used to. I’m quite keen on quality rather than quantity. There was a time when there was a big social pressure to go to church, so a lot of the people there didn’t really want to be there and weren’t that interested. I know it often looks like the people there are not that interested, but I often look around during a sermon - just for something to do really - and I look at the people and people are looking at their shoes but I think, you never know actually – someone can look bored but inside they might be thinking very profound spiritual thoughts about their life. I would never assume. I think anyone who’s at church now, unless they’re a child who’s been dragged along, are there because they’ve made that decision. There is certainly no social pressure to go to church. On the contrary. So it might be good to have less people who are more committed. I am even wondering if whole idea of evangelisation is out of date in the West in the 21st century. I think we should move more towards being a cult again. I'm absolutely serious. Those were our golden days when we were meeting in tiny little rooms in the Middle East and drawing fishes on walls by candlelight and being pursued by the authorities. That's when we were absolutely at our most dynamic. Imagine what those sermons were like. No-one was sitting bored. We were so cool then. We really were. And now we've been embraced by the State and all that, not that that's a bad thing obviously. But I think it would be good to get back to that - a kind of dynamic, subversive cult… no?
ABC: I hope we've got just enough of that left. The trouble is, you can be romantic about a dynamic subversive cult. The reality is we've got a lot of parishes, a lot of very average people, trying to make sense of their lives. And they're not going to go back to the underground in a hurry. Tomorrow – next Sunday – the Sunday after – what do we do to get them that little bit nearer, to get myself that little bit nearer that sense of the seriousness of it? The fact that it’s not just a matter of imagining that the house is on fire and you’ve got 45 seconds to say something in the early church – that was likely to be true. The police would be at the door. And I think that’s what we felt listening to Bishop Chad from Zimbabwe. That that was what the church was like there - locked out of their buildings, meeting at real risk, beatings, killings even. And they grow. But you can't either pretend that's happening or just make it happen. That's our problem here – we’re somewhere in the middle, we’re trying to keep enough of that urgency and seriousness alive in conditions of a very confused society indeed.
FS: Do you sit around with your senior bishops and say, what's our tactic on this?
FS: Have you come up with anything yet? Don’t hide your light under a bushel Your Grace!
ABC: You haven’t noticed? One of the things we have been trying to do in the last seven or eight years is not just ask the question but find the strategy that says while we can as a church often just wait for people to turn up to us whereas we ought to be going to where they are rather more. Which means sitting a bit more light to the expectation that everybody ought to, and will, turn up here in a building at a specified time. The sort of people who go and generate a little discussion before prayer group in a café or a pub. That’s something which we’ve seen a lot more of and I guess we’ll see more still.
FS: And does that work?
ABC: It doesn't work in terms of huge figures. I don't expect it to. It works in sense of keeping some sense alive that this is serious. It needs time. You don’t expect quick fixes. You just keep it alive because it matters.
ABC: I wanted to ask you what it was that brought you back. You said you’d been away from the church for 11 years – give us a tip from your own experience, what brought you back?
FS: When I was 17 I had been through a period - this is to do with the Catholic church rather than belief in general - I felt there were certain things I found difficult to justify. Papal infallibility, the whole idea of tradition in the Church. There was nothing in the Bible about lots of stuff that’s very firm doctrine in the Catholic church. It felt authoritarian – all the things that you feel so strongly against when you’re 17. So I left. I went to a few other churches, seeing if there was anything better. Christian churches - I tried the Christadelphians, I went to a few Anglican services. I'll tell you what put me off the Anglican churches: I don't like to see a Union Jack in a church. I think a church should be above that kind of national celebration. And often in Anglican churches you'll see military flags and stuff like that, and I don't feel easy with that. Anyway, I started to get the urge to return - this was a period of about 12 years of my life – after a few years I got urge to go back. And I thought, no I really don't want to go back. On one very simple level, I’d had massive rows with my mum and dad about the Catholic church. It had caused enormous upheaval in our house that I’d left the Church. And not just left, but condemned it. I didn't want to humiliate myself by saying, actually, maybe I was wrong. So I started reading books, and I read every book, every article I could find. I worked my way through the library shelf, mainly anti-Catholic literature of which there is plenty around. I thought, I’m just looking for that thing when I think yes, I was right, I can’t go back to that church. And of course I found lots of the same doubts I’d had. But I still had this gut feeling. I was sensible enough to know it could have just been socialisation, nostalgia, a yearning for that old sense of belonging. I thought, yes it could be that. But it might be some deep gut feeling that that is the place I should be. I went to see an old priest called George Stibbles in Harborne in Birmingham, and I told him about this. He said, come back. I said, what? He said, come back, you know you want to come back, you know this is where you should be, just come back. I said, but you don’t understand, I’ve done this and I’ve done that. And as I spoke to him, I realised that he was hearing my confession. I didn’t even know that he was doing it and at the end he said, I absolve you. I thought, you got me! (That’s why I’m watching your hands tonight – I’m not planning on a conversion on the sly.) So I went back. He gave me confession and I went to Mass the next morning for a Communion. It was the Feast of St Boniface I remember and there were six people in the church. I’d been going for about six months but I was one of those people – you might not get this in the Anglican church – I was one of the people who sat at the back and when they went up for communion, I didn’t go. Someone would often stand up next to you, waiting for you to stand up, and they'd have to go past you. And you think, no, I’m not worthy to go up, my faith’s not strong enough, I’m not a member of the church, I’ve got doubts about the real presence, how can I take it? I went up, I went for communion, and I really wanted to do [punches air] – which is very disrespectful post-communion. I felt brilliant. I felt more than back home – 'back home' sounds like a cheap cop-out. I felt I was in my right context. That was a hell of an answer to that question, you must admit – too long maybe.
ABC: No. I think it makes the point that when people do come back – let’s just talk about people coming back to the church for the moment – it’s not the argument that makes the difference. It’s probably the sense that there’s a welcome, there’s an absolution, there’s an acceptance, and that that acceptance is the thing that keeps you sane and human because welcome is one of the most important things we offer to one another. How to translate that into a strategy? I don’t know. But to hear it, that has its own effect, its own significance I think. For those who’ve never been part of it, I think it’s a lot harder.
FS: I think that’s true. Can I say – I’m very glad that happened to me. I’m very glad I had my 11 years, 12 years in the wilderness. I don’t think I would have read those books, for one second, if I’d continued to be a cradle Catholic and onward. And I know Catholics whose belief is expressed, and probably held, the same way it was when they were eight. I know we’re supposed to be like children and you’re supposed to have that simplicity and that’s the instruction. But I think it’s important that you know why you’re there - part of that “being in society” that you’re talking about, of people thinking “well he seems a happy bloke, maybe there’s something in it”. Also I think there is a responsibility for any believer in the 21st century to be able to fight their corner in an argument with someone who, not necessarily doesn’t believe, someone who’s just an interested outsider. I read The Tablet every week and I keep up and I think it’s important – it’s a bit like a job, you’ve got to know your stuff. I’ve seen debates, atheists and Catholic clergymen, and I’ve watched them through the spaces between my fingers because I’ve thought, please don’t represent me, you’re saying all the wrong things, and God bless you but you’re not the brightest bloke to be our representative. I'm glad I spent that time studying for my re-entrance exams.
ABC: That’s a lovely way of putting it. But I think you’re absolutely right – you talk about becoming like little children, but one of the themes in the New Testament, which some of us were thinking about today in the beginning of The Gathering, was that you start as a child of course, and then you grow up. And you own it, you actually take responsibility for it. I think what you’re talking about is how believers take responsibility for themselves and the faith they represent. Which means you may not expect to convince people by argument, but you have a responsibility to show that being a Christian doesn’t make you stupid.
FS: I remember David Baddiel, who’s a comedy partner of mine, said to me “doesn't it ever worry you that everyone else who seems to hold your opinion is an idiot?” I said, doesn't that worry you when you're at Chelsea games?
ABC: I knew he’d get onto football sooner or later.
FS: I think we have to be careful about that because, I agree with you, I think that it's important that I'm an informed believer. I think that’s important if that’s the kind of believer you are. However, I went to the Church of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico. Probably not many of you have been there for obvious reasons – you may have tried to burn it down, I don’t know! But people crawl, I saw women in their 60s, crawling flat on their stomachs up this hill. And I was a bit embarrassed by it and appalled by it and I thought, this isn't my kind of faith. It made me uneasy for a week or two. Then I thought, hold on a minute, this is her style, this is how she expresses it, this is how it comes out. Some people are the bright intellectual whatevers. There's Jesus when he’s a kid talking to the scribes and knowing all the stuff, knowing all the clever references – he’s full of references. And then there's the thing about being like children. One of the things that really winds people up about religions is that we separate intelligence, learning and wisdom. So I can say that Richard Dawkins is more intelligent than that 60-year-old woman in the dirt, but maybe she has more wisdom. And that really annoys atheists, the sort of atheist science lobby who think it is intellect. From the intellectual position, they look down and say only idiots can believe. But there is a wisdom in that woman they would not understand and that they would resent because it did not come from education, it did not come from knowledge, it came from somewhere else. It really gets on my nerves that atheists imagine themselves in a fabulous gentleman's club sitting on leather chesterfields with Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins. Whereas I seem to be in McDonald's with Cliff Richard. I think we’re stuck with that.
ABC: The thing about intelligence and wisdom, it's a big cultural question. It's as if the whole notion of intelligence has been captured by a certain model of how you do it, what learning means, what knowing means, what maturity means. It’s all very cut and dried and rather scientific. And the notion that someone who doesn’t operate at that level could be wise or could be living with integrity.
FS: Or could be right!
ABC: Or could even be right, yes, living in harmony with what's true, that's very hard to get across. The Guadeloupe story is a very powerful one, and it brings to mind an experience I had years ago when I was taking a pilgrim group to the Holy Land to Jerusalem. These were Anglicans, so they were very restrained and rational people of course. As the week went by in Jerusalem, you could see more and more of this little group starting to cross themselves and kiss things. It was as if the experience of being there in Jerusalem, coping with the sheer actuality of where Jesus died and rose, was something they could only manage by doing what the widows from Cyprus did, just touching, just hanging on. And that’s wisdom all right.
FS: Were you ok with that?
ABC: Yes, one hundred percent.
FS: I thought you’d have been rapping knuckles. You people are ok with idolatry now are you? Maybe it's time we got back together Your Grace, what do you say?
ABC: Will you write to the Pope or shall I?
FS: I'll text him.
ABC: There isn't a live Twitter feed this evening is there?
FS: No, probably not.
ABC: I think what people discover is what went wrong a bit in the extreme Reformation era. People saying, well, we got so tied up with what looks like superstitious physical devotion, it doesn’t really seem to go very deep, we need to get rid of it all. And that gave huge privilege to ideas and books and experts. It's taken us a few centuries to realise that, without inventing a new kind of idolatry, we've got to understand that we think and pray with our bodies and not just our minds. And just find ways of doing that. That seems to me back to almost where we started - part of understanding that when Jesus is human, he’s human, flesh and blood. And that a religion which tries to detach us from flesh and blood and from the wisdom that sometimes comes with these apparently very strange kinds of devotions – that won’t really do.
FS: It’s too big. They’re such big complicated concepts. We just need some simple contact. I need to kiss the occasional statue. I didn't eat meat today because the Catholic church has said let's go back to Friday abstinence. Now, a lot of people would think, what has that got to do with religion? But I went to the fridge and saw this really nice bit of beef at the back and I went, oh no I am not having it today. And at that moment I thought about why I wasn't having it, and it might have just been a flash frame but it was a moment in the day when I wouldn't have thought about my belief otherwise but I thought about it because of that. That might seem a big price to pay, but it's an example of what seems like a trivial ritual. There is a reason Jesus spoke in parables, because if he’d tried to explain it people's heads would have exploded. When I was the angry teenager, that was one of the things that got me, you know - wearing crosses etc. Now if I'm in Italy or somewhere like that, you can cross yourself and kiss statues and nobody even notices. And I love that, because we need to claim that back. Because there's been too much apologising - I hope you’ll forgive me saying that I think the English Anglican church has been one of the most guilty of this - too much apologising for the magic in religion. People saying, we don't actually believe in the Virgin Birth, and we’re not certain about the Resurrection. Don't give in to them - if you believe in God, all bets are off. There can be angels, the Red Sea can part... There's a temptation: let's be a little bit reasonable, let's be a little bit atheist, let's go over to them. I don't want to do that. I want to feel that absolute mystery in the air, because I believe in lots of weird stuff. I was on Radio Five Live yesterday and Richard Bacon said, do you believe in angels, and I said 'yes'. He looked a little nonplussed. He thought I was going to try and get round it a bit. I've never seen an angel, but if you believe in God why shouldn't there be an angel? I read the Testament and I think, this probably is a mythical truth, it's a profound way of telling me something that I wouldn't get otherwise. I must say I think the thing with Islam about not having images of God and the Prophet is a brilliant idea. Because I cannot get the guy with the beard out of my head. (No, not him!) I've still got this sense of God as male, of God as sort of an angry bloke with an big beard. I don’t mean that I literally see him that way but it's still in there and it gets in the way of stuff. That seems to contradict what I’ve just said about needing ways of touching things, but I think what you do is you shrink it and you limit it and you narrow it, and then people think you can explain it. And that’s not going to happen. I like to speak to someone who’s a scientist and say, ultimately I don’t know about that. They hate that.
ABC: That makes absolute sense. What we’re trying to talk about is of course what you can’t talk about - you can't chatter about it because it makes a claim on you, a massive claim on your love, your attention, your self-giving. You can find a few words that may not be completely silly, and you can find a few images that in many ways are completely silly because you know they’re nothing like the reality. And then there’s the silence. And all of that belongs together - it’s not as if you have a choice between saying nothing and chatting away, but the silence and the words move in and out of each other. Good worship does that for you. I guess that’s part of what the problem is on Sunday morning.
FS: But you know that’s not just the kids. I agree with St Augustine that you find God in silence. I’m not that familiar with the Anglican service, so forgive me, but in the Catholic church there are bits where they say “and now a moment’s silence for bereaved relatives - and now we move on to –“ and you go woah! What, are you suppose to go “Dad” and there, that’s done? It's like people are frightened, they think ooh if we put a bit of silence in we’ll lose them. That’s wrong.
ABC: That’s wrong. And for me, one of the most moving memories of recent years was when I was in Taizé in France the year before last, with a very very large group of young people, the sort of community where thousands of young people go every year. And the sound of 5000 teenagers being silent is quite something – but that is something you can experience in Taizé.
FS: I’ve had gigs like that. It’s so rare though Your Grace. I don’t know how it is in the Anglican service?
ABC: It’s the same problem. And again, it’s something to do with the apologetic feel, the ‘not making enough of a demand’, the ‘not letting it be serious enough’. Years ago when the great Dennis Potter, the playwright, was dying, he gave this great television interview. And he talked about how the religion he experienced often seemed to just not anywhere near the places that mattered. He said “for me, religion is the wound, not the bandage”. An amazing image – I think he was talking about the way in which faith drives in, digs in. It’s not just wrapping things up to be comfortable. I’ve never forgotten either him or that statement, and feel it ought to be somewhere on the desk of every clergyperson just as a reminder.
FS: Was it Eric Liddell, the runner, who used to talk about “muscular Christianity”? I think it should be a bit more visceral. The whole Jesus story is pretty visceral. Someone said to me recently “oh yeah, I still go to church, it’s my handrail”. And I think, oh no I don’t want it to be a handrail. I want it to be very precarious steps without a handrail, because it shouldn’t be easy. I think life would be easier without it. I’d love to have a lie-in on a Sunday morning. And I’d love not to think, in the midst of doing something, actually is this the person I want to be? It would be nice to have that kind of, who cares? I'm not saying that's how atheists think – I’m sure they have their own moral codes, if I may call them that. Yes it is a comfort, but it can also be a wagging finger, it can be a wound. It can be desperately frustrating and bewildering. If it's just like a big woolly jumper it can't be that important can it?
ABC: No. And what we’re always trying I think to take on board for ourselves and communicate to others is that it leaves you with more humanity not less, at the end of the day. That’s not the message that a lot of people get is it?
FS: No, definitely not.
ABC: That’s where, I think, we want to see it and hear it. Do you think we ought to let them have a word?
FS: What time is it? God you can talk!
ABC: You can talk!