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COMMENT: An annus horribilis for all faiths

PinkNews Staff Writer December 29, 2006
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It has been a grim year for all the major religions.’s Ben Leung calls for a change in attitude from the leaders of all faiths.

For as long as I can remember, New Year’s Day feels like Groundhog Day: exhausted and hung over, the first thing I hear on the radio is always what the Pope has been saying, and the first thing I see on the television is the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna on BBC2.

This will then be followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Year message, a bit of afternoon racing from Cheltenham or a really good film which I cannot be bothered to watch.

I’m hoping that I won’t fall into that mundane routine again this year but the usual hectic festive celebrations mean staying indoors with the box is always the most attractive option on the first day of the year, and a quick glance at the New Year’s Day listings mean the Pope et al will once again be unavoidable.

That said, I never actually listen to what the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or any religious leaders say on New Year’s Day. Instead, I’ll take a wild guess that they would preach about tolerance, peace and love.

And to be frank, I have no desire to find out what they say either, for, inevitably, I will find myself picking holes in their rhetoric and subsequent action.

For example, the Head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, used his last New Year message to denounce homosexuality as ‘unacceptable’ and that civil partnerships would ‘not augur well’ for the foundations of society.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with Sir Iqbal’s remarks as it would undermine his authority if he were to embrace homosexuality when his religion is, let’s say, fairly hostile to the idea of same-sex relationships.

What I do object to, however, is his insistence on tolerance, which is both patronising and contradictory.

There is no doubt that these unhelpful attitudes and (I do apologise in advance for the use of the following word) bigoted remarks are one of the reasons why religious beliefs is in decline in the United Kingdom.

For sure, faith doesn’t play as central a role in multicultural Britain as it does in other Western societies, such as France, Italy and America.

Many of us simply see religion as an anachronism. The recent survey which found two-thirds of the British population as essentially non-religious, and 82% regard religion as a hindrance to social cohesion. These findings could not have made comfortable reading for any faith leaders up and down the country.

The only piece of good news this year has been an upsurge in attendance for Catholic Mass thanks to the influx of Eastern Europe workers to towns like Reading and Southampton.

Otherwise, it has been a rotten year for all religions: the Catholic Church is still troubled by the continuing child-abuse scandal (with the situation in Ireland looking particularly costly).

The Pope has also somewhat unwisely made some comments about the inherent evil of Islam, all the while criticising gay marriages. Benedict is only now coming round to the idea of condom use might save lives in the developing world.

Meanwhile, mosques nationwide are still reeling from the fall-out from last year’s bombings, just as the Church of England is on the verge of a split over female priests and gay bishops. Not to mention a spot of late night drunken rampage by the Bishop of Southwark just before Christmas.

The Sunday Telegraph reported last week that Jews are more likely to be attacked than any other religiousgroup, meanwhile the crisis in British Judiasm continues to be declining numbers and young people marrying outside the faith.

This catalogue of bad publicity does make me wonder whatever happened to good publicity? Or are their PR people really that inept at their jobs?

Why are all religions so slow to react to this ever-changing world and make themselves look so out-of-touch with society? Why do they allow bad news to overshadow the good things that they do in local communities, for example?

Dr Rowan Williams’s condemnation of the war in Iraq today was – apparently – his first explicit attack on Tony Blair’s decision to send British troops into battle.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is spot on with his grim analysis of the difficult living conditions for Christians in a land which is predominantly Muslim.

But why did it take him nearly four years to come out with this statement? That is not a social issue on par with gay marriages or liberal attitudes; Iraq is something which the public feels strongly about, and the Church of England could easily have positioned itself as the leader of an issue which is of national importance.

Instead, he sat back and argued that Blair went to war on good intentions. Only now does he express ‘regrets’ for not speaking out against the conflict earlier.

For a sceptical and increasingly secular population, that statement I’m afraid, has come too little, too late.

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