Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Why the new breed of trendy churchman is terrific

New era? Pope Francis
Ellen E Jones

In case you haven't read the fashion pull-out in the latest parish newsletter, let me be the first to pass on the good news: trendy vicars are now bang on trend.

The energetic young clergyman, or clergywoman, in a colourful woolly jumper was once a BBC sitcom trope – or a bogeyman for conservative churchgoers.

But now, apparently, they're actually running the show.

It's true, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has yet to deliver a sermon in rap form.

But, in the months since he was installed as archbishop, he's rarely been off the ball.

He's offered opinions on every trending topic; from welfare reform to City of London culture.

And now he's taken a stand – albeit belatedly – on payday lenders.

This week Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, took his own baby-steps into the unknown of the 21st century, when he told an informal Press conference onboard his flight from Brazil to Rome: "You should not discriminate against, or marginalise (gay) people, and the Catechism says this, as well."

To many, Pope Francis's words will be a maddeningly overdue statement of the blindingly flippin' obvious. Is it bad to discriminate against gay people? Is the Pope a Catholic?

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was distinctly unimpressed. He dismissed the Pope's statement as "a change of tone ... but not a change in substance."

It is to be hoped a change in tone might signal a change in substance. But, still, Tatchell's cynicism is not unfounded.

Most religious organisations keep time with an internal clock about four centuries behind GMT. This slow pace of modernisation goes a long way to explaining why 64% of British 18- to 24-year-olds are not affiliated to any religion.

It also suggests why it would be unfair to dismiss the views of Church leaders as a merely superficial attempt to seem 'with it'.

Any half-decent communications manager would consider this far too little, far too late.

And, anyway, they didn't have communications managers in the Middle Ages.

Politicians may consider a Church that comments on the welfare of the poor, or City of London culture a well-meaning, but nevertheless unwelcome, interference in the affairs of state.

But that's not because the comments, in themselves, are in any way radical. Jesus's thoughts on rich men, camels and needles, for example, are well-known. If they now seem even more relevant than they ever were in first century Galilee, that's hardly Justin Welby's doing.

The trendy vicar might fancy himself 'down with the kids', but his core strength isn't really radicalism; it's a determination to connect the Church – along with all its members – with the outside world.

Other vicars nibble victoria sponge during parish tea; the trendy vicar gets his teeth stuck in to the burning issues of the day.

Why should non-churchgoers care what religious leaders say on social and political matters?

Because, when no mainstream political party is willing to stick up for the poor and the disenfranchised, there are a few major organisations that can step into the breach.

So, godly and godless alike, let's put aside our differences and hold hands for a verse or two of Kumbaya. Unlike the third Sunday after Pentecost, the trendy vicar's ascendance is a Church event we all have cause to celebrate.

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