Belfast Telegraph

What unites Louis van Gaal and the Archbishop of Canterbury?

By Alf McCreary

Have the Archbishop of Canterbury and the manager of Manchester United anything in common? Not much, you might think, but they strike me as two men who are not exactly spreading confidence about the institutions they serve.

First, to Manchester United which is much less important than the Church of England, though many football fans would put it the other way round.

Louis van Gaal is undoubtedly a top manager, but anyone who spends a fortune on new strikers rather than strengthening his appalling defence makes me wonder about what is going on; and any team which loses 5-3 after being 3-1 up is in need of a manager who gives them much more belief in their capabilities.

The whole concept of "belief" is surely at the heart of anyone who holds the burdensome role of Archbishop of Canterbury, but the other day current incumbent Dr Justin Welby astonished believers and non-believers alike when he admitted that sometimes he has doubts about the existence of God.

He told an audience in Bristol that there are moments "When you think, is there a God?" Just to underline the point he added: "The other day I was praying over something when I was running and I ended up saying to God, 'Look this is all very well but isn't it about time you did something, if you're there'?", which is probably not what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say."

This is exactly not what any major church figure should say in public. Can you imagine St Paul or Dr Billy Graham saying: "I'm not sure that God exists, but I'll keep on converting people to Christianity anyhow."

No doubt some busybody theologians will point out that Paul had doubts, but I have never heard Billy Graham or any other modern evangelist express doubts in public.

There are those people, of course, who will applaud Dr Welby for his candour, but there is a difference between recognising one's human frailty in private but also sowing uncertainty in the minds of believers in public.

The Church of England is rather good at this, which explains why it is in such a mess. Some people will remember a former Bishop of Durham who claimed that our earthly remains may not spring forth physically on the day of Resurrection.

No doubt he was expressing arcane theology which is prevalent in some academic common rooms, and many people certainly look to a spiritual rather than a physical resurrection.

The point remains, however, that many other people cannot handle such esoteric dialogue. In the final analysis, you either believe in God or you don't. As CS Lewis once wrote, you have to decide whether Christ was a well-meaning lunatic, or whether he actually was, and is, the Son of God, and then act accordingly.

Of course many people have doubts, and one of the most comforting prayers is "O Lord, help Thou my unbelief". Indeed, a number of the Psalms express doubts, so there is nothing wrong or sinful in having dark nights of the soul. However, for the vast majority of Christians, the darkness disappears and the light shines through. That is what should be emphasised by all church leaders.

I have respect for Dr Welby, who is a good man in a tough job, but when he visits Armagh next week he should remember, in the above context, the old Irish maxim, "Whatever you say, say nothing."

Belfast Telegraph


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