Very occasionally -- even in contemporary Britain -- some good news arrives. No single piece of news has been more invigorating than the discovery that a member of the clergy of the Church of England has found a vertebra.
In recent years, the British public have become used to a steady succession of bad-news stories from the purveyors of the Good News. This has taken every imaginable form, from the former Bishop of Oxford suggesting in the House of Lords that the Quran could be recited at the next coronation service, to the former Archbishop of Canterbury -- Rowan Williams -- notoriously suggesting that a place should be found for Islamic sharia in the law of the land.
So the place in the British national comedy reserved for the type of vicar unwilling to take the side of his own faith in any argument has darkly morphed. The failure of the Church of England to defend its own beliefs or its own followers when they are facing persecution around the world, has become an unamusing stain on the reputation of the church. Its representatives increasingly look as though they are willing to defend anything -- including the most intolerant expressions of the world's most intolerant religions -- rather than argue for their own faith or the faith of their own congregants.
One example that emerged earlier this month appeared to epitomise the trend. At a service in the Cathedral of St Mary in Glasgow to mark the Feast of the Epiphany, the Cathedral thought it wise to invite a Muslim student to read from the Quran. The aim -- according to the leader of the Scottish Anglican church, Bishop David Chillingworth -- was to try to improve relations between Muslims and Christians in the city. If that were indeed the intention, it was singularly ill-advised. And as though the decision were not already poorly enough thought through, the section of the Quran the Muslim student recited at the service was the section of the Quran about Jesus. The section in question points out the Islamic belief that Jesus was not the Son of God. Even in today's Britain, this does not seem quite the view that leaders of the national church are supposed to propagate.
There was a small rumpus when this story broke. During it, the ray of hope came in the form of a letter in The Times of London. Written by the Reverend Gavin Ashenden, it pointed out that:
"Sanctioning a key passage from the Koran which denies the divinity of Jesus to be read in Christian worship has been widely criticised as a rather serious failure. The justification offered that it engages some kind of reciprocity founders on the understandable refusal of Islamic communities to read passages from the Gospel in Muslim prayers announcing the Lordship of Christ. It never happens.
"Quite apart from the wide distress (some would say blasphemy) caused by denigrating Jesus in Christian worship, apologies may be due to the Christians suffering dreadful persecution at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. To have the core of a faith for which they have suffered deeply treated so casually by senior western clergy such as the Provost of Glasgow is unlikely to have a positive outcome. There are other and considerably better ways to build "bridges of understanding".
It is not a lie to say that on reading this letter the heart sang. And not just for the contents and for the fact that the signatory was a Reverend but for what was listed beneath as his title: "Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen." It may be pointed out that there are several dozen people who hold this title, and so the Revd Ashenden is not the sole spiritual adviser to Her Majesty. But nevertheless, this made the letter a statement of considerably more significance. The Queen is the Head of the Church of England who swore at her coronation that she would be the "Defender of the Faith." Here was one of her Chaplains standing against the prevailing trends of the age and actually defending the faith which his employer swore to uphold. In a struggle this complex, such stands -- even, or especially when they should be statements of the obvious -- stand for a great deal.
Reverend Gavin Ashenden. (Image source: Anglican TV video screenshot)
But good news does not last very long in Britain these days. The Reverend's letter was published on January 17, and less than a week later, The Times published the inevitable follow-on story:
"[The Reverend Gavin Ashenden] said yesterday he had resigned from his duties, after almost a decade with the royal ecclesiastical household. He admitted that 'conversations had taken place' after publication of his letter. He said that the decorative role of royal chaplain required public silence."
The Reverend has now written a fuller explanation of his decision:
I resigned in order to be able to speak more freely about the struggle that Christianity is facing in our culture.
I had no idea that there were plans afoot by a Scottish Cathedral to "reach out to Muslims" by scrapping a Bible reading from their worship on the Feast of the Epiphany (when Christ's Lordship is celebrated as the Light of the World) and replacing it with a part of the Koran that denied Jesus was the Son of God.
But when it did happen, it represented such a serious repudiation of allegiance to Christ and the Gospels, that it could not be left unchallenged.
Leaving aside what kind of Christian would be happy to bring into the Ministry of the Word a passage from the Koran used to repudiate the claims of the Gospels, it represented one more step along a road, which if the Church continues to follow, will speed up the destruction of Christianity in our country.
Of course, the clergy who lead the Cathedral in Glasgow have not resigned their positions. No meaningful criticism or pressure has or will be brought upon them for the decisions they have taken. But the Revd Ashenden has had to stand down for making his decision.
For the time-being, Revd Ashenden is on the retreating side. But in the long run he may not be. In a nation much in need of heroes, an Anglican Reverend has stepped forward, putting his sincere and serious beliefs ahead of the unserious and insincere pieties of our time. Everybody -- secular or religious -- has cause to feel enormous gratitude.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England.