Magazine article The Spectator

Matthew Parris: Give Me the Anglican Option

Magazine article The Spectator

Matthew Parris: Give Me the Anglican Option

Article excerpt

The Algerian government's official tourist guide describes 'the walled town of Beni Isguen -- normally closed to foreigners -- where the women, clad entirely in white, reveal only one eye to the outside world'. Rod Dreher's Easter call to devout Christians to separate themselves as a community from what he believes to be the degeneracy of our western culture puts me in mind of that sad, disturbing place.

Beni Isguen is one of the oasis towns near Ghardaia in southern Algeria. I visited many years ago and can be sure there has been little change since, for the community has clung to unchanging and uniting beliefs for hundreds of years. In an attempt to keep their own version of Islam free from pollution by north Africa's evolving mainstream cultures, Beni Isguen's inhabitants allow no outsider in and no inhabitant out between dusk and dawn; and marry, it seems, only among themselves. They appeared not unfriendly but entirely closed to visitors like me. The children looked strangely alike, with pallid faces and wide foreheads. I wondered about inbreeding, as I did more recently when noticing the children in a self-imposed ghetto in north London of the ultra-orthodox Jews we Gentiles sometimes (wrongly) call 'Hasidic'.

I am not suggesting that Mr Dreher wants devout Christians to retreat to walled towns but his argument does expose a real tension within modern Christianity -- one which afflicts all world religions. When doctrine clashes with modern ways, should believers retreat metaphorically into the 21st-century equivalent of walled cities?

A Judaic ultra-orthodoxy which will not permit the operation of a refrigerator door on the Sabbath; Mennonite Christians in their closed colonies in Paraguay; a Hebridean branch of Scottish Calvinism that would padlock swings in children's playgrounds on Sunday -- and Beni Isguen. All are grotesque examples of Dreher's 'Benedict Option' taken to an extreme, but not illogical conclusion. How far should modern Christians try to be part of the culture in which they live, or how far should they turn their backs on a mainstream whose values may clash with some of their own? Mr Dreher, who advocates the second of these two responses, disapproves of the Church of England's frequent accommodations with secular society. I do not. Like many atheists, agnostics and searchers, I find myself rather drawn to a church that, however fitfully, seems to be trying to stay open to ideas, differences and influences outside.

Connecting a religion and the culture within which it lives, the metaphor of a length of elastic is illuminating. The two may diverge, but each exerts a pull on the other. In its long, turbulent history, the church has sometimes run ahead of secular culture, sometimes lagged behind. It has a proud record in questions such as the abolition of slavery; in education, welfare and prison reform it has sometimes lit the way. On overseas aid and concern for the homeless, the church has led where secular society first looked away. …

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