Thursday 7 August 2008

On religion, intimacy and the bluster of religious bloggers

Andrew Sullivan wrote a lovely post the other day about the intimate friendship between John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John (topical now that the former is being considered for canonisation). He quotes Newman's words on his friend's death: 'I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's of wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one sorrow's greater, than mine'. Andrew adds: 'Newman and St. John lived together, loved one another and even left express wishes that they be buried together'. He's careful not to assume that this is evidence of a homosexual relationship, rather than a deep platonic intimacy, but he's surely right that there was a decided element of high camp in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. 

I think Andrew is also right to conclude that 'Newman, like the current Pontiff, was an effeminate, delicate intellectual who had almost no real interaction with women at all and bonded mainly with younger men'. Nothing controversial or condemnatory, in that, you might think. Unless you're Catholic blogger Mark Shea, who responds by claiming that everything Sullivan writes about homosexuality is 'tainted with obsession' and adds: 'It's not the first time he has told absolute lies about the pole star of his journalism. On this matter, I would not trust him as far as I could throw him'. Sounds like Mr. Shea is a tad obsessive himself, not to mention blusteringly defensive when anyone dares, however tentatively, to 'taint' any of his revered religious figures with the slightest hint of gayness.

How did Andrew react to this slur on his journalistic integrity - with a stinging counter-attack of his own, perhaps? No, by recommending (as he has often done) a recent post by Shea and praising him for his 'integrity'. Andrew clearly regards Shea as a moderate voice in the often dogmatic shouting-match of religious blogging - and believe me, as one who has searched in vain for thoughtful, open-minded religious blogs, there aren't many of them out there. But moderation among religious bloggers obviously has limits, and in this exchange it's clear to me that it is the maligned, 'obsessive' Sullivan who embodies the more truly Christian spirit.

Speaking of hidden homosexuality among churchmen: I loved that quote, attributed to a participant at last month's Lambeth conference, about secretly gay clergy who are 'so far in the closet, they're in Narnia'. Somehow the popularity of C.S.Lewis' fantasy cycle among Christians adds piquancy to the joke.

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