Michael Gove sugar-coats Jesus and preaches fake good news

This is a guest post by the Rev’d Dr Gavin Ashenden, former Chaplain to the Queen, who is presently in the (complicated) process of leaving the Church of England.


One of the first rules for mental health is not to believe in conspiracy theories. So perhaps there is no connection between the letter that the Times published suggesting that a belief in the Resurrection was a prerequisite for calling oneself Christian, and Michael Gove’s subsequent article defending Anglicanism against those who “mock it as insipid”.

But the article nonetheless was unworthy of a clever man, an honourable public servant and a kind Christian.

It contained some poor arguments and poor analysis.

Why does it matter in particular if Michael Gove got things wrong?

We live in dangerous times. Democracy itself is under serious stress. There are growing assaults on freedom of speech and freedom of thought. The benign Christian undergirding of democracy is in some trouble. The Church in much of the West is in free fall. The Church of England in particular, burdened by falling numbers, old age and lack of money, is unlikely to survive in the form we know it, even a further decade.

On the one side we have a new kind of cultural fascism imposing a banal but dangerous form of egalitarianism on society – a kind of upgraded  ‘Marxism 2.0’ – or, as we have learnt to call it ‘cultural Marxism’. And on the other side we have Islam, moving inexorably through Europe moulding cultural and political expectations as it beds in.

Many orthodox Christians share my view that only Christianity had the values, integrity and potency to defend our freedoms of action and thought in the face of both these threats. But if it is to do so it has to do so in its most vibrant form. Insipid is not enough. A diluted homeopathic version won’t be, and never has been, sufficient.

The first slip that Gove made was to claim that it was ‘Anglicanism’ which was being mocked as insipid. Anglicanism in its traditional form is in robust and energetic health all around the world. The majority of the 80 million or so Anglicans across the rest of the world evangelise, challenge their surrounding cultures, convert their neighbours, and respect the Gospels as authoritative in matters of lifestyle and morals. It is the Church of England, not Anglicanism, that is less confident in its biblical and historic integrity.

Should we ask how the piece came to be written? One of the last articles on this subject which Mr Gove authored was published in the Spectator, when he interviewed the Most Rev’d Justin Welby. It was a highly complimentary piece (if a little odd in its content). ‘Follow the money’ often produces results; the figures who were the most highly complimented were the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Is it conceivable that the well-qualified and sophisticated journalists recently purchased from Fleet Street by the Lambeth PR professionals asked Michael Gove to write something that bolstered the C of E?

That falls somewhere short of the conspiracy theory and not too far from just joining the dots, but if they did, they should have offered him more theological support and background editing.

Michael Gove begins his analysis by applauding the gentleness of the Church of England – “Because there is a gentleness and grace, a habit of listening and an ethic of understanding to Anglicanism which makes enthusiasm almost anathema.”

He generously credits it with having the confidence and capacity to listen and understand. That may be true. It is certainly the case that the C of E leans over backward to take into account the secular preferences of the surrounding culture and not to offend them. That may not quite be the same thing, but let’s allow the compliment without cavilling too much.

He then steps straight into the contested arena of ‘enthusiasm’. This is a code word for students of Church History or theologians. The most notorious time that ‘enthusiasm’ was used  by a Church of England spokesman was  in the 18th century when it had lost most of its spiritual raison d’être. A rather dry and ineffective rationalist bishop called Joseph Butler attacked John Wesley, who was trying to bring the C of E back to life. Butler condemned Wesley and his commitment to the rejection of the insipid. He thundered that enthusiasm “was a very horrid thing”.

This comment marks one of the low points in the whole of the history of the Church of England. In fact history tells us that Wesley and ‘enthusiasm’ were both (to echo 1066 And All That) successful and right, and Butler and the over-rational and ‘insipid’ failed and were all wrong.

When Gove compliments the Church of England on accommodating doctrinal difference, his compliment should be taken seriously. The Church of England, in its variety and spiritual and theological diversity, has had the potential to be the very best of all churches. But conversely, if it gets it wrong, the flip-side of this great potential is that it has the capacity to be the worst of all churches.

In its attempts and arguments over trying to both build a bridge across to an increasingly impatient, aggressive and self-indulgent secularism, while saying it wants to make space for those who have believe what Christians everywhere have always believed, it might have ended up by not building a bridge. It might have attempted the splits and fallen over.

The dominant force at present in the Church of England is an at intolerant liberalism that does exactly the opposite of what Michael Gove commends it for. It pretends at inclusion while practising exclusion. It pretends at relativism while enforcing dogmatism.

Over homosexuality, which is perhaps the central fault-line where the seismic shock of competing forces troubles the Church of England, Gove takes the liberal but under-informed critical stance. For him it presents a challenge of accommodating difference.

He doesn’t grasp that the issue of sexuality in the Bible does not represent an opportunity for ‘managing difference’. The Bible contains a vision and a call to purity that touches everything – sex, power, social relationships, family coherence, personal integrity, and even ensuing spiritual potency.

He has underestimated what the debate is all about, as so many do. It is the place where the Spirit is wrestling with self-indulgence; where integrity is being overcome by self-pleasing and decadent compromise. This is the place where the two incompatible interpretations of Christianity are set in such an opposition to each other that compromise is not possible without either losing all meaning.

The traditional view takes its understanding from the Bible; the secular one takes its analysis from surrounding self-indulgent culture. There are some areas in life, say, for example, in paedophilia or female genital mutilation, where accommodation between two opposing views is not possible. The pursuit of purity instead of pleasure is too closely geared to the integrity of the spiritual struggle to be a place of ‘managing difference’.

When Gove writes about “all the dark energy unloosed in this world and being driven by the absence of love” as a description of not giving way to the zeitgeist, he gets the analysis entirely back to front.

He rebukes the Church for “Agonising over the details of how people choose to love each other when there is a crying need to confront pain, loneliness, greed, addiction, despair and hatred — all the dark energy unloosed in this world and driven by the absence of love.” But in the Bible we find that it is exactly “how people choose to love each other” that leads to the pain loneliness and despair. The constant choice of the euphemism ‘love’ when what is really being described is comforting a series of romantic partners with the soothing of sex, obscures the moral choices that the euphemism hides.

It is not enough in our practice of sex to mean well. We are warned in the Judaeo-Christian tradition that sex is too powerful not to be contained within marriage between men and women who use it to co-create children. It is one of those areas where we either accept the teaching of Jesus, or ditch it to please ourselves.

And in fact the dark energies are not driven by the absence of romantic and erotic love. They are driven by rather more serious energies who use our misuse the romantic and erotic to cause the very pain and despair to which Mr Gove refers so movingly (Eph 6.12). But when he writes about the “painstaking way in which leaders of the Anglican Communion try to respect different views and honour the sincerity with which they are held”, he enters the land of ill-informed make believe.

Does he not know that the last Presiding Bishop of the leading liberal church, The Episcopal Church in North America, spent over $10 million in law suits to evict faithful congregations and priests who did not accept the new revisionist liberal agenda? Does he really not know how clergy gave up houses, pensions, stipends, and all they had worked for under the most serious institutional persecution? Tragically, he is writing the opposite of the truth. He enters into the realm of fake news. He slides over the seriously difficult problem of our own age, which is the illiberalism of the liberals, the intolerance of the tolerant. This is under-informed and tragic.

Gove’s next step in his argument is to write well of some of the Church of England’s leaders. Bless him. Let us assume their representatives did not commission the piece. He clearly means it. There is no need anyway to talk about personalities or personal competence. The issues at stake are so much more important than that. The bishops certainly mean well, but their judgement is nonetheless in question.

He sweetly moves on to complimenting the parish clergy. Bless him again. But such compliments cannot mask the fact that in this struggle between an aggressive secular culture and the Anglican Christian witness, the clergy are sinking ever more deeply into institutional decay and, for some, despair.

The average age of congregations is about 66. There are too few people and too little money to carry the Church of England past impending functional bankruptcy. The Church Commissioners will fund the bishops and the most prominent buildings with their ample funds for some time to come, but parishes and parish clergy will be increasingly swept from their unworried and unconcerned communities within the next decade.

Gove may be right when he describes the ministry of the C of E as being one where people occasionally and wistfully connect it with soothing music, nostalgic poetry or echoes of childhood certainties. But when you read the Gospels, it is hard not to notice that Jesus taught that his death and sacrifice on the Cross was intended to achieve rather more that the soothing of memories for the moneyed and educated middle classes.

“And it is that willingness to reserve judgment on others, while still holding fast to your own faith, that I admire so much in Anglicanism.” It is indeed a great virtue not to condemn others – an even greater one, perhaps, in a culture that resorts to ad hominem trolling at the drop of a tweet. But this is a classic straw man argument that obscures the heart of the issue.

This is not Christianity that Gove describes. It is a form of spiritually sugar-coated, 20th-century therapeutic truism. Why is it not Christianity? Because it does not reflect the teaching or the actions of Jesus.

Jesus did judge – all the time. He did not condemn, but he judged, he assessed, he critiqued, and to devastating effect. He gave people the opportunity to choose between the fake and the real, the illusory and the concrete, the good and the bad. He rebuked the Samaritan woman at the well for her serial ‘loving’ relationships. The moral, upstanding, rich young ruler, he warned to move from self-regarding moral probity to serious sacrifice. Nicodemus, a prestigious religious leader, was robustly confronted with his lack of apprehension of the deeper things of the Spirit. Peter was called ‘Satan’ when he adopted the strategy and values of the ‘other side’ unwittingly.

What kind of Jesus is Gove putting forward here? It’s not the Jesus of the Gospels.

“There is nothing irresolute or insipid about declining to join the crowd, refusing to stigmatise, asking for empathy. It is, rather, commendably brave and resolute and, in so far as I can know it, true to Jesus’s example.”

An interesting disclaimer. But since the question is raised, no it is not “true to Jesus’s example”.  So far from refusing to go along with the crowd, this supine universal affirmation, which is the spiritual equivalent of just the kind of bad education philosophy that Mr Gove refused to put up with when he was Minister for Education, is exactly going along with the secular crowd.

And that is the difficulty which faces the whole of the Church of England, because Michael Gove is speaking (by official request or certainly unofficially and informally) for a sub-Christian spirituality that is willing to sucks on the sweets in the Gospels and refuses the piquancy of the prophetic.

“For those of us all too conscious of our errors, aware that we are weak and selfish, who hesitate sometimes to call ourselves Christian for fear that we appear to be making some sort of claim to superior virtue, the Church of England offers a welcome this Easter. And I for one am glad.”

Again this is moving, but manages to describe only half of the picture. Yes, we are all frail, fragile and flawed. Yes, we hesitate to claim a superior virtue we have no right to lay claim to. But to be Christian we have to find a little more courage, and remind our fellow travellers that Jesus warns there are two roads; and one, the easier, the more popular, God save us, perhaps the Church of England’s, leads to destruction.

What if it were the vocation of the Church of England to warn the people we live amongst that Jesus came to save us from hell and the dangers of finding ourselves there? What if it were the vocation of the Church of England to offer people a different route – one to which they had to turn and change direction to find? This is not to claim superior virtue; it is to read the Gospels and be faithful to Jesus – the real one – the one who had hard words as well as easy ones.

Is it worth considering, just on a purely functional pragmatic level, that the easy going, multi-affirming, sexually inclusive, non-disturbing, socialist-sympathetic, there-for-you-on-whatever-terms-you-choose Church of England is not actually working? The C of E itself sometimes reminds one of Chesterton’s aphorism: “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it has been found too difficult and not tried.”

Mr Gove, 10 out of 10 for kindness. Those who asked you to write to shore up the C of E in the public mind will be grateful to you. But you may not have helped Anglicanism, or Christianity, or spoken for Christ, or done anything to help the Church of England out of the secular land-slip it has settled in.

The practice of the ‘insipid’ will stand up neither to the remorseless challenges of Islam, nor the anger of the atheists. Something a little more courageous and faithful to the Jesus of the Gospels is required. Jesus didn’t do ‘insipid’, nor should the Church of England.