The queue outside the venue
I attended this event tonight, at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. The motion was 'The Catholic church is a force for good in the world', proposed by Ann Widdecombe and the Archbishop of Abuja. Against were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. Moderation by Zeinab Badawi. My journalistic skills are not good, so I apologise for any failures in recall, and any misrepresentations; this is as I remember it, but I am not impartial. The event was filmed, so it will hopefully be on Youtube before too long. Apologies also for the poor quality of the piccies from my mobile phone!
My wife spotted the large organ
We did a bit of sleb spotting, but the only one worth reporting, that we saw, was Derren Brown; look:
A good atmosphere in a packed hall; the antagonists entered...
An initial poll showed roughly 600 for and 1000 against the motion before the start of the proceedings.
The Archbishop started off, with a rather waffly preamble, re-stating often that the Church was a force for good, and that he had spent his life in the institution and had become more convinced of it as time went on. Referred to the many good works done by Catholics around the world, in health and social care, and education. He kept it light; not very convincing, but came over as a pleasant and humorous guy. He did mention that one or two mistakes had been made by the Church, for which apologies were appropriate.
Christopher Hitchens followed, and attacked mercilessly. I've seen a few Hitch debates online, but this one didn't include any of his usual rhetorical gambits. Instead he took the ball passed by the Archbishop and ran with it brilliantly; he insisted that any representative of the Church should start any such discussion with a long list of apologies; he ran through many of them, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust; the torture of Galileo and anti-semitism. He continued relentlessly with modern day problems, such as child abuse and their obsession with condoms. He pointed out that the Holy See had lifted the excommunication on Richard Williamson, a holocaust denying bishop. He left the floor with a buzz going around the room at the ferocity of the attack.
Ann Widdecombe won a cheer from the Catholic supporters by accusing Hitchens of a gross misrepresentation of the Church. She scoffed at Hitchens' examples of Catholic bad behaviour - the sack of Constantinople, for goodness sake, she laughed. Time does heal, apparently. She despaired at the constant harping on about child abuse, and that the Church should be judged on such matters according to the morality of the time (!). She talked about the billions raised by the Church and used for good causes around the world, through the 1 billion Catholics. Talked about the many health care facilities run by Catholics - a very high percentage apparently. Talked about the many Catholics persecuted by the Nazis and how many churches harboured Jews during that war. All in all, a combative effort from the Tory firebrand.
Stephen Fry started by hoping that he marshalled his facts well, since this was a subject that really *mattered* to him. He was *passionately* against the motion. He ironically agreed with AW's notion that we can dismiss such historical events as the Crusades and the Inquisition as being too long ago, but then spoke beautifully about the echos of history in *all* of us, and in that very room. He pointed out that history was clearly of major importance in her Church, through the notion of Apostolic succession, so she could hardly scoff at events 800 years ago. In the square mile, where we sat, the Church had burnt people for distributing Bibles in English. This point was very well made. If AW wanted the church to be judged by the mores of the time, for slavery, torture and child abuse, for example, whence absolute morality? He attacked the idea that he was considered by her Church to be morally evil, just for being him. He objected to being called a pervert by sexually dysfunctional churchmen! It was a tour de force to which I can hardly do justice.
I'll mention two questions in the Q & A; a woman asked the panel about the 10 commandments -that these were surely a great work of the Catholic church (surely shome mishtake?). Hitchens pointed out the egotistic nature of the first three (or four?) commandments. The Archbishop scored a bit of an own goal by telling us that his father converted to Catholicism, but was already aware of the ethical commandments through his previous African religion; "Exactly!", shouted someone in the crowd. A chap asked Ann Widdecombe how a woman could be an MP but not a priest; not for the first time, AW said that the theology was too complex for such a discussion (and such fools, it was implied) but basically a woman could no more stand in for Jesus Christ than a man could stand in for the Virgin Mary. This doesn't so much explain her point but rather re-state the problem. Why, indeed, could a woman *not* stand in for Jesus Christ? A priest doesn't have to do anything gender specific. Or does he? I think we should be told.
The atmosphere was quite frenetic all night, with a lively audience; in the closing statements, AW scolded Fry for calling the Archbishop sexually dysfunctional. Perhaps that was a little harsh. The outgunned Archbishop said that he had resisted preaching all night, and that most of the preaching had come from the other side. I think I have to agree with this; the Archbishop didn't sermonise, and spoke calmly - the emotion was certainly emanating from Hitchens and particularly Fry. But this emotion was backed by great reason, evidence and good sense. I think it was Mackie who said that emotion backed by reason was virtue. A virtuoso performance, then. By contrast the theists were rather subdued.
A further poll at the end revealed a massacre of the not-so-innocents; some 200 for and 1700 against, I think.
This proves nothing, of course; debates are usually won by the best debater, or by the vagaries of the audience mix, not by the truth-tellers; although, IMO, the truth-tellers did win on this occasion. A ray of hope from the night; both Hitchens and Fry issued challenges to the Catholic Church that they *can* clean up their act, and at least partially atone for their past crimes. One or two Catholics in the audience seemed very keen to take this to heart. Let's hope that many do.