Monday, 19 October 2009

May the Force be with You

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:

That is him, honest

A good atmosphere in a packed hall; the antagonists entered...

l to r: the Archbish, AW, CH and SF. Yeah, really

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.


  • clodhopper says:
    20 October 2009 at 00:58

    Thanks for the report Mark. Sounds like Hitch and Fry won that one hands down. The word verification wants 'cruntin', which seems fitting somehow.

  • miltcentral says:
    20 October 2009 at 01:34

    Lovely review. Far better than mine.
    Here are the scores for your possible interest:Quite stunning to see how many changed their minds in 90 minutes.


    For the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Undecided: 346.

    Post Debate: For: 268. Against: 1876. Don’t know: 34

  • Brian says:
    20 October 2009 at 01:46

    Wow, sure you don't have journalistic training? Then again, you honestly declared your biases and didn't strawman the opposition. You don't have journalistic training.

  • Mark Jones says:
    20 October 2009 at 01:59

    Thanks clod, miltcentral and Brian and thanks miltcentral for the official scores. Your review was excellent too - perhaps some long range, shaky photos is all that was missing!

  • edthemanicstreetpreacher says:
    20 October 2009 at 15:35

    I was there myself. It was an embarrassment for the parties of God.

    Good write up, Linus. Here’s mine:

  • flippertie says:
    28 October 2009 at 08:44

    I want the video. Now! :(

  • Mark Jones says:
    7 November 2009 at 15:24

    Video on YouTube...

  • dom says:
    9 November 2009 at 17:38

    Is this debate one of a series of debates? I only ask this as a catholic who does not hate gays, is not anti semitic & is not complicit in the deaths of millions of people.

    I look forward to the Chief Rabbi & Julie Biurchill defending Judaism against David Irving & Jim Davidson.

    I look forward to the UK Hindu representative & Indian Tory MP defending the caste system...I look forward to the UK Islam representative & Cat Stevens defending the stoning, rape & denial of rights to women...I look forward to the wishy washy Church Of England ( the wealthiest religion on Earth, despite popular misrepresentation ) representative explain how his institution has sanctioned war after war at the cost of tens of millions of lives.

    In short, I look forward to a rewriting of history...a history inhabited by Hitchens & Fry accolytes, untouched by the evils of dogma...a pure race of non belivers, in the mould of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot...

  • Mark Jones says:
    10 November 2009 at 01:38


    Thanks for the comment.

    Well done for not following Catholic policy on gays and anti-semitism, but if you think that there is any comparison between David Irving/Jim Davidson and Hitchens/Fry then you really are putting your head in the sand. As was said in the debate, what is expected of Catholics is to make amends for the wrongs their Church is committing in the name of doctrine, not lily-livered cries of 'not fair'.

    Intelligence Squared do run a series of monthly debates, but on a wide range of subjects, not just religion. They have already had debates on Judaism and Islam (not sure about Anglicanism). No doubt representatives of those religions complained of bias against them too. I look forward to further debates on *all* the problems of the world.

    I don't see any reason why they shouldn't also have a debate on the Catholic Church; do you? Do you think the CC should be exempt from public debate?

    As I said, debates are not a determinant of the 'truth' of a position (I've seen the atheist side defeated in plenty), but they can be a good way of publicising issues. To this end, let's hope that this debate saves lives and reduces suffering around the world.

  • Modab says:
    10 November 2009 at 16:12

    "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."

    Let me just say, for one, that I *do* think women should be allowed to be priests, but Catholics have a very specific reason for denying it that ties in with the way they celebrate the Eucharist.

    The most holy part of a normal Catholic mass is the part where the priest gives bread and wine to everybody. There are lots of (from an outsider's point of view) arbitrary rules to this, but it all comes down to one central belief: The bread and wine has turned into, actually for real, the flesh and blood of Jesus. The priest is essentially channeling Jesus/God and the bread is bread no more.
    Because of this one belief, there is a fervent desire among Catholics to 'get it right' during the ceremony. So the bread has to be made just so, the words used just so, the gestures just so, and, finally, if you are actually really temporarily channeling Jesus, it helps if you are a male. And I think celibate.

    To be a good Catholic, you gots to get communion every Sunday (or try your best, don't go if you're sick, etc.), and to get communion, you need the priest to channel Jesus, and apparently Jesus doesn't channel through females because Jesus is a guy.
    So that brings it back around to Widdecombe's comment. Now, feel free to completely disagree with her conclusion (as I do), but it's important to understand where a point of view comes from.

    That's it in a nutshell. Hope this clears things up. If you need more information, is probably a good start. Catholics have a lot of dogma, yeah?

    Other Christian churches aren't as big on transubstantiation, so they have less problems with the priest being female.

  • Mark Jones says:
    10 November 2009 at 18:00


    Thanks for the comment, and I'm a little familiar with the dogma, and whilst I'm happy to accept this as an explanation of their position, it does not *explain* anything, of course, other than (still) they don't allow women priests because they don't allow them. It's *just* a belief.

    Invoking the act of transubstantiation as an excuse would be valid if they could show that it isn't something that has just been made up, and could show the workings and, for example, demonstrate that women priests couldn't transubstantiate like men priests; I'd like to see that experiment.

    It would certainly be churlish to object if they could show that only men priests could *actually* turn the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Until then, it's just special pleading.

  • Modab says:
    11 November 2009 at 11:21

    I agree with a majority of what you are saying. But I would add that as far as beliefs go in religion, one could rank a belief's importance to a believer. Transubstantiation would be top-ranked by serious followers of Catholicism, much higher than the whole homosexual thing for instance. Homosexuality is 'merely' a sin, but properly receiving communion is *central* to the Catholic faith.

    So as far as rational behaviour can be applied to the Catholic faith, I would expect them to be very conservative about that ceremony. And since Catholicism is conservative already, an argument like, "oh it'll probably be okay, women can most likely transubstantiate just like men priests" would never fly.

    Obviously if you don't accept the faith angle as a valid argument, you will find most of the dogmatic decisions of the church to be useless. I'm just saying within the bounds of the concept of religious faith, it's a reasonable concern of Catholics. If your goal is to get women accepted as priests within the church, you do have to respect those bounds. If you're just making a meta-point about the whole concept of religion being ridiculous, well, have at it, but that's more like shooting fish in a barrel, right?

  • Mark Jones says:
    11 November 2009 at 14:02


    Thanks for the clarification, and I agree with what you say. But...

    "If your goal is to get women accepted as priests within the church, you do have to respect those bounds."

    Well, I'm not in the business of policing every crackpot institution; they should put their own house in order. The Government is, though, and I don't see why such sexism should be allowed, bounds or no bounds. And of course I reserve the right to criticise *any* institution for its iniquities.

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