Bishop Pete: a Christian martyr for our time



A few days ago, someone I have never met – a journalist – recalled in an email a curious incident in his life 22 years ago:
     ‘I drove up the A74 past Lockerbie a few days after the disaster and remember the stink of aviation fuel. Later, I attended, in a seasonally sentimental mood, a service in ––––– and was disgusted that we were asked by the celebrant to offer our prayers to ensure that God would protect our Britannic Majesty, but of Lockerbie and its dead not one word throughout the entire service.’
     There is no reason to doubt my correspondent’s first-hand account of what did, or rather didn’t, take place, and yet to admit it says something quite disturbing about the Christian church (in this case the Church of Scotland). It speaks on the one hand of sickening deference and on the other of gross insensitivity to a human suffering in which all of us shared. The likely celebrant, a prickly individual, is still alive and kicking and so I have deleted the name of the church. In this business, you can’t be too careful.
     That act of Christian observance was still festering at the back of my mind when the news of Bishop Pete arrived. Suspended by his church – ‘asked to withdraw’ to use the official euphemism – for daring to speculate on the length of the latest royal attachment (he gave the marriage seven years) and offering profuse apologies all over the bleedin’ shop for the acute distress he seems to have caused, Pete has become a Christian martyr for our ludicrous time – caught on Facebook, executed on primetime telly, all done and dusted in 24 hours’ flat.
     Pete does sound slightly annoying. Is anyone called Pete these days? In my youth there was a disc jockey called Pete Murray – a poor man’s Tony Blackburn, if such a thing can be imagined – but I haven’t heard of many Petes since. It is not very bishop-like to be called Pete. The papers used to bang on about ‘trendy bishops’ and it is possible that Pete is the last of the breed. He has a Facebook page; indeed it was there that he committed his act of folly, the free expression of an opinion. Well, there is nothing trendy about Facebook. There is nothing trendy about being trendy.
     But to suspend him – I stared at the BBC news website in disbelief. They have suspended him for that? The statement of an actuarial possibility couched in robustly republican terms? Once they would have thrown him to the lions for less, but now he is merely devoured by the tabloids and spat out on Breakfast News. I cannot see Sandy Stoddart making one of his heroic statues out of Bishop Pete. The glamour has gone from religious persecution.
     Still, I feel for him. He is the hapless victim of a national mood. Eight days’ hols to celebrate the £5 billion pound wedding, the morning newspapers cry. Bring it on, why don’t they?

He has been silenced and humiliated. For this grotesque over-reaction, his church is wholly responsible.

     We ought to have spotted the warning signs as soon as the engagement was announced in advance to Dave’s cabinet. A great cheer went up and there was a loud thumping of the table by the gathering of ex-public schoolboys, supplementled as always by the humble former press officer of the Cairngorms National Park Authority. This should have alerted us that the establishment, supported by its cheer-leaders in the media, had just declared a year of patriotic rejoicing and that any dissent, however funny or ridiculous, would be ruthlessly quashed. Sure enough, the BBC dutifully announced that ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ was to be resurrected as the highlight of Christmas television, preceded no doubt by Miss Widdecombe in a frock. Pete should have known better. Pete should have seen it coming.
     For the second time in almost as many days, a minor, innocuous public figure has been reduced to shiftiness and transience by a stray remark. Lord Young, for his off-the-cuff indiscretion about low interest rates, was not afforded even the dignity of rising without trace. He was gone, extinguished by Dave, before anyone knew he had ever existed. But the case of Bishop Pete is more serious. Lord Young has other interests and pots of money. Pete has only his vocation to keep him warm.
     His suspension means that, for the time being at least, he is debarred from burying the dead, marrying the hopeful, or baptisting the loud. He is deprived of a pulpit. He has been silenced and humiliated. For this grotesque over-reaction, his church is wholly responsible.
     Many years ago – almost as long as that service of worship which airbrushed the dead of Lockerbie – I knew someone in Bishop Pete’s unhappy position, a man of the cloth suspended. His name was Donald Macdonald. He was a dark, brooding, mercurial Hebridean, an Express journalist converted by Billy Graham, who went into the parish ministry of the Church of Scotland, then into the BBC, and finally into the wilderness. He described himself as a Christian Marxist, a term I have never understood, but theologically he was a conservative. He believed in Hell – the actuality – although many of his friends felt that he experienced enough of it on this earth. He was a gifted polemical writer in the same league as his contemporary Donald Macleod, the brilliant thinker of the Free Kirk, who was persecuted by people in his church as the other Donald, the Donald I knew rather better, was persecuted by people in his.
     The presbytery of Glasgow suspended Donald Macdonald for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. His marriage had broken up – though it survived many years longer than several royal ones – and he was drinking too much towards the end. These were compelling reasons, not for ostracising Donald, but for helping him. He had left the parish ministry anyway. He wished only to preach occasionally and officiate at weddings or funerals in response to personal requests. It was not much to ask, but it was too much for the Church of Scotland, which refused to renew his certificate.
     One day, I rang up the man in the presbytery who was dealing with the case and more or less implored him to exercise mercy. I have never forgotten the cold, official tone. There was nothing to be done. He made that clear with chilling brevity. Donald was soon dead.
     So am I surprised by what they have done to Bishop Pete? Not one little bit. It is how the bureaucracy of the Christian church operates.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.