Obadiah Cranford v. The Archbishop – a short story
A man of words is held to account
The Act came into force in 2010. Following representations from other believers, Parliament had extended the Act to cover all monotheistic faiths. All, of course, except Christianity, which was deemed to be represented already in established law.
Obidiah Cranford came to Britain from Ghana where he had been brought up as a member of the Khasali faith, an obscure daughter faith of Christianity, established in the early nineteenth century as a challenge to a pernicious cult of ancestor worship, ruled by witch doctors. A central tenet of this particular new faith was that those who seek to mislead others, to confuse them or to render them vulnerable in order to manipulate them for their own purposes, or whose words or actions were found to have sullied the good name of the faith, were guilty of an offence.
Punishment originally involved forms of justice that were summary if not medieval. More recently those found guilty have been obliged to speak, humbly and contritely, in some public place, in order to acknowledge their guilt and to assure their fellow men that they would not sin again. Quite when the last case was heard in Ghana is not clear as pre-independence records have been lost.
Mr Cranford made clear from the outset his determination that his case should be heard under the law of Khasali. There were a number of adherents of the faith amongst people in London with links to his homeland and they met regularly in a broken-down church hall where there was no heating and in which there was a constant danger of tripping over buckets left out to catch water from leaks in the roof, especially when the fuses blew and there was no light. There this impoverished group met to receive religious and cultural nourishment.
Mr Crandford’s accusation was that he and others had been approached by a clergyman, the Anglican priest of a neighbouring parish which boasted a grand building, sumptuously decorated and warm, even in the depths of winter; come and join us and you will be saved and comfortable was his message. Mr Cranford and his friends had considered the offer. From what they understood of the European roots of their faith, physical comfort was a barrier to spiritual ease and their discomfort in the leaking hall continued to promote a feeling of religious well-being, even when punctuated by the frequent use of paper tissues when the winter months brought colds and flu. The priest’s invitations, however, became ever more pressing until, during a particularly cold spell, the Ghanaians accepted his assurances and his offer of hospitality.
For several months these converts from Khasali endured the blessings of the established church. They still brought with them their paper tissues but now it was the sweat of their brows for which they were required. In their new-found comfort the men sat in their suits, uneasy and unsure.
Mr Cranford lifted a newspaper and held it for the court to see. It was a copy of The Church Times. In this particular copy they had found an interview with the parish priest who had invited them into his church. The priest had spoken of an influx of new parishioners and his eagerness to meet his bishop’s targets. It was not something of which he had spoken when he had discovered Mr Cranford in their previous place of worship, indeed, he had not spoken to them since, even when there had been questions about their new faith which they had wanted him to address.
In the eyes of these new Christians, they had been duped and their trust in the parish priest had been misplaced. Clearly, he had misled them about his intentions which were directed at promoting his own zeal, rather than succouring his flock.
The plaintiff, the archbishop, rose to speak – Catweazle’s younger brother perhaps who had come to the public’s attention late in life. Here was a man with a rural face who appeared unmoved by his audience in this urban setting as he read from a carefully prepared statement. Here was a man who clearly expected to be heard and who was indeed clearly audible.
And it was this clarity of speech that made his argument the more difficult to follow, like watching a moving object appear then disappear behind banks of rolling fog. Initially the court followed his words with ease, confident that, so long as they paid attention, the point of the speech would reveal itself, but the effort of attention revealed little. They sat in silence under the elaborate roof and the candelabra and became cross with themselves for their failure to understand.
Even the judge struggled and found himself contemplating the spine of a book which he had laid to one side on the bench. There the embossed arms of the university press called out to him: Dominus illuminatio mea.
At the end of the case the judge addressed the court. It was clear that the concerns of the plaintiff had been abundantly demonstrated. His judgement, he conceded, might in the circumstances seem unduly harsh, but the defendant he knew to be receptive to subtlety and nuance. To that extent others might well regard him as too lenient. On balance His Lordship believed that it was right that the head of the organisation responsible for misleading these adherents to the faith of Khasali should make public atonement, for no more than fifteen minutes.
This the Archbishop would undertake, not in a place of worship where an audience can easily feel entrapped, but at Speakers’ Corner, by Hyde Park, a venue sanctified by the late Lord Soper.
Asked if he had anything to say, the Archbishop pleaded that fifteen minutes would almost certainly not be sufficient for him to explain himself. Would his Lordship kindly allow him an hour?
His Lordship shook his head. The punishment, he explained, was to be imposed on him, the archbishop, and not on any unfortunate passer-by.