When it comes to shameless self-promotion few can hold a candle to the Church of England’s most high-profile progressive cleric, the Rev Dr Giles Fraser.
Seconds after staggering over the finishing line of the London Marathon the Anglican cleric was tweeting to the world that he had helped raise money for a theatre project in the slums of Ghana that would teach prostitutes to leave their pimps through the medium of dance role-play.
This achingly trendy cause, almost beyond parody, was par for the course for the Giles Fraser whose busy and lucrative career as Britain’s foremost left-wing media priest has made him the highest profile churchman in the country
It is hard to get away from the Rev Dr Fraser and his left-wing views in the British media these days. From his many pulpits in the Guardian, Evening Standard and ubiquitously across the BBC, he preaches the gospel of political correctness in support of gay marriage, lesbian bishops, multiculturalism or bemoaning that some remaining London neighbourhoods are still too White.
While the scriptural content of his sermons is diluted to almost homeopathic levels, editors still love him for they know that when it comes to sticking to the narrative of of the left-liberal political consensus the Blessed Giles will always deliver.
At least, until 12 July last year, that is. For it was then that the Guardian published a column that sent some readers into a near paroxysm of rage.
In an article headlined “This German circumcision ban is an affront to Jewish and Muslim identity” Giles Fraser criticised a decision by a German judge to ban circumcision on medical grounds in one exceptional case of a Jewish child against the wishes of the parents.
He wrote ” the idea that the Germans, of all people, should be contemplating criminalising Jewish practice… I shouldn’t even need to finish that sentence.”
The article drew a furious response from readers who said unnecessary ritual genital mutilation on a child too young to give consent was no more acceptable on a Jewish boy than on a Muslim girl.
But it also puzzled many. How could the normally sure-footed media churchman have so misgauged the received wisdom of the ruling cultural left and gone off-message so badly?
It was not as if he had not been controversial before. He openly said he does not believe that Christ died on the cross to save mankind — a cornerstone of Christian belief for many — and he even refuses to wear a cross, saying it represents cruelty.
So what was the big deal anyway about a backward religious procedure carried out by another religion in another land? Why was it being defended by this most post-modern of clerics?
The answer lies in the curious background of Giles Fraser himself. For although a priest in the Church of England he was born a Jew and himself circumcised according to Jewish custom when he was eight days old.
He once wrote that
I was circumcised by the mohel when I was eight days old on my grandmother’s kitchen table in St John’s Wood. It wasn’t done for health reasons. It was a statement of identity. Whatever is meant by the slippery identification ‘being Jewish’ — my father is, my mother is not — it had something to do with this.
Circumcision marked me out as belonging. Years later, when my wife objected to the circumcision of our new son on the grounds that it was cruel and unnecessary, I reluctantly gave way. Intellectually, I knew that there was little left of ‘being Jewish’ to protect. After all, my wife was not Jewish and I had become a Christian priest. Halachically, it made no sense.
Nevertheless it seems to have left him in some torment.
For all of this, I still find it difficult that my son is not circumcised. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, himself a survivor of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, famously added to the 613th commandments of the Hebrew scriptures with a new 614th commandment: thou must not grant Hitler posthumous victories. This new mitzvah insisted that to abandon one’s Jewish identity was to do Hitler’s work for him.
Jews are commanded to survive as Jews by the martyrs of the Holocaust. My own family history – from Miriam Beckerman and Louis Friedeburg becoming Frasers (a name change to escape antisemitism) to their grandson becoming Rev Fraser (long story) to the uncircumcised Felix Fraser — can be read as a betrayal of that 614th commandment.
All of which must surely baffled some of his congregation in his run-down inner-city parish of St Mary’s Newington in south London. So who is Giles Fraser and is he Christian or Jewish?
He revealed to the Jewish Chronicle that – while his mother was not Jewish – his father’s family were prominent north London Jews who had been in London since the 18th century and had been active in the Board of Deputies. They changed their name from Friedburg to Fraser during the Second World War to avoid anti-Semitism. The Jewish Chronicle report noted that his grandmother Miriam Beckerman did not seem to mind when he converted to Christianity while at Oxford
My gran was ever so proud when I became chaplain of Wadham. ‘My grandson, the priest’, she would say. When I went to theological school she said: ‘Make sure you learn your Hebrew!’ I did her funeral. I did it in a crematorium in Cambridgeshire where I was working as a priest. I said kaddish.
His Christian conversion took place in the unlikely environs of one of England’s most exclusive private schools, Uppingham, when he was sixteen. He was a teenage “revolutionary communist” who began studying the atheist philosopher Nietzsche
Nietzsche invaded my consciousness with a whole range of new and exciting questions. I took the anti-God line entirely for granted. … Because Nietzsche was so passionate an atheist, I had my defences down to his unusually intense religiosity and elliptical desire for salvation. Which,I suppose, is how the question of God crept under my intellectual radar.
He explained later “Nietzsche’s pious lack of faith led to my own conversion to Christianity”. Clear as mud, then.
On resolving the tensions between his Jewish background and his Christian roles he has said:
It is an internal struggle. I don’t think there’s a way of resolving it. I live with the wound. It’s just as much a personal story about where you come from. … I have a very strong sense of the Jewishness of Christianity. I would probably know the Hebrew scriptures and the theology considerably better than many secular Jews of the world. To that extent, I probably have more in common with the rabbis. I identify quite strongly with friends who are Jewish. I had to do a Jewish wedding with a rabbi recently. Jesus was Jewish and Hebrew scriptures are part of Christian scriptures.
I really don’t want to be Jews for Jesus. I’m just a priest who happens to have a Jewish background, with a strong sense of identity. I’m not in the least bit interested in converting Jews to Christianity. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s really wrong. I’m painfully aware of the way in which Christians have been involved in false conversions and pogroms. Christianity has a long history of oppression with regard to Jews. It invented anti-semitism, so with all that disgraceful history I can’t accept that and I find it difficult to pull it apart from all of that history.
The circumcision incident would not be the first time he has irritated the more traditional members of the Church of England who regard him as a “grandstanding hypocrite” and “shameless self-publicist” who has used the church as a platform for self-promotion.
Nowhere was this clearer than his invitation to hordes of anti-capitalism protesters of the “Occupy” movement onto the front steps of St Paul’s Cathedral where he was Canon until 2011.
Traditionalists felt that he jeopardised St Paul’s independence by his support of what degenerated into a drunken and drug-stupefied rabble. When he tweeted his resignation in protest at the decision to close the building to the protesters many saw it as a heroic gesture and a Facebook page was set up bearing witness to his sacrifice.
But others saw it as just another unnecessary, staged manoeuvre done for the benefit of the TV cameras. Even his protests of poverty did not ring true either for his earnings rose as fast as his profile. In the month following his departure he clocked up eight well-paid appearances on BBC national TV or radio.
The Guardian also stepped in with what turned into a full-time job writing a column called “Loose Canon” and writing leaders (op-eds) for the paper.
The resignation has been the financial making of him. The weekly BBC TV and radio appearances, the six figure Guardian job, training consultancy fees, the visiting professorship at the London School of Economics — all mean he has rocketed to the top of the earners league in the Church of England, easily bypassing the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Not bad for a humble parish priest who is still paid a stipend and has free accommodation in central London, a Church of England pension, and help with private school fees.
Despite his posturing as a rebel Giles Fraser has enjoyed the kind of easy progress that only money and being a privileged insider can bring.
From his expensive private school he had an extended period in the academic world in a variety of universities before becoming a chaplain and then a lecturer in philosophy at WadhamCollege, Oxford. Wikipedia says he has also has authored or co-authored books on Friedrich Nietzsche.
After leaving the academic world he landed the plumb job of parish priest in Putney one of the most well-heeled and sought-after parishes in London. When he was appointed Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral it seems he had finally fulfilled his potential.
But he seems to have disliked the compromises and team-effort of such a high-profile job, never mind the dog-collar in which he is hardly ever seen.
His bibulous and gregarious personality seems far better suited to the media types with whom he is often spotted matching drink for drink in the bars around the Guardian and the City of London.
By all accounts a raffish and amusing drinking companion, he is not averse to peering admiringly down a female journalist’s generous cleavage and asking if her breasts are real.
For all his popularity with the national media, it is hard to see, beyond the political slant, what the appeal is. His convoluted and serpentine columns never contain anything memorable. His writing is an opaque and often incomprehensible mixture of anecdote, psychobabble and self-help. Typical samples include “you need to own your own hatred before you can overcome it.” and “Christians should become flash mobs of hope”.
His columns are scattered with references to philosophers beloved by the cultural left — John Rawls, Heidigger, Rene Gerard, Karl Marx and many more. The scriptural references are barely visible.
Whatever his shortcomings as a writer, his skills as a freelance businessman are less in doubt. He has learned well the freelance insight that telling people what they want to hear is far more profitable than being the messenger of uncomfortable truths.
So what drives Britain’s most high profile religious media gadfly? The deeper we look at Giles Fraser the more the contradictions abound. He promotes gay marriage while disparaging the “egoism” of heterosexual marriage ceremonies.
He has openly said he does not believe that Christ was sacrificed to save mankind — a cornerstone of Christian belief for many — and refuses to wear a cross because he says it represents torture. He celebrated Easter by condemning the Gospel of St John as anti-Semitic.
Just before Easter this year he made another surprising statement in his column.
“I hate Jesus. Yes, you read that right. I do. I hate Jesus. Three little words that you may think it absolutely impossible for any Christian to say, especially just before Easter Sunday.”
There followed a lengthy convoluted piece in which he backtracked and might have been saying that he hated Jesus because he could not rise to his standards — or something.
At this point, one might ask whether Fraser is a crypto-Jew using his position in the Anglican community to subvert traditional Christian teachings—a phenomenon for which there is indeed a long history, ranging from the Spanish Inquisition to Vatican II (see here and here). And recently, a Swedish bishop and scion of the Bonnier Jewish media family, announced a campaign to purge Christian texts of anti-Jewish references and to make the Old and New Testaments mutually reinforcing rather than in opposition.
In any case, one area where Fraser’s convictions are in no doubt is left-wing identity politics. He seems far happier preaching the gospel of multiculturalism and calling for increased diversity and open borders.
But there are limits to even his tolerance of others. While visiting a traditional church fete in Kennington in south London he moved around the union-jack draped stalls and mixed with the Pymms-drinking older gentlemen but could not hide his distaste.
“It feels churlish to criticise. But all I could notice was how white the whole thing was.” he sniffed.
In fact the wrong kind of White people, especially if of a traditional outlook, are guaranteed to be the one thing that rubs him up the wrong way. He is especially averse to evangelicals. For some reason he seems to harbour a deep contempt and publicly sneers about their belief in “Cheesus”.
Whatever the truth is about his beliefs he has a sure courtier’s nose for the way the real winds of power are blowing—toward our left wing cultural elite, and the Rev Dr Giles Fraser has got their back every time.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Carey discovered this after criticising the recent sackings and prosecutions of Christians as persecution. For this the ex-Archbishop found himself on the end of a vicious and personal attack by Canon Fraser who was one of the first left-wing critics to attack him.
As Giles Fraser’s media earnings have increased so too, apparently has his contempt for the church for which he is nominally a member.
While attending the “Occupy” protest against NATO in Chicago he tweeted that the Church of England had become a “national disgrace” that had given way to “fundamentalists”.
And in his final column for the Church Times he wrote “I find myself having less and less respect for the leadership (for want of a better word) of an organisation that often seems to do little more than seek its own perpetuation. Indeed, I find the mealy-mouthed pronouncements of many bishops plain embarrassing.” On the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI he tweeted, “The world no longer has a Pope in it. To be honest, I’d be happy enough if we left it that way.”
These days the Canon seems to prefer to put his energies into other areas. He is currently writing a book on Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century and is taking classes in Hebrew at UniversityCollege. He has co-chaired a discussion on Protestant Churches and the Holocaust for one Jewish group and helped present Jewish Book Week for another.
Anti-Semitism is much on his mind of late. While on a recent tour of the synagogues of Hungary, he commented on the spectre of Jew hatred emerging again — not from Islamists he stressed — but from the native White population.
In a long meditation about the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzel, he wrote
I am a Zionist. Re-reading Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish Question in a Budapest cafe, opposite the astonishingly beautiful Dohány Street Synagogue, feels, once again, so topical. Herzl was born in 1860 in the house next to the synagogue and had his bar mitzvah there. … Much that he predicted did not pan out as he expected. ‘The Jews, once settled in their own state, would probably have no more enemies’ was one of his more naive predictions. But Herzl’s sense that even assimilated Jews are not always protected by their integration with surrounding society was well made.
One day the cleric was propping up the bar at a pub when he saw a spectacle that filled his heart with joy.
Thousands of Muslims were flocking along the streets of the east end of London and answering the muezzin’s call to come and pray that wailed out from the roof of the largest Mosque in the city.
Meeting with the chairman of the mosque he discovered their communities had much in common. Both have suffered from the racism of the native White English:
[I] explain to Dr Bari that I have Jewish family. Jews and Muslims have encountered similar problems in the East End. It used to be Mosley and his fascists, and now it’s the EDL [English Defence League]. It’s an action replay.
And with this he takes me outside to show me the little Fieldgate Street synagogue that nestles in the bosom of the mosque. On one side a huge new Islamic women’s centre is being constructed, named after the mother of Jesus.