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9 June 2011

Exclusive: Philip Pullman on what he owes to the Church of England

The author on atheism, Anglicanism and "transcendental" experiences.

By Staff Blogger

Philip Pullman, writing exclusively for the Archbishop of Canterbury in this week’s guest-edited issue, explains why he describes himself as “a Church of England atheist”.

Pullman writes that, although he does not believe in God, the Anglican tradition has shaped his view of the world. Some of his formative experiences came from reading the King James Bible and being taught the evening prayer by his grandfather:

He was a clergyman and it’s his voice I hear when I remember the beautiful prayers from matins or evensong or the Communion service. We can’t abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it’s impossible and that it would be wrong. It is those that have made us and not we ourselves. Even if I became a Buddhist, I couldn’t help but be a Church of England Buddhist.

Pullman goes on to reveal his frustration at the recent controversies over homosexuality and women clergy that have convulsed the global Anglican communion:

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When I survey the wondrous mess that the sexophobic zealots in the Anglican Church have tried to bring about in recent years, I feel both distress and anger. None of my business in a way, because I’m not a believer, but at the same time it is my business: because of those memories of mine and because the Church of England is the established church of this nation. It belongs to all of us. We’re all entitled to hold opinions about it.

And these demented barbarians, driven by their single idea that God is as obsessed by sex as they are themselves, are doing their best to destroy what used to be one of the great characteristics of the Church of England, namely a sort of humane liberal tolerance, the quality embodied in the term “broad church”.

Pullman also tells of his past “transcendental” experiences:

Religion is something that human beings do and human activity is fascinating. I have never had an experience that I could call religious, though I have known two or three short passages of intense, transcendental feeling – that is to say, experiences of about 15 to 20 minutes, during which my perception of things in the external world (one was a storm on a beach; another was a journey home on a winter evening on the Tube and bus from Charing Cross Road to Barnes) seemed to become enlarged and clarified to include many things, all of which I was able to see without losing sight of everything else.

These visions of the real world were laced through with patterns and connections and correspondences. They were accompanied by a feeling of intense, calm excitement. I felt that I was seeing the truth, that all things were like this and that the universe was alive and conscious and full of urgent purpose.