The Press Saturday, November 22nd 1997

Anne Atkins has met the curate of her dreams: "How to convey the excitement of the noble beast, the eager ears forward, the muscles rippling, the ground thundering …" unfortunately, he's a horse. The Daily Telegraph had sent her fox hunting with her teenage daughter. She had a wonderful time, going into paroxysms of enthusiastic jingoism. "The English are the most self-deprecating people in the world" she exclaimed at one point. The fox got away after several hours' chase, which she regarded as fair play and not cruel at all. As far as I can see, she thinks that the hunt is redeemed because hardly anything  is killed as a result. I doubt, though, that she will have persuaded many opponents. Antis, she was told, often turn up to demonstrate because they are paid 20 a day to do so. In a touching display of journalistic diligence, she adds "I couldn't test the truth of this because I didn't see any Antis."

Otherwise, it's that time of year again: the preacher of the year show was held in Bradford. The six contestants climbed into their pulpit, eager ears forward, muscles rippling, the ground thundering, and preached their little hearts out. There has been a noticeable backlash against last year's extensive coverage, when non-specialists were sent to cover it, and discovered that even if these are the six best sermons preached in England, they were still pretty grim; and, however you slice it, the event will always be a publicity stunt for the Times. Everyone noted that the winner had tried sex, drugs, and even Buddhism in his youth. I hope he hasn't given up sex.

The Buddhists continue their curious relationship with the Guardian, which had a delightful story on London's oldest police court, which has been "reincarnated" as a Buddhist centre. There may be nothing new in converting police cells to bed and breakfast accommodation I've stayed in lots of B&Bs like that. But I like the idea of replacing the judge with a nine foot Buddha. In general, though, Buddhists in the left-wing press can still get away with behaviour which would be pilloried as insanely superstitious and irrational if they were Christians. Guardian readers were reassured that "Feng Shui experts have been called in to counteract the negative energy and Tibetan teachers now maintain the building is free of evil spirits."

Among the people cursing Bernie Ecclestone this week are legions of Sunday paper journalists who found their stories squashed or abolished by an outbreak of real news. There ought to be a law against it, as Mr Blair would say. On a clear day, you can probably still hear Christopher Morgan gnashing his teeth that his story only made page 3 of the Sunday Times. "Anglicans to sideline Ten Commandments" is such a good headline. "The ten commandments have been sidelined by the Church of England in an a controversial attempt to make services less 'sombre' and more populist. The move has prompted a storm of protest from clergy who accuse the bishops of surrendering any claim to moral leadership in Britain."

At first sight, all that was missing from the story was the traditional panel listing the ten commandments. It is a safe bet that few Sunday Times readers could manage more than the one about adultery but then if they had to wrestle with all the others, they might understand the point the liturgical commission was trying to make. But a more serious problem, appeared several paragraphs in, when we learned that the Ten Commandments were actually shuffled off to an appendix in 1980, by the ASB. It is another example of the inspiring way in which religious journalism fixes our mind on eternal verities, such as that the Church of England is ghastly, and skates over transient concerns, like whether any given story is actually true.

If it happens in foreign parts, of course, it enters into a kind of fairyland, where questions of truth or falsehood are suspended. The  Express on Sunday had a whole page devoted to a Audrey Santo, 13-year-old girl in Boston who is believed to work miracles. This is doubly odd, since she has been in a coma since falling into the family swimming pool at the age of 3. "She breathes on her own, her fingers twitch and her eyes move but remain unfocussed." She lies in her parents' house in a room full of religious statues, which variously bleed and secrete oil; one wall is glass, opening on the garage where worshippers congregate every Wednesday. The Express listed her miracles: " a woman suffering from irreversible hereditary blindness took the Holy Eucharist with Audrey and regained her vision … a woman crippled with multiple sclerosis who went to Mass with Audrey, then threw down her crutches and walked away."

This story did have a sidebar of other "amazing events", among them, "Moslems flocked to the Bolton home of Ruksana Patel after she sliced open an aubergine whose seeds spelt out the name of Allah"; and "MP Ann Widdecombe says her strong Catholic faith dates back to 1971 when her mother Rita was cured of arthritis after visiting Guildford Cathedral." Next week, I hope, Christopher Morgan will bring us the news that Guildford Cathedral has always been Catholic; in the meantime, there was one last miracle, from the Guardian's interview with Mary J Blige, a popular singing sensation, who explained why she wears a cross. "I feel I can do anything with my Father watching me. It's that little voice we never want to hear. I pay attention because that little voice has saved me. Like, I was going to go to the party where Biggie [the rapper notorious BIG] got shot, but just before I got there, I decided I wanted to change my clothes. I took a long time, and when I got back, the whole area was being closed off, because Biggie had been killed."

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