The Press Saturday, May 24th 1997
In all the wranglings over women's ordination and the apostolic succession, no one, so far as I know, produced a gun (though it is rumoured that Bishop of Edmonton conceals a derringer within his lacy bits.) It took a theological student to introduce this innovation. Robert Bamford-Stewart was drinking in a Yorkshire pub where he had previously made himself conspicuous by blessing the customers. This time he was wearing a clerical collar: still they did not believe he was ordained, so to prove his point, he produced a gun, loaded it, and let it rest casually on his thigh. The participants in the nearby women's dominoes match dived for the floor. His neighbour at the bar jumped him and wrestled him to the floor until the police came. Last week he was sentenced two two years' imprisonment, which gave the Times the opportunity to retell the story with — unusually — more detail than the Telegraph. It was the Times, for example, that had the detail about a women's dominoes match. Both papers, however, recorded his remark to the police that he had brought the gun "to test if his faith was compatible with firearms".
Mr Bamford-Stewart was at Lampeter college as a mature student.
Two years seems a stiff sentence, considering that the gun could only fire blanks, but there is clearly little public sympathy for men in clerical collars who upset peaceful drinkers.
It could have been worse. He might have been in Israel, where no one would have minded the gun, but anyone might have assaulted him for being a missionary. The Times, again reported on the progress of a law barring missionary activity and the distribution of tracts. The law is so vaguely worded that it might make the possession of the New Testament illegal, one Jerusalem Christian told Christopher Walker. The story went on to explain that the 23 seats held by religious parties in the Knesset "could make or break any feasible coalition led by a secular party"
The law was apparently provoked by "a Christian missionary campaign last year, when hundreds of thousands of Jews received proselytising material in the post." Remembering some of Morris Cerullo's fund-raising leaflets, whose message was something like "Buy five Jews; get two family members saved for free", the story looks a little more complicated than it did at first. Is there any country in the world where religion of every sort does more to discredit itself than Israel? The only cheering touch in the story was the party affiliation of one of the bill's sponsors, Moshe Gafni, whose line on free speech is robust: "The Jewish nation has suffered enough through its history as a result of attempts to convert it. What is freedom of speech compared to this?"
Mr Gafni belongs to the "United Torah Judaism Party", and you just know that any party with "United" in its title is a splinter group.
Meanwhile, Victoria Combe, in the Telegraph, was the only person to record the next stage in the disintegration of the Jewish community in this country: the non-Orthodox have now asked for their own representative to sit alongside the Chief Rabbi at all national and state event, and for a second seat on the council of Christians and Jews. This is exactly what Jonathan Sacks was struggling to avoid in his contortions over Hugo Gryn's funeral and memorial service
The Telegraph also gave a lot of space to Tony Higton's campaign to get parishes to sign anti-gay resolutions. Rightly, I think: these disruptions are important; and if large number of parishes did sign up, it would be very informative, not least because the resolution he is asking them to back is tougher on adultery than on homosexuality.
Which brings us to the Prince of Wales. Every paper reported the Church of England Newspaper's survey which showed evangelicals opposing his accession as supreme governor. Adultery and Islam seem to worry them in equal measure. But the real moral of the story is that if you want to give a survey wings, it should report what everyone believes to be true.
One of the things which has caused the Prince greatest difficulties was his remark about being seen as a defender of faith, rather than of the faith. This was a remark so disastrous that even Lord Habgood would have difficulty putting a coherent face on it; and the palace certainly can't. The Guardian's report had a comment from the Palace which summed up all these difficulties: "When he spoke of being a defender of faith he meant that the concept of faith should be protected in an increasingly secular society. He was not saying he would be a protector of faith for Catholics, Muslims, Hindus or whatever."
Only a thoroughly secular press office would use a phrase like "Catholics, Hindus. Muslims, or whatever".
I suppose "whatever" covers fertility idols: the News of the World is raffling five replicas of a couple of four-foot African idols rumoured to make anyone who touches them pregnant ("Parcel for you, Miss Widdecombe, from a Mr Howard").
This story deserves the Descartes Prize for the most shameless use of "thought to be" in popular journalism: "the potent statues were already thought to be responsible for responsible for THREE HUNDRED unplanned pregnancies .. when Bill Mullen of Blackpool forgot to put his gloves on.
For five long years Bill, 24, and his girlfriend Antoinette, 23, had been trying for a second child. But today they are celebrating her pregnancy ... you guessed it, days after he touched the gods.
" 'It could only be the statues we have to thank for this', said security guard Bill."
I wonder how he explains their first child.
The only story more exquisite was the Telegraph's account of a traffic accident involving two druids: "Arthur Pendragon was wielding his sword Excalibur when the incident happened, Reading Crown Court was told.
"Steven Worner, known as Awk .. was being promoted to Lord Protector during a ceremony in the middle of the B4494 Newbury to Wantage road.
"Dressed in white robes with a small shrub attached to his stomach, Worner said he jumped onto the bonnet of another car as it came towards him to escape injury. The ceremony ended with cars being hit with shields and a staff, the court has been told."