The Press Saturday, November 22nd 1997
It's hard and lonely work, but someone has to do it: I read the Guardian most of the way through on Saturdays. This week's magazine had a long article on the porn industry in the USA, which I studied for the statistics. How does $8bn grab you? That is the sum — nearly two thirds of Bill Gates's fortune — that Americans spend every year on hard core videos, magazines, and cable TV. It is more than they spend on all forms of music and the theatre put together. For that money, you would expect something remarkable, and Alix Starkey's long piece closed with something you hardly ever find in the respectable British press: a full-frontal close-up of a naked conscience. The speaker is Rob Black, who has made seven best-selling videos by the age of 24, for a company called Elegant Angel:
" 'Yes it's degrading filth'. He says. 'Sure it degrades people, but you know what? The girls all know what they're doing and they get paid really well. If they don't want to do a certain shot, fine. I'll just get someone one else.' Black dismisses the idea that porn encourages rape and violence against women. 'When Ice-T makes a song about shooting the police, does that make people shot cops? Yeah, I guess some people, but are you gonna be responsible for that?'"
The obvious — and true — answer to this rhetorical question seems to have occurred to him, for the article ends with an examination of his neck, where he wears "a tiny silver medallion depicting the Virgin Mary is something that looks like one of those clothing labels that give optimum washing temperatures. It turns out to be a piece of parchment, bearing the hand-written legend: 'Whoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.' Expecting a gag, I ask what this means. For once, Black's triumphant voice is flat and without scorn. 'If I die wearing this,' he says calmly and very rationally, 'I won't burn in hell.'"
Stories like that give one a sense of perspective about American evangelists. If that sort of moral illiteracy is what they are up against, then even the Promise Keepers appear to have a place in God's great scheme of things. In this country they are more problematic; if British men want a collective spiritual experience in a football stadium they go to watch a game of football; and Alan Franks, one of the Times's chief feature writers, struggled manfully in his account of the movement in England with all the obvious pitfalls: no these English people are not bigots, nor are they thugs, nor wildly American. But neither do they exist. "Fifty six countries, including several European ones, had representatives at the Washington rally. It estimates that its international membership is now more than three million. In the Sunderland Christian centre on a grey November morning, I count 19."
No wonder he cracked at the end with the most flagrantly dishonest couple of sentences I expect to read all year: "It's going to be interesting. It always has been." And despite the sober and sympathetic intelligence his piece displays, neither he nor his sub-editors could spell "Calvinistic"
The other American evangelical news appeared only in the Daily Telegraph, which carried a long, dry obituary of john Wimber: "In the 1960s Wimber has been involved with the Righteous Brothers pop duo; and 20 years later his religious services gave prominence to guitar, keyboard, and repetitive community singing." I thought I detected in this the musical as well as the theological tastes of Damian Thompson, but it was in fact written by someone else. I suspect that he (Wimber, rather than Thompson, though of course, in his own way, Damian, too ) was one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity over the last thirty years. His style of worship now distresses young people: one member of the Nine O'Clock Service ascribed the whole thing to a reaction against Wimber's sub-Eagles melodies; but he was one of the first people to understand the spiritual excitement of electric music and channel it into orthodoxy. His death should be marked by features, rather than obituaries.
Another bearded prophet straddling the interface between tradition and modernity is Richard Chartres, though I admit that I had never thought of him quite like that before. However, Victoria Combe's interview with him in the Daily Telegraph revealed a Deanery buzzing with high-tech gadgets: "There is a cyber pet bleeping for attention, a son involved in computer combat, and a daughter fitting a satellite dish of sorts onto the hamster cage." It is difficult to stop wondering what programmes the Chartres family hamster subscribes to.
The other great religious mystery of our age is whether Fr Michael Seed actually exists. Surely he is a legendary figure, invented by the gossip columnists to express and define that point in a public figure's life when their disgrace becomes absolute and life can begin again. Officially, he has the title of Cardinal's secretary for ecumenical affairs, and I have even lunched someone who claimed to be him. But the figure who appears in the press is far more awe-inspiring. He is the one man to whom Conservative politicians, oppressed by the weight of their sins, can turn for absolution. He is supposed to have been responsible for the conversions of John Gummer, Ann Widdecombe, and Alan Clark, the lustre of this last conversion undiminished by the fact that it hasn't actually happened. Last week came the first tentative steps towards the rehabilitation of Jonathan Aitken, when he was reported in the Times diary to have "held talks with" Fr Seed. It is stories like that which make you realise how terrible is the plight of Neil Hamilton a man whose sins are so unfashionable that not even Fr Seed is linked with him..
Oh yes: the General Synod was apparently meeting this week, but you wouldn't know it from the newspapers. This is good news.