The Press Saturday, September 27th 1997

The Daily Mail was discovered the other day to have been telling the truth about the Germans. Admittedly, the story in question was around 85 years old, but it appears the German army really did use nun's heads as bell clappers when they invaded Belgium in 1914. They did not, however, suspend whole nuns upside down for clappers, as tradition has it. There is still a niche in history for the first Archdeacon to do that to anyone, though these speculations have nothing to do with Midge Mather, the  battling granny of Compton Bassett, who cut the church's bell-ropes after breaking down an 800-year-old door, and then rang up every member of the PCC to say what she had done before demanding that the police arrest her. It appears that she objects to noise only when it emanates from other people.

My favourite mystery came from another story of parish life in the Daily Mail, this time from Foulridge, near Burnley, where the outgoing Vicar was described by one of his flock as "The most obnoxious man I have ever come across.

"He's emptied that church in the time he has been here. We'll all be celebrating at home with a pint when he's gone." Said Louise Wilson, a milkman's wife and member of the parish council, about the Rev George Senior. She was responding to a farewell sermon he had preached, from which the Mail extracted the following passage: And how true are these words of Jesus. … 'Some will hate you and your ministry simply because they are the Devil's children and are evil; others because they allow the ridicule of others to overwhelm them.'

Whether it was the Mail or Mr Senior who had discovered this particular saying was not clear. The departing priest had also said, "I have met with apathy from some, and so much hate form others (some who claim to be devout followers of our lord Jesus) hatred which has lasted five long, tiresome years in some cases."

He refused to elaborate on these remarks to the reporter, but it appears that the root of all this hatred (apart from the parentage of the parishioners involved) were rows about car parking and sheep grazing in the churchyard.

At a level more distant from St Gargoyle's, though perhaps less instructive, John Lloyd, an associate editor of the News Statesman, had a piece on the Times op-ed page about New Labour's plans to modernise the church as well as the monarchy. It is worth quoting to give an idea of the self-confidence of the new apparatchiki: "The Church .. has no great media lustre even in this country, but some of its priests and bishops are intellectually and morally impressive. It lacks faith, however - except on its evangelical wing, whose semi-fundamentalist enthusiasm cannot stand the test of reason. It has not been able to develop a working model of a faith in which rational people could whole-heartedly believe."

I suppose this means that Tony Himself is either irrational or insincere, along with Frank Field, Chris Smith, and all the other Christian socialists. But never mind that slip: the good news is that He is going to make all things new or, better yet, modern, as Lloyd goes on to explain:

"Modernisation thus means shoring up, It means recognising that the Church's ritual is essential for State occasions and is often desired for private last things.  Having recognised that [the Church] is essential, Blair has moved to try to make sure it is useful, that it does uncontroversial good worlds, takes part in his efforts to knit together communities and gives ethical support to the family. From having been the Tory Party at prayer, it is being shaped as the Labour Party in the community."

This was published some days after A.N. Wilson's satirical suggestion that Elton John be consecrated Bishop of Liverpool, as part of a Blairite scheme to modernise the Church of England. It's not clear whether Wilson's piece, in the Daily Telegraph, influenced Lloyd.

The Mail on Sunday magazine published an entire section devoted to the paranormal. All kinds of interesting facts emerged from this, including the information that while more than a quarter of British and American adults claim to have had direct experience of telepathy, and 14% believe there is a paranormal explanation for UFO's, only 2% believe that astrologers can predict the future. Either this is a misprint or it is a very notable operation of Conquest's Law, that everyone is a reactionary on the subjects they know about. After all, belief in UFO's or telepathy, will hardly influence our daily life. It is almost cost-free to be wrong on these subjects. On the other hand, almost everyone has the opportunity to make judgements based on astrological predictions.  The cost of getting such decisions wrong can be very high. Therefore people really don't believe astrologers, and read them only for a giggle, or the print equivalent of gossip. After all, those columns are outside the letters and the problem pages the only part of the newspapers which appear to be about the readers.

There was also a long and exquisitely funny interview with the French designer Paco Rabanne, a man whose synapses are riddled with cosmic wormholes. "With his gentle speech, his beatific stare, and his hands clasped in front of him, he exudes an air of spiritual elevation so intense, that, on a recent visit to London, he managed to ho have tea at Claridges without the requisite collar and tie because the head waiter took him for a vicar."

"Rabanne is convinced, for instance, that the Earth is protected by 'the Gnomes red elves who live underground and guard precious metals'. The air is inhabited by Sylphs who 'resemble large diaphanous birds' and who, he believes, play a crucial if rarely acknowledged role in air traffic control."

This is very fine stuff, by Robert Chalmers, and nowhere finer than at the end: "One o fthe many unanswered questions about his philosophy is just how Rabanne sole guardian and curator of his intricate belief system manages to keep up with it all himself. Was he prey, I asked as I was leaving, to any major doubts? 'None' said Rabanne. 'I am a man of simple faith.' "

Oh and he revealed that the Antichrist is English, by the way.

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