Press Column

Quite the biggest religious story of the week was that Anne Atkins's 12-year-old daughter had run away from home for 36 hours, which must have been horrible. None the less, "Agony Aunt’s Agony" is clearly an excellent story, especially, if she is agony aunt of your own paper; and the Telegraph duly gave her a front page and the whole of the top of page three. The Mail and the Express gave her a whole page. Other papers were entirely characteristic: the Guardian gave her a short piece; as did the Times (she works for a rival) and the Independent called the daughter by a different name than everyone else and missed the dénouement altogether, failing to report that she had returned home. This is partly a technical problem: the deadlines are ridiculously early on the provincial editions.

As if to make up for this kind of thing, the paper’s Saturday magazine had two really sparkling stories. First came a piece on the secularisation of church music: "The Mediaeval Babes Salve Nos does not invite, it tels, their Saviour to look after the. These are harpies with angles, not angels with harps…. HMV’s London Bond Street store has 39 different Gregorian chant albums on its shelves." The author, Richard North, has previously written a fine, wistful book about monks: I remember him coming back from interviewing a nun: "Her cleavage was immense:" he said" a Cistercian Abyss." He is one of those unbelievers conscious of a God-shaped hole in him, and only such a man could have described the saxophone on one of these records as " a drift of cigarett smoke, sacriligeous and delicious, in the choir stalls."

My favourite was about the rise of "smudging" a kind of secular exorcism for buildings that won’t sell: "Smudgers are New Age spiritualists who cleanse apartments and buildings of the residual energy left behind by ex-boyfriends, wives or tenants, and generally stop bad vibes from sneaking up through the floorboards. The cost of having a smudger in to freshen up your living space can be steep, at anywhere between $75 and $200 an hour, but in spite of the price tag business is brisk. Smudging has its roots in Native American tradition, but now clients include people from the hard-nosed world of New York's real estate broking, who are employing smudgers to help them shift property they cannot sell."

The protagonist of the story is clearly in the market for voodoo: she is trying to sell a two bedroom flat, described as "plush" for one and a half million dollars. The smudger tells her that the problem is that clients "verbalise negativity" as they walk round the flat, and this hangs in the air, discouraging other potential purchasers; I would imagine that the moment when the negativity gets verbalised comes immediately after the price is verbalised by the realtor. You are going to need something pretty powerful in the incense to get people to pay half a million pounds a bedroom, however nice the view. After the incense, she goes round the flat with Chinese bells, a "druidic" bell, and a lime. Three limes, actually, though only one is infected with the bad vibes and is carefully stored apart formt he others.. "I will take this home tonight and I will slice it, put it in a bag, and toss it. And that breaks the negative energy."

At the other end of the housing market, the Sunday Times found a fairly original way to put the boot in to the Church of England this week: it sent a reporter round pretending to be a homeless beggar to 17 see houses. The only defence against this was to live far from London: no one further north than Gloucester was troubled. The reporter was turned away by 10; three offered accommodation and four more food or money. The Bishop of Guildford got his photo in the paper, for offering a bed for the night as well as a cup of tea. The Bishops of London and Gloucester turned the reporter away, and the Bishop of London refused, quite sensibly, to justify his action to the paper. This was an opportunity lost. Someone should have pointed out that the Bishops who turned away a fraudulent claimant were thereby saving their energies for the really needy, and so doing their jobs quite well. On the other hand, this would offend against the doctrine that it is clearly the duty of any Christian in public life to be gullible about everything.

The most startling absurdity in the story was one sentence "Senior clergymen were dismayed, but asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals". What sort of organisation does the Sunday Times suppose the Church of England is? On second thoughts, don’t answer. Perhaps the religious press should retaliate by sending journalists round to beg at the homes of editors — except that this is what the Catholic Herald has been doing for years: "Any odd jobs?" "Ring a bishop for you guv? I could ask him about the Virgin Birth…"

How to get black religion into the papers? Ruth Gledhill had one answer: turn it into a story about New Labour: "Charismatics offer secret prayers for Blair" was a good Sunday for Monday story, a term of art meaning it is about something which happened years ago, or has not happened yet. The prayer meeting in question met both tests: it had last happened three months ago, and would happen this Friday. She had discovered that nearly 10,000 Charismatics are meeting in the Docklands Arena, hired by a Nigerian church, to sing and pray all night. "The festival will have the Prime Minister and his team high on the list of ‘prayer targets’." I bet they put Ruth on the list, too, now.

She also had a front page basement on Dr Carey’s intervention in Christmas: "Shoppers at 216 Asda supermarkets will be handed an order of service and invited to sing along to hymns and carols as they choose goods or queue at the checkout." The Archbishop will then preach to them over the in-store radio, presumably on the reality of hell.

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