Press Column

The Daily Telegraph carried a worrying report about Armageddon: apparently it never happened. Let me explain. One of the most delightful photographs I have ever seen showed the author of a book on prophecy smirking uneasily in a waste of middle eastern scrub. He was actually on the plain North of Jericho, known as Har-Megiddo, or Armageddon to the troops, and hoping very much he hadn’t mistimed the photo session.

"According to the Old Testament this was the site which Joshua captured, Solomon fortified, and where Josiah died" wrote Aisling Irwin, the science correspondent. "Archaeologists who have interpreted layers of ruins at the site have thought they were the consequence of numerous battles — but they may have unearthed the remnants of repeated earthquakes instead, a conference was told yesterday."

Armageddon, it turns out, lies not only on a confluence of trade routes, but on a junction of tectonic plates.

But there is good news, too, for those of us who like to watch the final titanic battle between Good and Evil: Lord Habgood and Clifford Longley have been at it again in the Daily Telegraph. Clifford started the bout with archiepiscopal self-assurance: "It will not be possible to find a solution to the problem of gay clergy in the Anglican Church. The Lambeth Conference at Canterbury next year will be the moment when an irresistible force meets the immovable object. That will be when the Church of England’s delaying tactics on the issue run out of time. After that, a serious split seems inevitable."

His argument was that the two views of homosexual clergy simply could not be reconciled and could no longer be fudged by the 1991 report Issues in Human sexuality. This, he said, had been accepted "largely because the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood, who was the most influential of the bishops at the time, regarded its conclusions as sound.

"The statement made a distinction between conduct expected from the clergy and that allowable to a layman. In the cultural situation in which the Church of England found itself, this made a certain sense. The clergy had to set an example. But both clergymen and laymen are Christians, and both are called to pursue the perfection of holiness willed for his followers by Christ. And if this fairly obvious proposition is true, then the logic of the 1991 Baker/ Habgood position is false. Sooner or later illogical solutions fall apart."

QED, one might have thought. How could a mere Archbishop stand up to such a pounding?

A mere Archbishops probably couldn’t; but Lord Habgood is made of sterner stuff. And on Monday he replied in the letters column. "Actually I played a very minor part in the discussions, but I agreed with the conclusions of the report, and I still do."

His defence of the clergy-laity split had an elegance and force I had not seen elsewhere. Starting from the proposition that "At present no clear answer can be given to the question of whether permanent homosexual relations are morally permissible for Christians or not," he went on to argue that it was precisely this uncertainty which mandated a double standard.

"Clergy fall into a different category not because there are different standards of morality for clergy and laity, but because they are public figures, whose actions and lifestyles are rightly seen s representing the minds of the Church. In a matter which is doubtful, they have a responsibility not to pre-empt any final decision and should not therefore exercise the freedom of conscience enjoyed by others."

This is not a defence which one could expect a Roman Catholic commentator to have foreseen, based as it is on the idea that there should be a class of sexual acts about which the Church doesn’t have an opinion. Still, neither side can be said to have landed a decisive blow, and our reporters on the plain of Armageddon will be bringing you news of further developments.

The News of the World brought news from the battle between God and Mammon. Naturally, the paper came down on the side of Mammon: "Soccer star Marcus Gayle is caught in a tug of war between his career and an evil, mind-bending religious cult

"Gayle has even missed out on pre-match team sessions to go to cult prayer meetings. Wimbledon insiders fear that unless they win the battle for his soul he will turn his back on a glittering future with the Premier League team."

"A close family friend revealed: ‘Marcus has become a total stranger. After a while, coverts begin to lose all sense of right and wrong.

‘He has pledged his life to the movement, and if church leaders ordered him to sign off his career he would do it without the slightest hesitation."

The "evil cult" in question is identified by the News of the World as "The American-based Church of Christ." Presumably they mean the Boston Church of Christ rather than the blamelessly boring mainstream denomination.

There is no suggestion that Mr Gayle has done any of the things which normally get footballers into the News of the World: perhaps that is why the moral indignation aimed at him is so clearly genuine. What could possibly be more wicked and more immoral than to stop playing football, or to turn down £200,000 a year?

Still, popularity does bring its own obligations, even to hermits. Ruth Gledhill had a lovely little story in the Times about Brother Harold, a Northumbrian hermit. He has applied for planning chapel large enough to accommodate the people who come to worship with him. "At present Brother Harold, who follows a mediaeval way of life, singing the canonical hours of matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline each day, has to hold services outdoors on special occasions because the four-cell hermitage cannot accommodate the pilgrims. The local authority is expected to approve the plans for the chapel this week."

Finally, there was A.N. Wilson’s review of the book that autobiography of Norman Mailer, ghost-written by Jesus, which is a best seller in the USA. "Reading these pages, one can see why Jesus has never chosen to write a book before, since whenever He adds to the worlds of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, the results are less than happy."

Of course, as the editor points out, English is not His first language.

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