The Press Saturday, March 14th 1998

The Times reported on Monday that a leading politician was in deep spiritual trouble: he had "become deeply anxious since being told last year … that his style of governing had offended ancestral spirits and that he was in danger of being ousted from office."

One of his ministers had already apologised to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, yet this had not been enough. "Traditionalist observers, the paper reported, "have taken a keen interest in lightning that felled a tree in the President's official residence on Tuesday last week, and the powerful gust of wind two days earlier that came close to causing the aircraft he was in to crash shortly before it landed in Mozambique."

But this beleaguered leader was Robert Mugabe, not Tony Blair. I am not sure what the difference is between Britain and Zimbabwe in terms of superstition: one is a country where, "the spirit world is believed by most people to bring sickness, death and ruin, as well as good things"; the other, a country where estate agents can be sued for selling a haunted house in Sheffield. Perhaps not having estate agents is a sign of greater rationality. But there are other differences, too. The Catholic Church in Zimbabwe reproaches Mr Mugabe for the murder of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland. William Oddie in the Daily Mail reproaches Blair with the murder of millions of foetuses: "For a Catholic, it is extremely difficult to believe that abortion is child murder and at the same time to believe in a woman's right to choose it." I would have thought it was difficult for any reasoning being to hold both these positions at once, which is why most Catholics hold neither. But it was a nice illustration of the theme that only Catholics are capable of logical thought, and Anglicans are only capable of muddle.

For once, though, the Anglicans counterattacked, and on Dr Oddies's preferred ground. Unfortunately, which was a subject which the column has given up for Lent, so I can only quote from parts of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's op-ed in the Times . "The Vatican still insists that the truth of Papal teaching is not established by its perceived consonance with Scripture and tradition but simply by the fact that it is papal teaching. Can a modern, democratic leader really declare that he orders his spiritual life within such a dogmatic framework?"

It was an interesting commentary, though, on the way in which the Roman Catholic church in this country is growing simultaneously more respectable and less powerful that Dr Nazir-Ali was the only commentator to suppose that being a Catholic would actually have intellectual effects on Mr Blair, and that these would be undesirable. Elsewhere, the assumption was that Catholicism, like any religion, was a wholly irrational affair, which mattered little and should matter less. The Guardian had a leader which carried this detachment to the point of farce "Britain should be ready for a Catholic Prime Minister or a Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim one" it said. What makes this farcical is that it asserts as unarguable the idea that religion can only be a matter of private preference: "A person's quest for spiritual meaning should be swayed by his conscience alone even when he is Prime Minister". This is not the attitude that the Guardian generally detects in Muslims.  

Illiteracy about religion was carried still further by Ruaridh Nicoll's  news story in the same paper: "Evangelists fighting homosexuality in the Church of England have derailed attempts to place one of Britain's most respected bishops in the key diocese of Southwark."

Throughout the piece, evangelicals were referred to as evangelists. One can't blame a reporter for not knowing this is a mistake, though it is certainly blameworthy not to have found out while talking to people. But it is the sort of thing subs ought to catch. It does seem true that Dr Williams has decided not to leave Monmouth for a while. Whether, as the story implies, this is because he does not want to dive into a scrum full of flying boots like Southwark, is less certain. And Nicoll did get one fine quote, from Hugh Balfour, of Reform. "We're not looking for a witch hunt but the new bishop has got to have a policy of stopping gays coming into the diocese ans gradually replacing those already here with people who take an orthodox view. It will take about 20 years."

But enough of these transient figures. Let's get on to really important people. Clifford Longley opened his Daily Telegraph column with a really excellent joke: Two tourists are in St Peter's Square, looking up at the two tiny figures on the balcony above and one says "Oh Look: there's Siggy Sternberg! But who's the man in white beside him?"

The news that Siggy, described justly by Clifford as "one of the world's great self-publicists", had been awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, worth around 750,000, must have given journalists all round the country fits of giggles. Never has one man been responsible for more unusable press releases, all about himself. Yet, as Clifford says, there is no harm in him. For such a vain man, he is extraordinarily unselfish; and he really has done far more to advance understanding between religions than some of the other winners of the prize. Still, the column was a classic.

What else? The unbearable poignancy of a Daily Telegraph headline "I yearn to shop, says Mrs Carey"; Madeleine Bunting's huge piece on Alpha in the Guardian second section, illustrated with a large photograph of Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel looking incredibly shifty on the balcony of their church. They had no need to be nervous. The article does not make their church sound sinister, only slightly ridiculous. I don't see how Nicky Gumbel could object to her quoting his remark that "our bodies were not designed for [something I musn't mention in Lent] outside marriage." Presumably he believes it. Somebody must.

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