The Press Saturday, March 21st 1998
"Fundamental Protestants" on the front page of the Daily Telegraph looks like a misprint on the lines of "Evangelists" for "evangelicals" in last week's Guardian. It suggests big bottomed Baptists. But this turns out to be intentional: a survey in the US has found a correlation between Christianity and obesity. Professor Kenneth Ferraro, the author of the study, said "Overeating may be the one sin that pastors and priests regularly overlook. Many firm believers have not-so-firm bodies."
Certainly the correlation between stout faith and stout braces can be found on this side of the Atlantic. One thinks of the painfully ascetic Don Cupitt and — oh never mind. But it turns out that agnosticism is no defence. The thinnest of all are Buddhists (presumably, in the USA, middle class vegetarians) Hindus, and Muslims. The good news, however, is that the Christians don't care. "fat Christians report the same levels of happiness and perceived health as thin Christians. Researchers believe they may have stumbled on a factor that protects against many of the damaging consequences of being overweight." So fundamental Protestants must be the right usage.
One hesitates to speak of weightier matters, but this was also the week in which the end of the world was announced. For about twenty four hours an asteroid was due to plough into the earth a little after tea time on October 26 2028; the news that it would not in fact do so must have cause great wailing and gnashing of teeth among newsdesks. Some, like the Daily Telegraph, ran all the reaction pieces alongside the news that they were reacting to something that would never happen. Others did not carry anywhere that I could find the news that the end of the world was off it. This seems to be carrying to ludicrous extremes their legendary aversion to good news. But it is actually a symptom of something deeper than that. It marks the sense in which newspapers now don't really expect to be believed. To put it another way, they all expect to be read with a pinch of salt, for fun as much as anything. But whatever happens on the news pages is not going to have any real effect on the lives of the readers, and this is clearly understood. So to put the end of the world there is a way of making it safe, like telling your children ghost stories while they snuggle up to you and feel safe.
In such a world, it is no wonder that people feel desperate when it comes to communicate the urgency of judgement, but few can have been more desperate, or optimistic, than John Holme, described as Pentecostal Baptist. from Winchester who was fined £1050 with £250 costs at Salisbury Magistrates court. for flying too close to a populated area. "I wanted to preach at people with a megaphone" he said. "I wanted to get through to the kids on council estates, and I needed something some cred. I thought maybe if they heard this voice booming out of the sky they would think it was God." He is a salesman of computer software by profession.
Clearly gifted with enormous faith, he managed to sell £500,000's worth of software last year, and his employers gave him, as a bonus, a paramotor: a parachute steered by a motorised propeller strapped to the pilot's back. On his third flight, he took off from Old Sarum and was blown into the housing estate he had hoped to evangelise, travelling at high speed three or four feet off the ground. Mrs Margaret Blue testified that she had seen him whirl through her garden, between the house and a chestnut tree, with a desperate swerve to avoid the bird bath.
Only the Daily Mail attributed his fall to "a shortage of the right kind of revs"; but it also had the greates final quote from him as he left the court. "They said I had to achieve a sales target of almost £500,000. I prayed for it to happen and I made it. I can't believe I've got a criminal record after this. These things can be a stumbling block or a stepping stone. For me it is just a step on the way to the ministry."
Unless, I suppose, he finds another birdbath in his way.
You would have thought that if anyone wanted to be reminded of God in Salisbury of all places they could look up and see the cathedral. But perhaps the tourists get in their way.
The Daily Telegraph marched itself further into the millennium swamp with a front page splash on a Gallup poll which showed that only 15% of the population believes that the event the Millennium commemorates is the birth of Christ. This, it says, shows "staggering popular ignorance about the meaning of the Millennium". But one could just as well argue that they show staggering unpopular ignorance on the part of the Daily Telegraph. It seems to believe that the Millennium celebrations can and should be turned into an opportunity for state-sponsored evangelism. But if the people of Britain think that they are going to have a gigantic secular party for no very good reason, then they are by definition right. If the government tells them they should be celebrating in a Christian spirit instead, they will simply think this is another instance of politicians lying. I can't see this government signing up for that programme, no matter how personally devout some cabinet ministers may be.
In a week of ingenious evangelism, though, the finest came from Hereford, where the Rev'd Andrew Mottram is trying to exploit the presence in his church of Seamus O'Toole, a mediaeval carving. His PCC has stopped him from putting casts of Seamus on sale at £15 a time: the Guardian illustrated the story in a way that made the issues clear. Their photograph cannot be reproduced in this newspaper. Suffice it to say that is shows a wooden gargoyle gesturing in a fashion that fell out of use at the Reformation until revived, centuries later, by Reform as its greeting to incoming bishops.