The Press Saturday, October 10th 1998
Cardinal Hume's reinforcement of the rules on intercommunion was covered in every way imaginable. The Independent sent a news reporter to the press conference, who wrote the story more or less as the Cardinal told it: that the new rules set out the circumstances under which Anglicans might take communion from a Catholic priests, and were thus tremendously generous. The religious affairs correspondents were more jaundiced. In the Times the document was "a new, hardline, Roman Catholic ruling"; in the Daily Telegraph "an uncompromising document" and "Another example of an increasingly defensive trend in Catholic teaching."
I have to say that it seems to me "defensive" in the sense that the Ministry of Defence is.
Daphne McLeod had a splendidly defensive letter in the Times: "Our priests, the living successors to the Apostles, do not distribute 'bread and wine' (your sub-heading) at Mass but the living Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. When you remember the immense respect given to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, you realise how much more careful we must be with this, and infinitely more precious gift.
"Non-Catholics who, understandably, want to receive Our Blessed Lord are of course welcomed by Him, but they must first be carefully prepared by being instructed, baptised into His Church and put into a fitting state of grace. Surely couples in mixed marriages understand this before they get married."
Some people will have found these arguments a little too defensive: when Mrs McLeod speaks of "compelling arguments" there's little to do put your hands in the air and come out in single file. To wimps like that I can only recommend the reason for Catholicism vouchsafed to Clare Garner, in the Independent: by the novelist Wendy Perriam "I can't pass a confessional without having a mini-orgasm." She sounds ready for full, visible union.
The Times obviously makes a point of having lots of religion in its Monday editions. This is a pain for the specialists, but suggests that someone up there, possibly even the editor, thinks readers like it. Mondays are always the day when paper try hardest, with least material, because the theory is that readers captured then will go on buying it till the end of the week.
On Monday we had versions of most of the sorts of friendly stories one can write about Christianity: mild outrage because the Bible has been done as a comic strip; a silly vicar story; an exotic country church story; and my favourite: the bungee-jumping nun. This last was done as a photo story, and was much the better for it. the three pictures of Sister Rose Nash before, during and after her jump were vivid and eloquent beyond the power of words. There was strain as she prayed beforehand; her expression of dawning faith as she fell — or was it growing disbelief that she was going to die? and finally the giggly delight of survival. I feel ashamed never to have been so happy as she looks in that last picture.
There was the gentle mockery or silly-vicar story from Ruth:, "Some male Anglican clergy appear to have personalities that are more feminine than masculine, a study has found" Well, on a Monday, that's news. The survey had been done by a male priest in the diocese of Lincoln, which may be a place where considerations of the mental stability of the clergy come more easily to mind than elsewhere.
Finally came a nice twist on the "traditional worship growing" story: Simon de Bruxelles had found a Greek orthodox priest practising in Dorset, in a church partly designed by Thomas Hardy when he worked as an architect. Fr John Neild, a former Anglican told the paper that "in a world of rapid change, people are looking for spiritual stability .. The service has not changed since it was first used in the fourth century, apart from translating it into English." The paper also explained that the Greek Orthodox Church, "according to its followers, has one of the fastest-growing followings in Britain." A pity to spoil this with the information that Fr Neild, whose parish covers two whole counties, Dorset and Wiltshire, has a congregation of 40. Not much change, there, from when he was part of the shrinking Anglican church.
Alpha is meant to change all this, of course. The salaries of religious journalists are closely guarded secrets, but none, it seems, have ever been paid enough to go through with an entire Alpha course. The thought of being surrounded by clear-eyed fundies whose conversation was as carefully scripted as that of a telephone salesman has never really attracted me; and as for the non-Christians who are carefully scattered through the groups, anyone who would talk sincerely about their really serious worries to a group of freshly-met strangers would probably talk about them to fellow passengers on the tube as well. I'd rather go to Bosnia; and to judge from the number of foreign stories filed by my colleagues, they feel the same way,.
Paul Vallely, who is not really a religious affairs correspondent at all, is probably paid most of anyone who writes about these things; in his case about a tenth of what is needed for a full course. He did to go to one evening, where the vicar's wife told them "It would be amazing to hang out with Jesus if he was doing that sort of thing — turning cheap Tesco plonk into Chateau Neuf du Galilee, and making people well and so on!"
Perhaps this was the wrong observation to try on a wine-lover. In any case, he retained a capacity for arithmetic, and towards the end of the piece observed: "After coffee it was time for small groups. Mine seemed made up of a friendly group of folk, almost all of whom already went to St Stephen's and most of whom had done an Alpha course before., Someone had done two. Someone else had done four but never finished them, which may explain why HTB claims that 1.5 million people have done the course even though there are only one million people at Church of England services most Sundays."
This was a little unfair, since Alpha is neither purely Anglican nor purely English now. There are probably people doing it in prisons all over the world. I can just imagine one of them telling his cellmate: "I had to reoffend. I wanted to get back inside to do another Alpha course."