The Press Saturday, December 12th 1998

Here's something cheerful. "A devil-worship sect has folded because no one wanted to join its seedy Satanic orgies. News of the World investigators were set to expose the coven run by Ty Dawson, 34, and 24-year-old Annette Blakeman at a black-painted Staffordshire Council flat with a plywood altar. But Dawson told them 'We've given up there are too many Christians in Stoke on Trent'."

This has been a week in which fascinating news of Christianity has come in from all around the world: there hardly seems to be anywhere in which nothing is happening but wait! In one spot only does religion appear to be as dull as ever: how unfortunate for Victoria Combe that this  place should be Harare. To attend a WCC council meeting must be grim enough, though it is a testimony to her success on the paper that they sent her there. But to attend one and get nothing in the paper must be even worse.

"Church Unity 'is still no closer'." this is not a headline fighting its way towards the top of the page. The only people who seem to be taking it seriously are Ian Paisley's followers, who, she reported, had been handing out leaflets in Harare saying that the Pope's attitude made further ecumenical progress impossible. This, one would have thought, was to demonstrate their solidarity with the movement, since, if the Pope is against it, they must be for it. But we must never underestimate the deep hatred of a Paisleyite for every other sort of Christian; and what they actually want is to have the council wound up lest even its limited success at ecumenism should spread.

But these are small pickings for the press. It's the Lambeth Conference problem write large: the only story is the disintegration of an organisation that is too floppy to break up with a satisfying noise. Perhaps I am wrong, and she will manage a huge Op-ed piece about the crisis in global Christianity or something. But news seems very thin on the ground out there. All that would rescue it from the news desks point of view is if Richard Kirker is arrested or lynched. If Mugabe did that, the Daily Telegraph would forgive all his other human rights violations.

A bishop who ought to be a hero to the Telegraph is the Re Rev John Brewer, the Roman catholic bishop of Lancaster, who is  pictured in the Sunday Telegraph wearing an expression of frightening concentration as he drags on the remains of a cigarette. He is holding a teacup; in his other hand, but we can hope that it was full of whisky. But what makes him a really spectacularly old-fashioned bishop is his attitude to the arms trade: he wants to sell a Victorian church to British Aerospace so the company can demolish it to improve access to the factory where Hawk trainer jets are made. These are the things which a group of Christian pacifists damaged with hammers a couple of years ago, in protest against their use as crowd-control devices in Indonesia.

In exchange, the company would build a new church, priest's house, and church hall. So there were the usual parishioners saying the deal would "aid and abet oppression and murder" and the bishop, as one would expect, asking his critics, "Do you say that we shouldn't receive offering on the plate from people who are working in the factory? Half the Catholics in the diocese work for firms which are involved in some sort of arms trade. The industry is supporting a vast number of Catholics." Then there is the delightful detail that the diocese adopted an ethical investment policy a couple of years ago. The only jarring note comes in the very last column, where a diocesan spokesman points out that it may never happen. "unless BAe can give us something that satisfies us ethically and we don't know what the commercial negotiations won't go ahead. We are waiting for them to come up with proposals for an ethical payback."

It will be fascinating to learn just how large the ethical payback needs be. A promise to stop selling jets to Indonesia? Sixteen are meant to be going there in January, despite all the financial chaos.

What was Libby Purves doing outside the Times, in the Independent on Sunday? The usual scrupulous and elegant job of defending Christianity, in an article about Christmas which contains a joke far too good not to steal: " there is a school of thought, best represented by the philosopher Roger Scruton, which is so worried about the cultural impoverishment that a loss of Christianity brings that its adherents are all for shoring up the empty walls, and living consciously by 'God's Law' even though they do not believe in God. This if I understand the argument correctly is weird. It must be the first instance of throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater."

I don't think this is quite fair to Scruton. Certainly, when I asked him a couple of years back whether his attitude was that Christianity has every merit except truth, he affected to be quite shocked. It might be true, he said, despite everything.

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