Press Column

"The evening only takes off when Timmy the Angel appears from behind a spangled curtain and progresses through the audience, shaking hands and posing for photographs. His large plastic head is slightly chipped and his quilted gold Lurex wings look as if they might come off is another child tugs at them. Timmy has a limited range of gestures — a thumbs-up or outstretched arms to encourage a terrified child to come forward for a hug. Most of the people who play Timmy are dwarfs from the Philippines …" this from an account in the Sunday Telegraph magazine of a temple at the foot of the Ozark mountains, built on the fortune amassed by a man with a gift for "collectible" china figurines. Starting with a girl pushing a wheelbarrow load of puppies, called "God loves a cheerful giver", Sam Butcher has produced 1400 different ones under the brand name of "Precious Moments" .

They’re hideous, of course. but they appeal to the same deep vein of feeling as country music: "To Kenny Gene, I know the wheelchair is gone and you will be running around there on strong legs" reads one note in a book of condolences. Robert Templar, who wrote the piece, wisely abandoned irony and let the turgid mingling of feeling and sentimentality sweep us far beyond the borders of taste: "Inspired by the Sistine chapel in Rome, Butcher painted the walls and ceiling of the building with hundreds of figures of angels Each of the figures, despite their almost identical appearance — distended heads and glittering tear-drop eyes — is based on an episode on the life of a real child or teenage who died young Each has a tragic story that is recounted in a memorial room behind the main chapel."

What I find fascinating is that, though the chapel is immensely profitable, it was not designed for that end. It reflects the tastes of the painter, which happen to be those of a huge swathe of Americans; but he has no plans to franchise it. This is a form of Christianity in which orthodoxy is as irrelevant as taste. Perhaps all funerals tend to this condition: priests tell me some hair-raising stories of what is expected of them, and of the decorations brought to the service, such as a gigantic wreath that spelt out the single, eloquent word "Bollocks". We tend to think that there is nothing so crass that an American church will not supply it (at least, those of us do whose doctorates were awarded by the Universal Life Church). Bu the chapel suggests that there was a pent-up demand for this kind of thing that not even American churches could meet. I wonder how great the demand is over here?

Almost all the interesting stories this week were foreign. Richard Holloway made the news twice, once for associating himself with National Secular Society’s campaign to have repealed the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act under which Peter Tatchell has been charged. The Independent ran a leader calling for its abolition too, along with the rest of the Church of England. It is almost the last paper to think that the Establishment is worth abolishing. The most powerful argument against the act is that it can lead to great cruelty: in 1966, Nicholas Walter, now vice-chairman of the National Secular Society, was jailed for two months under it, and it is hard to imagine any crime which would have justified the infliction of such a punishment on his cellmate.

But Dr Holloway does not always act to frustrate Dr Carey. His call for "sexual refugees" to come North of the border must surely have delighted his brother of Canterbury, who must pray that the whole lot would go and leave him alone. Only A.N. Wilson, in the Evening Standard, struck a sour note: "Holloway is well-known as a passionate advocate of the ordination of women. He castigated those who disagreed with him over the issue as ‘miserable sods’ — note, presumably referring to any erotic proclivity. As it happens, though, the majority of Walsingham Matildas is against women priests. When the Anglo-Catholics come mincing north, the female ordinands of Bishop Holloway will presumably flee in horror to England."

I don’t suppose that outcome, either, would unduly distress Dr Carey. Presumably the trade would have to be regulated, with a checkpoint at Gretna Green, as there used to be in Berlin during the Cold War. Otherwise the traffic would be entirely uncontrolled with curates from Southwark fleeing North of the border to get married; sturdy, women would trudge past them in the other direction, shaking the dust of liberalism from their boots as they entered the southern provinces.

This fantasy is hardly more unlikely than that the Pagan Federation has an Interfaith co-ordinator: yet this person wrote to the Guardian last week to complain that "Your scurrilous article seems to link Paganism with Satanism and accuses us of involvement in the desecration of churches. That is an outrageous lie. Pagans do not believe in, let alone worship, the Christian devil."

Perhaps someone should have told this to the Mystery Worshipper of Ship of Fools, whose report on the Nine O’Clock Service’s Samhain service, carried in the Church Times, was picked up by almost all the papers and given some vigorous spin. Only the Times gave any sources for its account of the story. Everyone else appeared to have got it by divine revelation; nor did they unnecessarily stress the fact that it had all happened a fortnight before they heard of it. "Disbanded congregation is reborn for pagan service" said the Independent, which added that "Christian groups are urging the Sheffield diocese to investigate these activities" What’s so lovely about this phrase is that it automatically suggests that the groups being investigated are not Christian, which proves, if nothing else, that you can sometimes get an advantage in this fallen world by proclaiming yourself a Christian.

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