Press Column

Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin have both shared Nobel Peace Prizes. Why shouldn’t Bob Hope be a papal knight? Why shouldn’t Rupert Murdoch? According to the Mail on Sunday, both men will be so honoured by the diocese of Los Angeles, in recognition of their "unblemished character" and the fact that they have "promoted the interests of society, the Church and the Holy See." The news that the Sun, the News of the World, Sky Television and all the other parts of the Murdoch empire were actually promoting the interests of the Holy See is clearly the religious sensation of the week. The full story can be found on the Los Angeles Times web site, which, however, refused to accept my post code as valid, and so would only let me browse the headline, so I can’t get the full details. The Mail on Sunday only slightly spoiled it by pointing out that neither Murdoch nor Hope are Catholics, but both have Catholic wives who have made large donations to Catholic institutions. This is a sure sign of an unblemished character.

Catholics in England must be much more sinful, for they are deserting the Church in droves, if the Times is to be correct. Their story on the Catholic Directory’s figures, which show that an entire diocese might disappear in thirty years’ time on present trends, was buried on page 19. Years of relentless propaganda (much of it coming from Anglicans) against contrasting the pathetic, wimpish Church of England with the virile, thriving Catholic church has fixed in newsdesks the idea that the Church of England is marginalised and irrelevant and the Catholics are growing. A mere news story or two is not going to change an idea like that, for they are merely verbs, and what matters in journalism are nouns.

The most interesting part of Ruth’s story was buried in the middle, where she revealed a complete collapse of the Catholic church in Northern Ireland. The number of priests has halved since 1970; the number of nuns has fallen by an even greater proportion, while the number of vocations has been more than decimated over the same period, from 261 to "single figures". It would be wonderful to read a story on what that might mean: after all, religion matters in Northern Ireland far more than anywhere else in this Kingdom: that is the prime reason why it seems such a very foreign country to the English; and here is evidence of a colossal religious change in the province. It’s a natural, I think, for Madeleine Bunting, who was reduced on Monday to a large piece about the runners and riders for Liverpool.

Those are hateful pieces to write. The only fun appointment stories are scoops. When you don’t know who will get a job, and no one else who knows is talking, the temptation is to include every imaginable candidate, even those who would appear obviously disqualified by talent, moral courage, or independence of mind. I once listed eleven people who might be made bishop of somewhere or other. None the less, there was no reason for Madeleine to list only four candidates, two of whom, Pete Broadbent and Gavin Reid, are the only absolute certainties not to get the job since they have been turned down already — no reason, that is, except utter desperation.

Somebody’s been nobbling the Daily Telegraph. Tuesday’s front page splash headline "Christian theme for the Dome" was clearly the work of someone who had not read the story beneath, which said that there would be no particular Christian theme for the millennium dome in Greenwich, despite the best lobbying efforts of the Bishop of Oxford, amongst others. "There is widespread concern among some clergymen that the Government will bow to ‘political correctness’ and turn any spiritual aspect into a multi-faith celebration. The organisers of the Dome have refused to build a specifically Christian chapel and Christians in Greenwich are now considering sponsoring a chaplain to ensure their message is put across."

The rationale for this story is obvious: since Peter Mandelson is firmly established as the anti-Christ, it is no great stretch to make him anti-Christian as well. But the Dome project now looks certain to emphasise how little establishment means in practice. It may end up giving a lot of space to Christianity. But it will certainly give very little to the Church of England. the Independent on Sunday devoted its cover to a survey of God by Peter Stanford, and a profile of Him by His close friend Paul Handley. Stanford found an original line amidst the encircling gloom: a revival of Orthodoxy among former Anglicans. I may be biased in my suspicion of this wheeze. My only Orthodox friend joined the church precisely because it was as irrelevant as possible to the traditional needs and divisions of British Christianity so I find it hard to believe that we are looking at a mass-market phenomenon here.

The Very Reverend Proto-presbyter Alban Barter, who has revived a church in a suburb of Chester, with his congregation of 30, who are all, like him, former Anglicans, makes an unlikely candidate for the wave of the future. But he photographs beautifully; and he talks thoughtfully.

The Times gave a quarter of a page to a perfectly straight-faced discussion of the star signs of politicians. The most interesting fact about it was that very few politicians turn out to have been born in the autumn, which is the most advantageous time form the point of view of the school system — at least, educationalists believe it is, because it ensures that you spend the longest possible time in school. The fact that it appears to be a distinct disadvantage to getting on the world is one of those little difficulties that any confident orthodoxy can afford to ignore.

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