Press Column

Dear Agony Atkins,

I am delighted to see that you have finally made it to the pinnacle of the columnists’ profession and been awarded a full-page parody in Private Eye. Would it be all right to quote some of the kinder bits? I would ring you up to ask, but you never return my phone calls nowadays. So I will just quote the first question.

"Dear Agony, Like you, I am a committed member of the Church of England. I only wish more members were committed. My problem is this. I am deeply desirous of a media career, sounding off in public on all the relevant issues of the day. Alas, my only qualification is that I am married to a vicar. PS Oh and I also happen to be shameless."

No, I can’t help myself. I can’t stop there. Here is an answer to a later question: "My husband has been complaining of terminal depression"

"It is a known medical fact that men often complain for no reason whatsoever For their own good, they must be taught to snap out of it. Whenever my own husband, bless him, moans that he is suffering from stress-related illness, nervous disorder deep depression, or some other form of the mopes, I cook him a fried breakfast, force him into his trainers and tell him to jolly well go and get a good blast of nice fresh air, On his return, he knows I will be ready on the bed in my trusty old suspenders and leather basque, my scarlet lipstick and false eyelashes generous applied. This trick often keeps him away for weeks at a time — leaving me free to get on with this problem page!"

I do in fact have a real problem this week. Like the Aunt, I am trying to write the column without sex; I find this rules out almost all of the sparse religious news of the week, including three pages in the Daily Mail about adulterous vicars, and a quarter page in the Daily Telegraph devoted the varied misdoings of three Catholic priests, two of whom were sentenced on the same day after different trials.

Just when you thought that Michael Howard had suffered enough from the Christian attentions of Anne Widdecombe, another Christian is raised up to persecute him, this time from his own family. His son Nick has converted to "messianic Judaism" and has been evangelising his fellow Jews at Oxford. For his pains, he has been accused by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of "spiritual Nazism". This is one of those fights which can give neutral onlookers only unalloyed pleasure. Shmuley, as he would like to be known, is a Lubavitcher rabbi who could give Anne Atkins lessons in self-promotion. Nick Howard is already shaping up to be one of the great creeps of the 21st Century.

He was given a large space at the bottom of the op-ed page in the Daily Telegraph to make his case against the Rabbi. With admirable fairness, he made the Rabbi’s case against him, too. "The Christian Union has recently held an event with a talk entitled ‘Is Jesus the Messiah’, to which Jewish undergraduates were invited. It should be emphasised that there was no ‘love-bombing’ — the deliberate manipulation of visitors’ emotions by displays of affection — as has been alleged." If the Union is carrying on the traditions of its most famous alumni, Anne and Shaun Atkins, this was probably wise. Young Howard continues. "There was simply Kosher food, since it would have been a bit awkward to invite Jewish friends to a lunch which they could not eat. The aim behind this event … is never to ‘target’ particular people for ‘conversion’." Perish the thought.

On the other hand, Howard has plenty of justified fun with Rabbi Boteach’s claim that it is somehow morally wrong for religions to try and poach from each other by means of reasoned argument. This one could run and run, at least until people tired of the precious self-importance of all involved. It reminded me of a nice man, Stephen Glover, whose memoirs of his career as a newspaper executive and editor of the Independent on Sunday, written in his thirties, make it (unintentionally) clear that the thing that finally undid him was his knowledge that, since he had edited Isis when he was at Oxford, he had already attained the summit of profession before descending to London to be paid a salary.

Real journalism, of course, is more like the Daily Star, which on Thursday published an old-fashioned comic vicar story of the sort that seems to be dying out completely: "Vicar Derek Birch was praying for forgiveness last night – after he had helped jump-start a stolen motor." Students of cliché should note that cars may be driven but when stolen, they become motors (with a glottal stop) as a result of police shows on television.

Mr Birch had spotted one of his congregation ("flock") helping to push a broken down car and helped to start it. This earned him promotion to the rank of "revved-up Rev" and, minutes later, the opportunity to give a statement to the police after a passing Panda car spotted the car as stolen.

But perhaps the most notable religious story of the week was a two-page Second Front in the Guardian on Cardinal Hume which did not put all or even any of the Catholic church’s problems down to sex. Instead, it examined the curious way in which Cardinal Hume’s reputation grows with every year that his congregations shrink. Madeleine could not quite make up her mind whether her subject was the weakness of the cards which the Cardinal actually holds or the consummate skill with which he has played them — but which is the more important may be a question that only historians can answer. She was right that it is the important one.

I am grateful to the bishop who sent me an anecdote which points up the utter humourlesness of Enoch Powell: "He was asked in my presence about the difference between the present day and when he first entered Parliament. He said immediately ‘There are fewer gentlemen among us’." You have to laugh.

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