Press Column

I suppose when the Pope dies he’ll get more coverage, but for the moment it’s difficult to imagine any religious story being bigger than the tragedy of George Austin. "The liberals have ethnically cleansed the church" he told the Sunday Times as he announced this year’s resignation. And the signs of ethnic cleansing were all around as he spoke. Outside, the smoke of burning presbyteries drifted across the Yorkshire moors: the tattered bodies of gang-raped ordinands bled in the snow; a woman from the Crown Appointments Commission was systematically dashing out the brains of traditionalist babies against the edge of a font. There was a distant rattle of machine-gun fire from where the last remaining bishops had been forced to dig their own graves by hard-eyed curates from Nottingham. And one man, one man alone, survived as a witness to these tragedies. "We’re either ridiculed or ignored" the Archdeacon told the Sunday Times.

Well, George, what’s the third alternative?

When one of the most famous priests in the country compares the internal politics of the Church of England to the sort of crimes that have been committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo for the last eight years, I think this helps to explain why people think "organised religion" is irrelevant. The one purpose which even the most secular society can find for religious belief is the relief, or at least abatement, of suffering, pain, and injustice. This starts with a recognition that the world is a terrible place, which horrendously cruel things happen, and crimes are committed from which even liberals shrink. There are real martyrdoms, and missing out on a mitre is not one of them.

Glenn Hoddle’s problems start, we’re told, because he’s not a fool, so he notices there are things wrong in the world more terrible even that the sufferings of an unpromoted clergyman. However, his intelligence is crippled by a mixture of, inarticulacy, self-belief and lack of education; this is a problem which does not only affect footballers. Nor is his tendency to blame the press for "misconstruing" the plain sense of his remarks unique to athletes. In fact the most interesting angle from a purely journalistic point of view, is the fact that he said the whole thing, rather more articulately, to BBC radio Five Live before the World Cup. But then the station played it for laughs. So they used his remark that "The physical body is just an overcoat for your spirit. At death you take the overcoat off and the spirit will go on to another life in a spirit dimension" but not what he went on to say afterwards: "I think we make mistakes when we are down here and the spirit has to come back. That’s why there is an injustice in the world. Why there’s certain people born into the world with terrible physical problems, and why there’s a family who has got everything right, physically and mentally." That bit only came out when it when there was no trophy at stake.

The story was a wonderful opportunity to discover what newspapers really think of religious belief. For many it is still true that Britain is a Christian country, or at least that any form of religious enthusiasm must be Christian: Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s former spin-doctor, writing as a Spurs fan in the Observer, had a wonderfully confused paragraph on these lines. "Football fans don’t give a monkey’s is a manager or a player is religious, but we all get a little worried about born-again Christians. I well remember chanting "where’s your Bible, Peter Knowles?" after the Spurs player’s brother, Cyril Knowles of wolves, had become a Jehovah’s Witness."

The Independent on Sunday in its news story, referred to Hoddle as an "evangelist", but there was a definite sense, by Monday, that what he had said was not really Christian at all. Perhaps this is why the Prime Minister felt able to condemn him on breakfast television: it is the first time I can remember a politician making a theological pronouncement of general interest since Mrs Thatcher spoke at the Kirk’s General Assembly. By Tuesday, there was even a sort of general acknowledgement that many people believe things as ridiculous as Hoddle does. When the Daily Mail devotes eight pages every Monday to New Age gibberish, it has to be a little careful for denouncing the England coach for believing some of it.

For the liberal broadsheets, it was a chance to point out that Christian beliefs can be made to appear quite as ridiculous as Hoddle’s. Steve Bell, in the Guardian, had a cartoon pointing this out; and David Aaronivitch, in the Independent, a column to the same effect. Aaronovitch is a man who devoutly goes to football matches every Saturday and sees nothing odd in this. The Guardian also had a characteristically thoughtful piece by Madeleine Bunting discussing Hoddle’s beliefs as part of a new, solipsistic form of spirituality in which the seeker is quite unchecked by the experience of any community

In America, of course, this kind of thing coexists quite happily with evangelical Christianity. I happened to come across an account of the conversion of an American athlete in a review in Salon. Magazine of his autobiography, which his church has just published: "He got injured and his wife refused to wait on him hand and foot, using some excuse about having to attend a college class. He got depressed and tried to commit suicide ...When [he] gets saved in his hotel room, he calls up his born-again lawyer with the news. ‘I did it!’ he yells. No mention of Jesus, who was apparently just a fan with a really good seat." I’m not a great fan of HTB, but I can’t imagine them ever allowing celebrity converts to get away with that kind of attitude.

One paper this week considered a piece that argued for George Carey as Hoddle’s natural successor: they both attend cup finals religiously, both are convinced they’re world spiritual leaders, and both rely on the wisdom of women called "Eileen", even if Hoddle thinks his is ‘an ordinary bloke like Jesus’ and the Archbishop thinks his is an angel. But this never ran. Football is too serious for jokes like that.

As I write, Nato has still, incredibly, held back from air strikes against Bishopthorpe. I ask you, how could a just God allow these things?

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