Press Column

Here is a test of your psychic powers. Who among you can honestly claim to have foresee the emergence of Shmuley Boteach doing a double act with Uri Geller? The two were doing a book plug in the "how we met" slot at the back of last weekís Independent on Sunday magazine. And which of them said of the other "Iím a religious man, but I have always though of God as outside us Ö [he] believes that we all have God within us"?. It is of course Rabbi Boteach who introduced Uri Geller to the idea of a God within us. As the Rabbi says. "there is no hidden agenda; weíre not using each other. Our kinship is based on being unconventional and not completely understood. I look to him as a mentor."

"Something clicked between us" Geller says. "it was friendship at first sight. Iíd really like to get to know him better before he shaves off his beard and becomes a stand-up comedian. With my psychic powers I predict that some day he might just do that." By an amazing coincidence, thatís pretty much what another rabbi was saying to me about Shmuley last week. Paranormal or what?

At the very far end of the religious spectrum from those shenanigans is Alexander Chancellorís column in the Guardian Saturday magazine, which was devoted to the scandalous fact that people who go to church nowadays are expected to be believers. Chancellor is an interesting variation of the Kingsley Amis sort of traditionalist, who believes that it is the job of the clergy to believe all sorts of absurdities which no intelligent person could, just in case they turn out to be true. The pure Amis view is nowhere better put than in his extraordinary and excellent ghost story The Green Man, in which God (or death) mocks a trendy cleric, the Reverend Rodney Sonnenschein. Chancellorís variation is to point out that stupidity appears compulsory in the modern church. "I had written about an Anglican church service on Easter day to which the vicar had brought a cardboard model of a washing machine and fed it with items of underwear to illustrate the cleansing power of Christ"

The only possible response to such an exhibition would, I think, be "Knickers!"

A reader from Lincolnshire had written to sympathise with him: "I was brought up in the Church of England, and although I donít think I ever believed, I was perfectly prepared to attend irregularly and contemplate my spiritual failings, but there is now no place for quiet, thinking non-believers who are prepared to conform; only mindless family services or Communion are ever offered. What is to become of those of us who have the religious temperament but not the faith?"

Of course, part of the trouble is that this kind of protest will bring a working priest out in bitter, helpless giggles. They have a hard enough time catering for the people who want to go to church, let alone those who donít. Chancellorís further comparison of the Church of England to the BBC as one of the products of the English genius for civilisation wouldnít really advance his audience among professionals either. But I think he speaks for a lasting constituency of people for whom family services, the distribution of jelly babies to the congregation, and everything else that is considered "happy clappy" are a sort of blasphemy, or rather a deconsecration of the church which removes the possibility of its being a sacred space.

I donít think, either, that heíd approve of Attila the Nun, the slightly unlikely nickname of Miriam Byrne, provost of St Paulís Episcopal cathedral in Dundee. She got a full and sympathetic profile in the Daily Telegraph. Since so many of her opponents clearly object to her on the grounds that she is a woman, a disability she shares with Victoria Combe, itís hard to see how things could be otherwise. But she really is not the sort of priest whom the Daily Telegraph would normally approve of: she spent seven years as a postulant and Roman Catholic nun, before leaving to marry the priest who had been her spiritual director. After three children, they were divorced, and she is now married to another divorced man. On her first Sunday she replaced the old liturgy without consulting anyone ó perhaps she has not quite got used to Anglican models of authority. The male part of the choir refuses to receive communion from her because she has allowed women to join it. When asked for signs of growth at the cathedral, she gives "a lay-led liturgy group, a junior church, a new cleaning team, and a youth prayer group." The only thing missing from this story is some idea of the size of the average congregation, which I feel might set the whole thing in perspective.

Perhaps she should beatify someone to draw the crowds. The photographs in the Times and the Daily Telegraph of the crowd gathered for the beatification of Padre Pio were extraordinarily impressive. The whole of St Peterís square was full, with a crowd that it seems quite fair to estimate at more than half a million. The Times also had an extraordinary photograph of the Pope dwarfed by a giant picture of the man he was beatifying. But the most original graphic came in the Sunday Telegraph, which had a saint meter, showing just how much faster this pope has made saints than any of his predecessors. 819 beatifications and 283 saints make an impressive record, amounting to nearly as many as had been proclaimed since the Council of Trent. No wonder Arcic has run into trouble. When you look at these figures, and add to them the immense number of saints who have been purged, like St George, for insufficient historicity, or a reluctance to perform miracles itís clear that under this pontiff even being dead offers no sanctuary from the exercise of papal authority.

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