Press Column

There is nothing like authority to settle disputed religious questions, as my friend Geoffrey Kirk will tell you. Perhaps the most striking recent example of this principle comes for the unravelling of Shmuley Boteach. His debating society has had its accounts frozen by the charity commissioners after it was discovered that one of its prime works of mercy was paying the mortgage on his £400,000 home. The Observer, following up the story, discovered a letter written in 1987 by his then secretary, Esther Flint, to Rabbi J. Gutnick, an Australian millionaire, which started, "I understand that a significant element of your job is devoting time to promoting your companies in the financial markets of the UK and Europe. Therefore, Rabbi Boteach thought it pertinent I contact you in order that I may introduce myself". "Pertinent" is nice, and wholly characteristic: Rabbi Boteach has never done anything he thought impertinent. In keeping with this principle, Gutnick did give money to L’Chaim. You or I might think that he did so in the expectation of gaining some reward, perhaps in the financial markets of the UK and Europe. But Rabbi Boteach was able to explain everything, in a way available only to those with authority. "There was no question of a tit for tat arrangement" he told the Observer. So that’s all right then. Anyway, the poor man was under considerable strain, since in two years he had had to sack six successive directors of L’Chaim for gross misconduct. It is all part of the witch-hunt his enemies are mounting against him; and, what is peculiarly subtle of them, none of these charges concern the gossip his more obvious enemies are passing round.

Somehow two stories have become confused in my mind this week. The one is a low farce in the Church in Wales, and the other is the future of the entire Anglican Communion. Perhaps my confusion arises from the fact that the Daily Telegraph gave more space to the affair of the Vicar’s buttocks than to the threat displays of the Anglican primates. In any case, The Rev Paul Morgans has written a letter denouncing his former parishioners as "exclusive and judging, unready to listen to change, trivial and insensitive." This is strong language to come from a clergyman describing his congregation; in my experience they usually save it for their colleagues. At any rate, the church has retaliated with its own investigation, reported in flawless court reporter prose: "One of the girls said she did not know that vicars were allowed to drink, which allegedly evoked an angry response from My Morgans. When Mr Davies returned home a short time later the girls told him Mr Morgans had shouted and sworn at them. Mr Davies went next door to the vicarage to discuss the matter at about 9pm and saw Mr Morgans standing naked in the front bedroom window with the lights on, beckoning to him in a manner which Mr Davies claimed suggested he wanted a fight."

My question is, which one of these figures most closely resembles the Archbishop of Singapore and which the Primus of Scotland?

There is no doubt which role is played by Dr Carey, he is "the police who were called but took no further action". There will obviously be lots and lots of fun at the Dundee conference for the spectators; and what makes it all possible is not just the unbridgeable divide between Dr Tay and Dr Holloway for which no one can really be blamed, but the pretence that the Anglican Communion is an organisation, "with the potential to become a major player on the world stage" as Dr Carey once told the UN General Assembly. All the idiot pre-Lambeth propaganda about the Anglican Communion having "80m members world wide" will now come home to roost. The figure of 80m, is reached by counting every baptised Anglican in this country, which gives a total of 25m here alone.

In America, of course, there really is that proportion of Christians; and there was a rash of features this week trying to explain the importance that all candidates in the presidential election attach to God’s endorsement. These make an interesting genre, because they are written by English journalists to whom the whole process is — I assume — largely repulsive. Mary Dejevsky in the Independent and Ben Macintye in the Times both made the point that this was part of a post-Lewinsky process. Macintyre had some wonderful quotes: "Al Gore describes himself as ‘a child of the Kingdom’ who believes ‘the purpose of his life is to glorify God’. The Republican George w Bush recounts how he quite drinking to ‘recommit my life to Jesus Christ and a God who counts our tears and lifts our heads’. His rival Elizabeth Dole describes an encounter with her maker, ‘It was’, she says ‘time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe — and God accepted my resignation."

Any of these quotes would finish off a British political career. No one has yet explained why the opposite should be true over there, so I offer one theory of my own: it is all because of Sunday Trading. Unrestricted capitalism in the USA makes life so precarious and insecure that religion becomes hugely attractive. Restricted and tradition-bound capitalism over here keeps most people fairly content with their lives which means they don’t feel they need church. So the subtle evangelical should be an enthusiast for compulsory 24-hour shopping, so that people would be forced to realise the emptiness of their lives without God.

The only people who could object to this plan are the Buddhist environmentalists. Madeleine Bunting had a hugely sympathetic two-page piece in the Guardian about Lama Yeshe a Tibetan Lama who has taken over an island off Scotland, formerly inhabited by Celtic saints; and holds meditation retreats there. He also teaches meditation to the executives of Shell. "After two decades in the west, Lama Yeshe believes Buddhism suits the capitalist mind and the Western intellectual mind. It makes no demands to believe and accommodates scepticism and doubt". Scepticism, doubt and even capitalism are not the most obvious characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism in its native state as a theocracy run by reincarnate lamas. Yet the appeal to unbelief is surely a large part of Buddhism’s appeal in the West. Why else should it be acceptable to tell executives to meditate for fifteen minutes or an hour a day and not to spend the same time praying?

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