Press Column

The only flaw with the robobaptist was that he appears not to exist: at least I can find no mention of it anywhere outside Richard Hellerís column in the Mail on Sunday. It is the sort of story which would go right round the world if true: an elderly priest in Tifton, Georgia, the Revd Bob Walmsley, has had eight robot curates built for him by Imagineering, the Disney Corporationís software arm. Itís nitpicking to object to the idea of Baptist curates, I suppose. More worrying is the thought of a robot practising total immersion. If thereís a bug in the brute, does it hold you under water for the whole of the next millennium?

But I still donít believe it. For one thing, there appears to be no shortage of Baptists in Tifton, Georgia: there are 45 Baptist churches in the phone book there. If any of them could afford robot helpers, they wouldnít need them. More worryingly there is not a single Walmsley in the book. Then there is the technological unlikelihood of a robot which can walk at all. I met the chief scientist of Imagineering, Danny Hillis, at a conference on consciousness some years ago. If anyone could build a convincing robot, he would know about it, and he thought this was decades away at least.

There was a rather better virtual religion story in the Independent on Sunday where Cole Moreton had found a scheme to mount a virtual reality simulation of the battle of Armageddon on the plain where it is supposed to take place. "The village of Megiddo, an hourís drive from Haifa in the Jezreel Valley was to have been the site for a new multi-media celebration of worldwide destruction." Covering the crowd that for that would be an almost perfect assignment. Just exactly would spectators at the last battle think they were doing? I can understand the urge to take part; watching from the sidelines seems rather to miss the point.

But the Israeli government started to worry about the audience that this spectacle might attract, so now IBM is to mount a virtual reality simulation of the battle, superimposed on video scenes of the valley, and broadcast it over the Internet. The end of the world down a slow telephone line is going to lack a certain excitement. But apparently excitement is not really what the devout want form Armageddon: the tourist trade has fallen off sharply since the US started bombing Iraq again.

There was a further twist on sacred battles in the Daily Telegraph, which reported that the Roman Catholic community in Huntingdon is boycotting the celebrations of Oliver Cromwellís death on the grounds that it would be offensive to Irish sensibilities. "it is the righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches" he said after massacring the inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford. With an attitude like that towards ethnic cleansing it wouldnít surprise me to learn that he was the sort of liberal who approved of women priests too.. .

Poor Roddy Wright has written his memoirs. He was the Roman Catholic bishop of Argyll and the Isles, who ran off with a parishioner in 1996 and then turned out to have a 17-year-old son in Brighton, by an entirely different woman. There was a huge circus hunting for them until eventually he and Kathleen McPhee were cornered in a holiday home in the Lake District. It was all messy and hugely embarrassing to all the professions involved. Well, heís 58 now, and he says he "fully supports the Churchís teaching on celibacy and obedience". And no doubt he heartily loathes the media. But he has written a book about his adventures. What else was there to do? I suppose he could do fill-in agony aunting but there donít seem any vacancies there. The Mail on Sunday has bought his memoirs, so carried a long puff piece this week, starting with "a simple wedding., The venue was a holiday chalet in a Caribbean resort, the bride wore a tartan sash and the flowers, champagne and cake were provided by the hotel cleaners."

I suppose that a wedding is a kind of ritualised, pre-journalistic kiss and tell ceremony; or a kiss-and-proclaim. But while I canít claim to have enjoyed mine much, at least they were less squirm-makingly embarrassing than it would be to plug the memoirs of a reluctant sinner. "Celibacy is a vital part of being a priest because the priesthood is total giving and you belong to the people. I fell in love and it was a love that was too strong. The failure is mine, not the Churchís I didnít live up to what the church expected of me and I have never denied that."

The reporter, Fiona, Barton, let him off fairly lightly there. I know that the Mail on Sunday has brought the book, so it is for the other Sunday tabloids to dig out all the dirt they can next week in an attempt to spoil the story. Even so, it was a remarkably uncensorious treatment of a dirty vicar story . And though he has not denied his behaviour since running away with her he did manage to forget for the preceding 17 years that he had already had a son with another parishioner. "My feelings when I found out that I had a child were just shocked silence, a silence that went on for years, But it was eased for me by the silence of the mother. If someone is not knocking on your door, you donít hear it in your head."

The most interesting remarks were both made by Kathleen MacPhee: "My mother, who died last year, said Roddy was the best priest there ever was and we were worried about her reaction because of her deep faith but when I phoned her she was so cool and calm. She said ĎIím only angry about one thing: why didnít you tell me? I would have understood and wouldnít have told anyoneí."

She looked a great deal happier and prettier in their photograph than during the hunt for the couple, which is not really surprising; but he still had the same nervous salesmanís grin. She even used the phrase "made an honest woman of me"; but as far as one can work out, it is she who has made an honest man of the bishop.

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