Press Column

So far as the press is concerned, the major event in the Christian liturgical calendar is now the annual martyrdom of Tom Ambrose and the rest of the Christian Advertising Network. This year’s performance was a cracker, largely because almost everyone outside the campaign agreed that the advertisements were not only tasteless — which is probably a good thing — but dreadfully naff, which is not. The most vicious attack came from Catherine Bennett, a columnist in the Guardian: "For the Church of England, the production of a misconceived, counter-productive and marginally offensive advertising campaign is becoming almost as traditional a part of its calendar as Palm Sunday or Ascension Day. …this duly provokes ridicule form the very people it is meant to excite, and disgust from genuine, loyal churchgoers whom the Church of England can scarcely afford to alienate."

So there were huge spreads in all the upmarket papers, a second front in the Independent and a good time for everyone. The person who came worst out of it all this time was not a priest, but "Chas" Bayfield, an advertising "creative" whose attempts to pitch Jesus to the tracksuit set were light years beyond parody.

"I didn’t really know much about [Che]" he told Ann Treneman in the Independent. "In fact, I didn’t even know he was a communist." But, he explained, there is this image of Jesus as "a bit of a poof", and "We felt very strongly that Christ is misrepresented terribly. It’s almost insulting. I want to be known as a follower of this amazing revolutionary man, not some effeminate fairy in a white dress. I’m a grown man. I can’t believe in fairies." Perhaps his next assignment should be to go around the cathedrals of England and paint Doc Marten boots over any bare feet he finds on saints in stained glass windows. Corporate branding is very important, and we don’t want any suggestion that Christians are not well ’ard, or that the disciples were not the most feared team of their day in Galilee. Coming soon, the real story of why Jesus was barred from the Wedding Feast in Cana.

I liked, too, the letter to the Independent from Stephen Churchett: "A suggestion for Chas Bayfield of Christians in Media, who worries about Jesus’ image as ‘a bit of a poof’. Perhaps it’s the name. Mr Bayfield has obviously addressed his own image problem by rebranding himself as a "Chas" rather than a "Charles". So why not ‘Jeez’ or even ‘Jezza’? The sad thing is, he and his fellow ‘creatives’ will probably take the idea seriously."

There were some more traditional responses. One of my favourite journalistic forms is the article to be written by a non-believer when the Church of England makes a fool of itself. The proper message on these occasions is always the bluff philistine’s: "I don’t know much about Jesus, but I know what I like." Tom Utley in the Daily Telegraph produced a perfect example, right down to the bit where you say that, though not yourself a believer, you envy those who are. But Utley does have the advantage for these purposes. of being the son a genuinely devout father, whose Christianity was deeply interwoven with his blindness: "The most striking quality I have noticed in true believers is their serenity, the inner peace that comes form acceptance of the Divine Will, however mysterious that may be in its operation…Others saw it, and I think they were right, in my father, the Anglican journalist T.E. Utley. God seemed to me to have dealt him an especially cruel hand, since he was totally blind form the age of nine. I always thought it particularly unfair that the disease that blinded him also caused him terrible headaches. Bad enough not to be able to see, I thought, but unspeakably cruel that his useless eyes should also hurt him. Yet all this he accepted without fuss as the mysterious will of God, while remaining witty and worldly till his dying day."

All this is true. Peter Utley was a remarkable, admirable, and unusually kind man. He took an enormous pleasure in encouraging clever young journalists. I benefitted a great deal from this process myself. But the thing I noticed most about his Christianity was its pugnacious quality. As an Anglican, he was a faction fighter of rare enthusiasm. When I was just starting off as religious affairs correspondent for the Independent, I asked him if he could recommend a single honest Christian intellectual. All I wanted, I said, was one intelligent grown-up priest to whom I could talk. He sent me to William Oddie, then an Anglican priest, but one whose struggles against the Liberal Establishment were to carry him in the end to the position he now occupies as editor of the Catholic Herald.

Being thought tasteless probably will not damage Christianity at all. Being thought naff is much more dangerous to the Church’s position. It is — and perhaps someone should tell this to Chas — more dangerous even that being thought ineffectual or poofish, as he would put it.. The two-fisted Glenda Slaggery of Catherine Bennett’s conclusion made this plain enough "The last few days have confirmed that one thing for which the British public will exert itself is a free burger. McDonald’s, having enraged queues of bonus-burger claimants by failing to order enough stock, needs to seek public forgiveness, The millennium offers a new start. Christ fed the multitude. Ronald McDonald and George Carey — what is this, but a marriage made in heaven?"

This kind of sneering forms the backdrop any which any moves towards disestablishment will be played out. The Sunday Times had a thrilling headline its first edition "Carey backs secret talks to split Church from state". In later editions this became the rather less dramatic "Clerics host secret talks to split church from state." Considering the story dealt with a meeting of a subcommittee set up by Churches Together in England, even this may have been too dramatic. I’ve no doubt that there are great disestablishment stories gto be got over the next few years. But they will come form politicians, and not church committees, since it is politicians who will make the decisions.

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