Press Column

What is it about the Sunday Times and Westminster Abbey? Christopher Morgan had a wonderful story this week: "Westminster Abbey has caused a row with the literary establishment by charging the widow of Ted Hughes, the late poet laureate, more than £10,000 for her husband’s memorial service." There’s even, apparently, a fact to stand it up: "Carol Hughes has received a letter detailing the bill from Wesley Carr, the dean of Westminster, who has been dogged by controversy since he took office two years ago."

Except that she hasn’t had the letter. It hasn’t been written. There’s no such bill. Faber and Faber, Ted Hughes’s publishers, have issued a statement unequivocally denying the "wholly inaccurate". Report: "Carol Hughes is very pleased with the way matters are developing towards the memorial and is very grateful for the enormous support she has received and continues to receive from everyone at the Abbey"

Note, incidentally, that Dr Carr is supposed to have sent out the bill a month before the service actually takes place on May 13th. Even in the alternative reality of the Sunday Times, someone might have spotted that as an unlikely detail. The abbey says that no bill has been sent out; and that the eventual costs will be very much lower than £10,000. And it is true that attentive readers of the Sunday Times will have noticed that the lower reaches of the story contain a number of hard denials, lurking like rocks within the shifting fogs of "Apparently"; "it is thought", and the "The Queen may be embarrassed".

There were only two direct quote in the whole story. One is a flat denial by the Abbey that anyone had requested the Bach choir (which request the Dean was supposed to have vetoed). The other was from Matthew Evans, the chairman of Faber and Faber, who said, according to the Sunday Times, that "This is absolutely outrageous. If anything, the abbey should be paying £10,000 to the estate of Ted Hughes for the privilege of holding the service" and the quote has since been completely denied.

Does any of this matter? No one in the business believes a word that the Sunday Times writes about the Abbey now and by extension little that it writes about any other religious subject. This is after all the paper which last year claimed that two of the women priests in the Church of England had started their life as men before surgical alterations. Pretending that Dr Carr is the lost black sheep of the Milosevic family is not really any more outrageous, though more painful. In Morgan’s defence, it’s obvious that someone is spreading these stories; and is part of Christopher Morgan’s job, as of any other journalist, to be attentive to such gossip. You never know when some of it will turn out to be true. But you’d have thought by now he’d have noticed that Christians occasionally lie, even when they’re talking about other Christians.

The leader columns of the Daily Telegraph contorted themselves horribly over the decision of the Advertising Standards Authority that the Peniel Pentecostal church in Brentwood should not claim someone was healed there when there was no medical evidence to back this up. It’s not clear from the leader whether they would also defend the right of the church to make its earlier claim that a visiting preacher had raised six people from the dead.

The decision seems important because, if you buy the Telegraph’s argument in this instance that "in this vale of tears it does not seem an outrageous crime to raise people’s hopes of a miracle when all other hope is gone" it seems to imply that all religious belief is a harmless form of self-deception. That’s more or less the belief behind the Millennium Dome and so something which the paper normally devotes considerable resources to attacking. If you want Christianity to have a public role in this country, you should welcome the Advertising Standards Authority because you believe you are offering public truths. Of course religion has to be private as well. But you cannot consistently both attack Spongery on the grounds that at least some of the miracle stories in the Bible are factually accurate and defend claims of modern resurrections on the grounds that religious tales have nothing to do with fact.

One of the odder claims made by the Daily Telegraph’s leader was that the "self-styled healers of Brentwood have no financial motive." If this is true, it would be a rather greater miracle than anything claimed in their advertisements. Of course healing churches have a financial interest in enlarging their congregations. Those are what pay for the whole show. It may not be their prime motive but it is certainly there and in my experience there is a direct correlation between the frequency of miracles and speed at which collection buckets circulate.

This aspect of religion is one of the things that Ruth Gledhill does well. She is the only religious correspondent who regards it as a normal and interesting part of churchgoing to dump something in the collection plate; perhaps because she would go to church even if she were not herself paid to do so. So her adventures in Hackney, where she went to see a team of Texan bodybuilders for Christ, started with the money. "This was the first time that I could not bring myself to put money in a church collection plate. Al around me, 10,000 people were pulling out wads of £5 or £10 notes, writing out cheques, filling out bank mandates. But the emotional manipulation was so over … that my own heart froze and I could not donate even a penny."

"As the Power Team poured petrol over concrete blocks and smashed the concrete with bare fists in the heat of the lfames, and broke baseball bats over their knees, leader John Jacons gave it to us straight form the hip … a ‘motivational message’ both shocking and inspiring in its biblical fundamentalism. It made me realise how awful so much of the Bible really is."

I suppose the nearest British equivalent of this passion to get the message over would be the Women’s Institute in Yorkshire who stripped off to pose for their annual fund-raising calendar; but you couldn’t call them fundamentalists: their rule was "no hairy bits and no bottoms".

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