Press Column

(pp dear Prudence)

The trouble with Richard Holloway is that he hasn’t smoked nearly enough marijuana. One puff on someone else’s joint which he didn’t much enjoy is not really enough to earn him respect in this debate. If he is going to lecture the rest of us on the virtues of cannabis he should appear at press conferences red-eyed, wheezing, and given to beatifically incoherent mumbles, yet the last time I saw him his eyes were clear and his enunciation distressingly distinct. Benevolent incoherence we can get wholesale from bishops of all types. So what’s the point? Thirty or forty years ago it might have been shocking if a bishop had called for the legalisation of anything interesting. Now it just appears to be one of the quainter traditions of the Anglican Communion, kept up year after year long after anyone can remember why it is done.

No, if religious leaders are going to make fools of themselves, they should not try to hold to the via media. Jump right off the rails like Jim Bakker, the disgraced televangelist, whose long and winding comeback trail was the subject of a long article in last week’s Washington Post. It opened with scenes seldom witnessed in Morningside: "Hardly does an announcer claim the "privilege to welcome Pastor Jim Bakker and his fine wife, a precious sister" before the crowd drowns him out with hoots and whistles and stomps, 1,000 screaming voices echoing off each other.

"Within minutes, the people in the front rows--then middle--then back--spring to their feet. A tall, lanky woman keeps herself at the brink of fainting--jumping jerkily in the small space between seats, gripping her fists and rattling them around her head, then stopping every few seconds to lay a calming hand on her heart.

"Another man bangs his briefcase against the seat and looks as if he might cry from excitement. A third lifts his frightened daughter in the air, over and over, till it looks as if she might cry, too."

This is not quite how I imagine an Anglican bishop’s book tour. And there is something profoundly inspiring about the shamelessness of Jim Bakker. He served five years in jail for defrauding Church members of $150m, the victim, he says, of a jury of unbelievers. His blonde wife Tammy Faye left him for his best friend (he has since replaced her with Lori Beth, who looks very similar but is twenty years younger), and now he lives in what he describes as a log cabin, but which the Post cruelly reports covers 17,000 square feet, which would scarcely fit into the gardens at Lambeth Palace.

Yet the black churches have taken him to their hearts, because, after thirty three years in ministry, at the end of which he lived in a forty room mansion where even the dog kennel was air-conditioned and owned twelve cars, he realised that this wasn’t perhaps entirely what Jesus had in mind for all his followers. "I believed, the Bible said, above all, God wants you to prosper. Well, when I went to prison, I began to study the Bible and realise Jesus Christ didn't have anything good to say about money." The Post quoted him as saying.

You might wonder, if it took him that long, how anyone can be expected to learn anything at all from the Bible. Perhaps Richard Holloway has a point, after all. But he won’t sell anything like the 100,000 copies that Bakker has managed so far.

I was led to the Washington Post indirectly by a kindly reader (writing on notepaper headed "The Hovel") who had sent me a cutting from the New Yorker containing some very important news. Scientists have long believed that Heaven is cooler than Hell, on the basis of biblical evidence: since there is a lake of brimstone in Hell, we know that it cannot be hotter than the boiling point of sulphur, which is 444 Celsius. Isaiah, on the other hand, tells us that in Heaven "the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days." The original researcher, a man named Henry T Wensel, concluded from this that Heaven received fifty times as much radiation from the sun as the Earth does, and that this much radiation would raise its temperature to 525 Celsius.

So matters rested until two Spanish physicists and an Auxiliary bishop of Madrid brought biblical criticism to bear on the problem. They concluded that "the Isaiah passage clearly states that the light of the sun falling on Heaven is only seven times greater, not 49 times. This brings the temperature of Heaven down to a sparkling 231 Celsius. "That makes New York in summer not such an unpleasant purgatory after all."

There are whole fortnights when the best part of Private Eye is the personal ads at the back. My daughter has derived almost all her knowledge of human mating behaviour from reading the personal and asking her squirming parents what the advertisers want. But as well as the Eye Love section there is also Eye need, where people place their bank account details with a short hard-luck story and hope that readers will help them. I have always wondered who does this and whether they get any response, and now I wonder still more, after spotting the following: "Church of England priest resigned over ‘women priests’ needs help clearing debts and making new start." It would be fascinating to know if any readers felt this was a more deserving cause than the usual released prisoners, and single mothers, and students who place their ads in there.

Already the eclipse seems to have taken place opn another planet, but it would be wrong to ignore it completely, if only because it gave Victoria Combe the chance to write a follow-up piece in the Daily Telegraph which started "The world did not end at 11.20am yesterday, despite fears ..."

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