Press Column

There ought to be something grand and noteworthy in the papers for the last Christmas of the millennium, but the best I can find is a quote from Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, whose song I have a dream has just knocked Sir Cliff Richard off the number one slot in the charts. Ulvaeus told the Daily Express "Cliff must have touched some religious hearts to sell so well but I think the sentiments expressed in I have a dream are even more fitting to the new millennium." Or, as the Express headlined the story, "Cliff didn’t have a prayer against an old classic by the super Swede." When a twenty-year-old song qualifies as an old classic, as against, I suppose, an instant classic, which is twenty minutes old or a real classic, which is ten years old, what does this make the ASB? Is it time for a Seventies revival in liturgy already?

Cal McCrystal, in the Independent on Sunday, had a long account of the church of England simply disappearing. He had been to see the Rev’d Martin Down, in Norfolk, who talked him thoroughly through the collapse of the church in rural areas. In this presentation, Down appeared as a man driven out by the stuffiness and blind conservatism of his parishioners. But I don’t think that these factors alone account for the divisiveness of charismatic worship or for the fact that that it is deeply unattractive to more people than it deeply attracts. For a start, there is the question of what these people actually believe. In the Daily Telegraph Judith Woods had been to see the congregation, and got some nice quotes form Mr Down who said: "I can’t remember ever having a public manifestation with demons at a service"

"But then his wife, Maureen, interrupts ‘What about that girl? Remember, she was on the floors, snarling and spitting.’ ‘Oh yes, so she was, says her husband, pleased to have his memory jogged. ‘ She was demonised, probably had a demon in there for years. She had always come across as a bit of an angry person, but after the demon left, she was much cheerier’." I don’t know. It is perhaps the name "Maureen" that gives the whole conversation the air of being scripted by A.N. Wilson.

Maureen in this piece has the makings of a great comic character. "She was filled with the Holy Spirit three months later, after listening to a tape … ‘It made me a happy person’ she says. I had never been one of those people who experienced muych joy in life. Afterwards, I was able to preach about Jesus without embarrassment. I remember, once, going door to door telling people ‘Jesus Loves You’ and a man in a garden threatening me with a spade’."

This slightly creepy cosiness was quite absent from Cal McCrystal’s account, which took the couple at their own valuation entirely. "What has happened to the Downs is very odd, very rustic in its curmudgeonliness and very bureaucratic." This seems to me rather strange. The couple has been given a deal at least as generous as that offered to the opponents of women priests: they are having to move house, but at the Church’s expense, and still being paid to run a church whose raison d’etre is that that he disparages his former congregation as "pillars of salt". This is not in the least old-fashioned. If it is not simply soft-headed, it represents a really flexible management technique, where competing brands are set up and allowed to do their best in the market place. It would appear from these stories that the new, charismatic congregation is confident it can raise half a million pounds for a new "Worship Centre" which Mr Down described to the Telegraph as "a nice, trendy word for it. We want to be contemporary". I wonder what kind of contribution it will be making to the diocese.

Norfolk probably is the best place to examine the rural end of the Church of England, so to speak. And it does seem more likely that this breakaway represents more of a pattern for the future than the Kit Chalcraft thing. The countryside is notorious as a place where people must make their own entertainment. The charismatis congregation is said to have an average age of less than thirty. I suppose the danger for Mr Down is that they will grow out of it.

McCrystal had asked around elsewhere. He went to talk to Martyn Percy who pointed out a Cumberland village where one Brethren church had given rise to three house churches, all split by differences over guitar tuning or something, with a total attendance of 40, compared to the 120 on the Anglican electoral role. This didn’t really persuade McCrystal, whose argument was not really about the Church of England but about the decline of insitutionalised Christianity as a whole.

The only factual mistake I spotted was his assertion that Dr Carey had hired Tim Bell to revolutionise the Church of England’s image. Not even the Sunday Times had claimed that money changed hands, or that Bell had done more than give advice. On the other hand, this seems to me one of those mistakes where only the facts are wrong. The story is quite correct, in as much as hiring Bell is meant to dramatise a renewed interest in the image of the church which in the quotidian world of facts finds its expression only in Dr Beaver, who is less famous. Also, is it really true that anywhere in the Church of England refers to worshippers as "customers"? Punters I have undoubtedly heard used in a non-Pascalian sense.

There was an entertaining spat in the Daily Telegraph. It was perhaps a little naughty of Eamon Duffy, writing for the op-ed pages to say that "the most publicly prominent lay Catholics seem largely uninterested in theology and are predominantly figures of the political as well as the intellectual Right. Some are highly intelligent but many are known primarily for their conservative political and social views and a striking number are recent converts from the Church of England, associated with the rejection of women’s ordination rather than a positive embrace of Catholicism." Who could he have been thinking of? Surely not the editor of the Daily Telegraph Charles Moore, or the editor of the Catholic Herald, William Oddie, a man about whom he is scrupulously polite in public.

In any case, it drew a ferocious letter from Dr Ian Ker, a biographer of Newman and, I believe, just such a convert as Duffy had in mind. "I was puzzled to read Eamon Duffy’s assertion that outside the pages of the Tablet ‘there is almost nothing in the way of a publicly enganged Catholic intelligentsia and very little Catholic input to wider cultural debate.’

"If Dr Duffy were to open this week’s Catholic, a paper now enjoying a renaissance under its editor William Oddie …" There followed five paragraphs of plugging everything about the paper from its book reviews to its brilliance in running "extracts from the recently published book by Basil Hume." The only relevant facts the letter didn’t mention were that the literary editor of the Herald was also editing the Daily Telegraph letters page that day and so in the business of soliciting letters to fill it, and that the Tablet lacks the inestimable privilege, shared by the Daily Telegraph and the Herald, of being owned by Conrad Black.

IN the Independent Cole Moreton interviewed an expert on angels who had the most practical precaution I have ever heard of against sudden spiritual excitement. At her convent school she realised the that Virgin Mary almost always appeared to teenage girls on their own. So she refused to go anywhere alone because she was frightened of having an apparition. Her schoolmates could never work out why she left the lavatory door open.

The Daily Telegraph attempted to repeat its success with the obituary of Doreen Valiente, by obituarising Cecil Williamson, another witch, who came in contact with witchcraft first as a child staying with his uncle, the rector of North Bovey in Devon. One day he tried to save an elderly woman form a mob of drunken farm workers, who caused her of being a witch. He wanted to become a priest himself, but his father, a naval officer, made him enter the navy instead. He also worked as a tobacco farmer and secret agent before founding a museum of witchcraft "There was, though, friction with the Christian gift shop next door".

A merry Christmas to all of you, and I hope the deserving among you find a Carey Bear in your stockings.

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