Press Column Saturday 28 August 1999

Why is it that the only church I know that has a full-time press officer, HTB, also has the most consistently hostile press? Could these things be related? In part, of course, the problem is one that no amount of spinning can disguise: if you do not think it is part of God’s purpose for the nation you will find it by turns creepy and slightly ridiculous. None the less, such respect as I have for the place arises from three days driving around Transylvania in the back of a Transit van with Sandy Millar and two of his strapping acolytes. It came from watching them at work, not from being told about it; but this is a privilege granted to few, and not, apparently, to Cole Moreton, whose wickedly funny account of the mating rituals at HTB in the Independent on Sunday was let down only by the photograph. The caption did admit that the picture of chaste Christians flirting was "posed by models" — a trick of which the Independent would once have been ashamed — but I recognised the wine bar at the foot of the Canary Wharf tower where it was taken and did a double take, for I believe that if ever a real virgin walked in there, all fifty stories of the tower would crash down as the Dark Tower did when Frodo reached the crack of doom.

Of course, evangelicals only know how to play it straight, which makes them wonderfully comic subjects, given an edge of terror when there is steam coming out of their ears. What is really astonishing about the characters in Cole’s story is that they have chat-up lines which lay waste to all their potential advantages. They are, we are told, rich, successful, and fashionably dressed. But desperation covers all that like weeping acne. There is a television producer who describes himself as "a would-be practising heterosexual" — imagine the cheesy grin that goes with a line like that. Most frightening of all, there is "Joanna", 38, who has been proposed to six times "but they were not suitable .. I believe God has a perfect plan for me, and that he will send the right man." Among the failures was one fellow so forward that he asked her to a ball at the Hurlingham Club after he had only known her ten days. "I’m not interested in flings," she told Cole. "I just want a husband." At this point the story ended, leaving the reader to imagine the final scene as he holds up the hand with his wedding ring on and carefully backs away.

Someone had added the cruel and inaccurate headlines "Lonely Christians pray to Cupid" which is presumably something they would consider more wicked even than having him answer their prayers. But it made a nice pair for inaccuracy with the headline on Clifford Longley’s column in the Daily Telegraph: "Church of England needs its own Pope." Now, Clifford may believe that it needs its own inquisition. He might even volunteer his services, in an ecumenical spirit. But he would never suppose that the Church of England or any other body needs its own pope. So far as he is concerned, one Pope fits all.

One paragraph in particular caught my eye: "Bad religion drives out good, one reason why the vigilance of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome is not entirely unnecessary. It takes only one highly placed churchman to thumb his nose at the rest for the Church to become a laughing stick, even among those who devoutly wish to take it seriously." This suggests to me something he can’t mean – that religion is the kind of drama that collapses if any of the audience laughs. I suppose he means that it is impressive to have an organisation all of whose members think the same way. But, in that case, "impressive" is not the same as persuasive. The Scientologists have a truly disciplined religion; it hasn’t given them a reputation for knowing, or telling, the truth.

Perhaps the factors that make religioons flourish have less to do with intellectual consistency than anyone would like to believe., The second front story in Saturday’s Financial Times was about the survival of Christianity in Japan through years of ferocious persecution, and its crisis now that anyone is free to believe anything. The hidden Christians, or kakure were the survivors of the terrible persecutions in the first half of the seventeenth century after the Jesuits were expelled from Japan and more than 2,000 of their converts martyred. Despite everything, the faith survived for seven generations, until Japan once more reopened to the West in 1865. But the prayers had slowly lost all meaning to the people who risked death to say them: "Hirama Taniyama kneels on the grass mat floor and raises a cup of Japanese tea above his head, He begins an invocation, mumbling so fast that occasionally he has to gasp for breath. The initial words ‘Pa-chiri No-chiri’ — ‘Pater Noster’ are just recognisable. But for Taniyama, the sounds are just meaningless syllables."

The shrine at which he prays contains an icon of the Virgin Mary with Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola, five apples, and three tins of tangerine segments. It’s never explained what role the fruit plays in his devotions; and though white weddings are hugely popular in Japan they no more imply a commitment to Christianity than mistletoe here at Christmas implies paganism.

The hidden Japanese Christianity has never completely reintegrated with the European mainstream, and now both are threatened by the consumer society. There are still Japanese Jesuits, though, and one of them supplied an anecdote that I find horribly moving., about an elderly colleague "He told me he had dedicated his life to Christianity, but said that after all this time he still didn’t understand why, if Christ had come to earth, he hadn’t been Japanese."

What makes this remark so illuminating is the knowledge that if the poor Jesuit who asked this question had only wandered round a few Victorian churches here, he’d have learnt from the stained glass windows that Christ and all the disciples were English.

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