Press Column Saturday 30 October 1999

The photograph of the week comes from Moscow, where the art world is currently riven by its own disputes over the validity of kitsch. A cathedral that Stalin destroyed is being restored. It was built in 1868 to thank God for the cityís deliverance from Napoleon ó punctuality is obviously a decadent Western vice, incompatible with the possession of a Soul. The artistic director of the project, Zurab Tsereteli, told the Guardian that the interior of the reconstructed cathedral will be "an exact replica of the original, only better." An attendant priest with a similar attitude to logic and the Motherland announced "This is very honest art. There are no elements of the modern here, Itís a work of genius, unique." How something can be at the same time completely unoriginal and unique is not explained. The trouble ó as the photograph makes clear ó is that what a Russian considers a return to honest simplicity looks to the rest of the world as if it were painted in sweet pink champagne. This is, after all, a country where a gangster is buried under a huge granite tombstone on which is carved the keyfob for his Mercedes. I suppose itís better than Tracey Eminís bed, of which the cartoonist in the Daily Telegraph remarked "Itís amazing how the smell follows you all round the room."

To judge from the newspapers, a modern bishopís tomb should have his chauffeurís car keys on the tomb: the Sunday Telegraph returned to the persecution of the church Commissioners. "Bishops and senior clergy will soon receive more from the Church Commissioners in salaries and expenses than all the parishes in England put together, according to new figures." ran their headline. The paper did quote Alan Cooper, a commissioner as saying that the figures were unfair because they took no account of pensions: the reason the Commissioners have so little money with which to pay the working clergy is that they are paying those who no longer work. I suspect this is the essential financial truth of the matter. But it does not affect the political problem, which is that though the parishes are happy to pay for their own clergy they canít see the use of bishops so clearly and they suspect that they are being taken for a ride. The suspicion is, I think, unjustified, but it will not go away, not least because it is in the interest of everyone who wants to dismember the Church of England to nourish it.

So in the Sunday Telegraph we have Geoffrey Kirk explaining that "The assets of the Church of England were intended to maintain the parochial clergy." ó and not, by implication the bishops. This is uncharacteristically ahistorical. When the Church of England really had assets to boast about, they maintained bishops in unimaginable state while curates starved in every gutter. Nor were they paid out in compensation to priests who left the church because they decided its decisions were heretical.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times had a story which tended to back up the general impression of chaos. The only trouble is that itís not very true. "Eight years of hostile press coverage culminating in a spate of deeply critical reports have led George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to seek advice from Lord Bell, Baroness Thatcherís principal election strategist in the 1980s. Carey is said to be anxious to reverse his portrayal as a clumsy, gaffe-prone cleric and instead to endear himself to the British public Ö his approach to Bell shows he has accepted that the churchís public relations are at an all-time low."

Lesley Perry says that Bell did come to Lambeth to meet her, and Jeremy Harris, the Public Affairs secretary. But it was at his instigation, not theirs, and was part of a regular programme of talking to professional PR people. Nor did he offer them a five-point plan, as the Sunday Times suggested. They have one, which they told him about. These may seem minor pints, but if youíre dealing with the world of appearances, they matter tremendously. And I must say, it is hard to imagine anything more fatal to ones ambitions of being considered a spiritual leader than to have it known that you are being advised by Lord Bell, unless it were a makeover from Max Clifford.

The Observer got right away from these squalid matters to consider the religious significance of Orange Lodges. They have been denounced as "satanic" by a former member, but not, on the grounds that you might expect. You or I might think that the least Christian aspect of the Orange lodges was a certain lack of ecumenical zeal, a somewhat partial thirst for justice, or a determination that if anyone turns the other cheek it is going to be a Catholic. Not so Peter Malcolmson, who is concerned instead that it has borrowed rituals from Freemasonry. "The Orange Order says it is the defender of the Protestant faith but these secret oaths and strange rituals are more to do with paganism and are ultimately satanic."

Only on the sports pages, it seems, is religion still treated with some reverence. There were some very tender accounts of Payne Stewart, who seems to have been a good man as well as a good golfer, and who credited part of his success to the sense of proportion that his faith had given him. There was also wonderful interview in Saturdayís Telegraph with Don King, who killed two men on his way to becoming the most successful boxing promoter in history. One he shot in self-defence ó well, in defence of a gambling game he was ruinning. The other, a former friend, he kicked to death in order to recover a debt. The victimís last words were "Don, Iíll pay you the money." He told Sue Mott, "My protection, my salvation, my shield of righteousness is all set with the Lord Ö This is the fight for which I was boiled in oil. Castigated, accused, vilified. So the mere fact that I am promoting this fight demonstrates, yet again, the awesome might and power of God." Discuss.

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