Press Column Saturday 03 July 1999

The prize for the bitchiest comment on Cardinal Humeís funeral goes to John Walsh, in the Independent , slightly ahead of Dr Miriam Stoppard, in the Telegraph letters column. Walsh was greatly impressed by a the entire page which the Daily Telegraph devoted to a reminiscence of Cardinal Hume by Sabiha Rumani Malik, ex-wife of Andrew Knight, himself an ex-editor of the Economist, and mother of India Knight, formerly the divorce columnist of the Observer magazine. These connections are necessary in order to establish her importance, for it was not otherwise obvious why Cardinal Hume should have agreed to baptise one of her children with one Jewish and one Muslim godparent, to represent what she saw as the essential unity of the monotheistic faiths in the face of her then husbandís insistence on the truth of Christianity. Her account of this proceeding stressed the superiority of the Cardinal over her ex-husband: indeed, in a rather Buddhist vein, it suggested the superiority of all other sentient beings to her ex-husband. We learnt a great deal about her religious opinions; less about his, though it would appear that he got all the Godparents to make the sign of the cross. Some readers may have felt that giving her a whole page was a little excessive, on the same day as a front page report on the funeral, an op-ed piece by Daniel Johnson, a two page spread on the news pages. Only Walsh, in Mondayís Independent claimed that her piece showed that the Cardinal must be a Saint: he had, after all, put up with Mrs Knight, as she then was..

Many people in public life find the constant procession of meaningful funerals a weary one. But attendance makes a necessary statement. Only the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has managed to turn absence from a funeral into a form of communication. The first time he did this was over Hugo Grynís funeral. Christian leaders of course are treated with more respect. It was officially announced that during the service for Cardinal Hume, Dr Sacks was present in Archbishopís House. Hence Miriam Stoppardís letter to the Telegraph, which praised Mrs Mailkís reminiscence: "Nothing speaks of [Humeís] humanity more tellingly .. in the spirit of true generosity, he found a way to dispense with doctrine and dogma,. He knew that love is pure and one, regardless of the trappings it comes wrapped in. All the more lowering, as a Jew, to read that that, great though his respect and admiration for Hume was, the Chief Rabbi felt that Jewish law constrained him from making as grand a gesture. The truth of the matter is that Hume was a mensch. Pity the Chief Rabbi wasnít in the same class."

And so to the calm of Christian punk-rock. Saturdayís Independent magazine had a rather wonderful, photo-driven feature on the "Young Americans who believe in the Father, the Son, and the spirit of Sid Vicious." The idea of holding an evangelistic meeting called "Suburbia 99" at which the attending teenagers are first frisked and then handed "little brown napkins to wipe away the sweat" has not, I think, made it over here. But it certainly means that if David Usborne, a middle-aged reporter, is sent there, the moments of prayer come as the most welcome part of the six-hour session, if only because they are so relatively quiet. "In the mosh pit, the area just in front of the stage where the dancing is most frenzied, the fans ó about 4,000 on this particular occasion ó go berserk for the music. For a full six hours they heave, jump, crowd-surf and, yes, they seat profusely. And then, when requested to by the Supertones, they raise their hands for Jesus Christ and pause to pray together in a powerful and eerie silence."

The idea that the Methodists should react to decline by making religious belief optional was powerfully attractive to editors. Iím not at all sure whether that is in fact the proposal that came to their conference; and only the keenest-eyed observer would have noticed that the conference rejected the motion, whatever it was; the news was buried towards the bottom of the Timesís bottom of page six report. But Linda Grant, in Thursdayís Guardian, had a long piece investigating the idea. Why is it, she asked, that Churches in Britain are empty even though they offer so much: "Every few months someone knocks at my door or stops me on the street and asks whether I would like to go to church. There are inestimable benefits. I will receive a warm and friendly reception. Iíll make new friends. If Iím troubled in spirit, if I have problems at home or at work, Iíll have someone to talk to, who understands and who may even be a trained counsellor" My first thought, reading this, is that either she or the earnest young people accosting her seem slightly to have misunderstood what prayer is about, unless God is in fact a trained counsellor. But this was a mistake, because, she says, all these secular goodies are no use to her.

"Whatís stopping me is that I donít believe in God. Not in an agnostic sense but in the spirit of pure atheist, which asserts that man invented divinities to account for the temporarily inexplicable. So some of Britainís finest historic buildings stand empty and Godís non-existence is the line that prevents us from entering." The interesting thing is that she saw that her own position might be dying out as quickly as the Methodists: "We may wind up with a very curious state of affairs whereby there is a large number of people outside any religious institution feeling that they have some kind of spiritual sense of things, and a large number of people attending church who do not." This leaves open the question of what they gain from church attendance; some light on this, was cast be reports in both the Times and the Guardian from Somalia, where the population would apparently welcome a Muslim fundamentalist takeover, because even Sharia law seems to them preferable to the anarchy of clan warfare.

It would be wrong to end, though, without repeating Linda Grantís wonderful line on new age spirituality: "Will Posh Spiceís very own personal God, like a personal stereo, sustain her if the marriage to David Beckham doesnít work out as she expected?"

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