Press Column Saturday 09 December 2000

This has been a fine week for signs and wonders: in the Independent the story of a former football hooligan who found God in pursuit of an obstetrician; in the Daily Telegraph a long and sympathetic interview with the Revíd Carol Stone (formerly the Revíd Peter Stone); and the Sunday Times a scoop followed up by everyone because itís true. The resignation of Ernie Rea as head of religious broadcasting was one of those stories which is satisfying to get because it could have been true at any moment over the last year. There are two problems with the way the churches approach television. The first, which is serious enough, is that they believe they are teling the truth, and almost everyone else involved does not. But this is true of all the media. It does not stop good radio programmes being made by the religious affairs unit. It does not stop thoughtful and interesting articles on Christianity appearing in the press form time to time. The real difficulty emerges, I think, from Bishop James Jonesí article in the Daily Telegraph upbraiding the BBC for the poor quality of its religious broadcasting. In no time, he has modulating form arguing that all the religious programmes are put out in the graveyard slot to arguing that his own was. And this goes down ill with television people. They may not understand religion, but they do understand, all of them, the urge to be on television and to be famous, and they despise it as thoroughly as we can ever despise our own weaknesses. Until the proponents of religious broadcasting have something more interesting and focussed to say than "Put me and my friends on: we have something important to say to the nation" they will not get very far.

If I were going to make a religious television programme I would choose Patti Smith to present it, on the strength of her remarkable interview with Kevin Jackson in the Independent, It was made to plug her reading of Blake at St Jamesí Piccadilly. It emerges that the woman who opened her first record with a triumphant drawl "Jesus died for somebodyís sins, but not mine" Now wears a crucifix around her neck, and means it.

The really interesting religious stories nowadays come in the quirky corners, because that is where all stories about recognisable human beings appear. I loved the story about a former football hooligan, David Jeal, in the Independentís "Family Affair" column. Though he was a dyslexic with a conviction for malicious wounding who had accompanied his mother to church only to protect her from the homeless, first he found God "I met these guys who offered to pray for me ó they said things would change if I accepted Jesus into ly life. I was really close to punching one of them, but passed out. When I came round I felt strange and realised I couldnít deny God existed" and then a pretty gynaecologist asked him to help her prepare for an exam: perhaps she realised he shared an interest in the subject. "We ended up snogging and that was it." he told the paper. Now they are married, and working together at an evangelical project for the homeless in Bristol.

I suppose the Revíd Carol Stone must actually exist. There have been too many stories in too many papers to make it possible to believe that she is not in some very real sense real. But, like Fr Michael Seed, she has a mythic quality that makes me doubt her more mundane reality. Just as Fr Seed could have been invented to fill the shoes of Evelyn Waughís Father Rothschild, the unlikely Catholic priest who turns out to know everyone and everything, so Carol Stone appears, in the Daily Telegraphís sympathetic coverage, to be constructed from the tattered and brightly coloured remains of one of A.N. Wilsonís hangovers. What novelist, wishing to show the Church of England cut completely adrift from its certainties of fifty years ago, would dare to have the suffragan bishop of Swindon hold a press conference in his living room to present a transsexual priest, and apo0logise that the Bishop couldnít be there because he was attending a meeting of the World Council of Churches? Then it turns out that Ms Stone is twice married and twice divorced as a man; and that she spent her second marriage as the chaplain of a private school where she taught martial arts and dancing. Her first sermon as a woman was cheered for two minutes by the congregation. There must be easier ways to get their approbation.

Her has been so much more eventful than the life of the average parish priest that itís easy to see why her congregation want her to continue. But of course no one can admit to such a vulgar motive, which may explain the reason for supporting Ms Stone given by Joan Mackie, a member of the parish council who was invited to the press conference to express her support for the once and future priest. "It was a shock, of course" she explained, about the Vicarís decision to become a woman, "but I knew I would support him. He was a true gentleman."

About the last place you would expect to find a foreign religious story that is half-way serious would be the Sun. But this week they a report from Israel "A war in a manger" that actually managed to bring home the effects of the Intifada: "the Sun goes to Bethlehem and finds Christmas is CANCELLED." The "As millions prepare to mark the birth of Chrsit the holy war between the Israelis and Palestinians has turned the Holy Land into a living hell. And Bethlehem ó cradle of Christianity, home of the nativity, and worldwide symbol orf peace and goodwill to all men ó is sealed off from the outside world at gunpoint, with the festive spirit nowhere to be found."

Apart for that bathetic plunge at the end ó for what is the intifada but the continuation of festive spirit by other means? ó the report was written with such overwrought excitement that it might have been about a celebrity diet or divorce. Certainly, it is the most serious treatment a religious story will get in a tabloid this year. Sorry. Iíll write that again. It is the most astonishing, thrilling, and gripping religious story of the MILLENNIUM.

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