Press Column Saturday 14 October 2000

There is only one piece of advice worth having about PR in the church. It’s this. "Don’t sack the organist." Organs are to Anglicans what relics are to other Christians, or holy tombs to Muslims; the thought occurs to me that the fighting in the West Bank will only be comprehensible to an English audience if the notation "holy city of Nablus, sacred to Muslims and Jews" is replaced by "the city of Nablus, renowned for its organ and choir, which are claimed by both St James’ Picadilly and Holy Trinity Brompton".

The latest illustration of this eternal truth comes in the Daily Telegraph, which records the persecution of Ms Sue Poppit, organist at St Paul’s, Withington, in Manchester, by her predecessor, John Wright. Neither name could be improved. Mr Wright had been dismissed four years ago for, amongst other things, standing on his organ bench and screaming "My father’s house is a house of prayer" at a congregation murmuring amongst themselves.

"It is understood that Mr Wright sent almost a letter a day [since then] to [Ms Poppitt]. Virtually all of them contained Biblical quotes about the ‘evil’ at St Paul’s and they usually ended with Christ’s final words on the cross, "father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The case was dismissed on a technicality after the CPS brought charges under the wrong section of the act, but the Judge warned Mr Wright he would be in danger of prison if ever there was "a scintilla of evidence of harassment" against him in the future, to which he responded "The judge is not God, and he needs to be reminded of that. In my heart, I know I have acted sincerely and I’m sure that Sue knows that too."

This was runner-up to the most interesting court case of the week, a position won by a short report in the Guardian from France, where M Pierre Pican, the Bishop of Bayeux has been charged with failing to report sexual crimes after one of his priests, Fr Rene Bissey was sentenced to 18 years in jail for the usual with boys. It turned out that Fr Bissey had been confessing his sins for 25 years but Mgr Pican took the view that the secrecy of the confessional was paramount, and did nothing with his knowledge. He argued that the process of confession "should have allowed the priest to arrive at the truth about himself". Perhaps I do the authorities an injustice, but I find it hard to imagine that if he’d confessed to sleeping with the boys’ mothers for 25 years they would have done so little to help along the process of self-realisation.

The rest of the week was spooky. Justine Picardie’s account of her search for her dead sister, through spiritualists, was given a huge republication (from Granta) in the Daily Telegraph. She tries all the obvious things to come to terms with her grief: gym, work, therapy: "Delving into my subconscious soon got to be far too uncomfortable and exhausting. Prozac is so much easier; and anyway I’m bored of myself; bored of grief; bored of hearing my own voice talking drearily, pointlessly, when what I really want is Ruth’s voice."

So then she hears Ruth’s voice, on an aeroplane heading for Hollywood. "I look out of the window, in search of Ruth, as ever. The first time I flew after she died, I cried because of the sky’s emptiness. This time, it’s easier. Then I think, couldn’t she be here in the cabin with me, her spirit flying from her children’s pillows at dawn?

‘Are you there?’ I whisper, mouthing the words.

‘I’m here’ says the voice in my head."

So she goes to a medium at the College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington who is superbly unprepossessing and unconvincing: " ‘Clarissa!’, he says suddenly. ‘Clarissa! Does the name mean anything to you?’

‘No’, I reply, wanting to leave now.

‘Hmmmm, well, store that name away for the future.’ He breathes deeply again, as if to reassure himself."

Then she goes and visits a former Sunday Times journalist, who developed, after the death of her son, a technique for recording spirit voices on tape. She speaks, leaves a blank for them to reply, and then asks another question. When she plays the tape back, she hears their answers, even though no one else can. This might answer one of the great questions of paranormal research: who are Chris Morgan’s sources, exactly? But the bereaved mother seems not to have exploited her invention. In fact she can’t even pick up her son on it any more: the only voice she hears is that of a former picture editor on the paper, banging on and on in purgatory. It can’t be hell if there aren’t any photographers there.

After that disappointment, Justine goes to another psychic, who tells her about her sister’s cancer. Considering that her sister wrote a newspaper column about it, which was then republished as a best-sellig book, this doesn’t seem very good evidence of a spirit life either.

At the end of the story, she finds an open-air celebration of Pentecost. Christians are singing "shine Jesus, shine", but the words mean nothing to her, and she walks away, thinking of John Donne.

I think this shows that any attempt to write journalistically about the state of modern spirituality is doomed. Only someone who approaches it as a kind of novel, as Justine Picardie did, can hope to catch the real feeling of the way that most middle class people now react when they have been shocked by life: suffering, spiritual, if you like, but recoiling from belonging.

Saturday’s Guardian made the heart sink with a huge story about the Cathars, but it turned out to be a wonderful piece of debunking, from which I learnt that the parish priest whose sudden wealth was supposed to derive from a hidden Cathar treasure in the Holy Blood and Holy Grail series, actually got it from a mail-order scheme and by urging the local notables to leave him money in their wills. What would have happened if he had confessed all that, I wonder?

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