Press Column Saturday 17 June 2000

Jack Spongís column is up at theposition.com (can I say that in the Church Times?) and it is everything his detractors can have hoped for. It gets a huge billing: twice the size of the stories next to it, which are "Eau de party: selling soiled undies is a good way to make money" and a technique column: "Itís time to think vertically". Oh, thereís international news as well ó "Brits want more sex". In the middle of all this, as I say, is the Bishopís contribution: "The church does GUILT better than it does anything else." Obviously better than it does shame.

Perhaps he hasnít seen the site. One of the other contributors was complaining in an online gathering of freelance writers that the site was too complicated for the writers to find their own material. The book that brought her fame, incidentally, was called The Oy of Sex.

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting a subís test on the Times. An acolyte enters, bearing on a silver salver, a despatch from the Religious Affairs Correspondent, which starts "One of the most influential clergymen in the Church of England Ö" How do you render this into English that Times reader feel at home with? There is only one right answer: "Top Vicar". He is interested in eschatology as well? Then we have "Top vicar says Ďend is nighí". This is not the immaculately ironed Times of Sandy Millarís childhood; but the story dealt with his apocalyptic reflections in HTBís newsletter. As far as I could tell, this was standard stuff. "People must turn to Jesus Christ Ďwhile there is still timeí., he said. ĎOn some day in the future, Jesus will return, the world as we know it will come to an end, and the real New Age will begin." But it looks like news because "apocalyptic" is one of those words like "mission" which has totally lost its Christian meanings in popular use. So "Top vicar issues apocalyptic warning" sounds like news to people who have no idea what a top vicar might do with himself otherwise.

Diagonally across on the page is a photograph of Pierre-Yves Gerbil, the chief executive of the Dome, looking as if he cannot wait more than about five seconds Jesus to return, or at least for the four horsemen of the apocalypse to come galloping to his rescue. He is sandwiched between the two toppest vicars in all England: Dr Carey and Archbishop Murphy OíConnor. The occasion was a Pentecost service, broadcast on the radio at 8 am, live from the Dome. What made the story was the attendance figure ó fewer than 200 people turned up for the service. I checked. This is not a misprint, but a charitable overestimate. This is awe-inspiring if only because it is so exactly what you would expect to happen if you advertised the event on the radio: "second prize, two tickets to hear Dr Carey and Archbishop Murphy OíConnor at the Millennium Dome". But it is the job of the organisers to ensure that these jokes donít come true. Iím told the whole thing was in the hands of the BBC. Perhaps they were taking revenge on the Archbishop for making a fuss about his speaking time in those grisly New Year celebrations.

Still, it is fortunate for the Church that no one compared Sunday morningís turnout with the previous days religious event in Docklands, when Forward in Faith got 10,000 people to the London Arena. Only the Yorkshire Post covered it; and it did so as a triumph of gritty Yorkshire traditionalism against slippery Southern wooliness. "Clearly, what Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, does moderately well, Archbishop of York, David Hope does very well indeed." Michael Brown was contrasting FIFís gathering with the "what happened 13 months ago, when Dr Carey tried to draw 10,000 young people to the Wembley Arena for a huge Eucharist billed as Ďa bold witness that the young Church of England is ready to serveí. The 10,000 never came, and Dr Carey had to make do in the garden of Lambeth Palace with half that number."

This is downright nasty for the Yorkshire Post. But perhaps it illustrates a wider truth: that the only religions which flourish at the moment are those that feel like defences against persecution. Forward in Faith obviously feels like that to its members. And perhaps HTB does too. The Observer had a large and very sympathetic piece about an Alpha course at HTB from Sue Arnold. "Itís first their normality then their niceness that distinguishes young New Age Christians from the weirdo born-again Cliff Richard brigade." The lead character was a Vogue photographer called Charlotte Bromley Davenport, who took the course because "I was fed up with all the crap, the posing, the image obsession. That probably sounds strange coming form someone whose job is all about image but thatís strictly work. This is different. This is my whole life. Itís real. Itís true. Itís forever. Just say I became blind and I couldnít be a photographer any more. What would happen to Charlotte ? What would I be? What would I have? Now I know." She has never heard of Billy Graham; and she now leads an alpha course in prison. Next time Iím tempted to joke about HTB, Iíll ask myself what else could get a Vogue photographer doing something so useful; then Iíll sneer anyway, but thatís show business.

Iíd hate to end on an uplifting note, so here is a court case report about a URC minister fined for soliciting, from the Times. "London said that he had stopped his car because he felt tired. He was approached by the woman whom he thought he recognised from church." Yes, yes, but what did he say? "Excuse me: havenít I seen you in my congregation?"

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