Press Column

So Christopher Morgan wins his bet; and proves once more that while lots of the religious coverage in the Sunday Times is sensational, some of it is true as well. I guess I owe him lunch. By the morning of the press conference both the Times and the Daily Telegraph were reporting that Vincent Nichols would get Birmingham as well. Perhaps the most interesting piece of speculation came from Victoria Combe in the Daily Telegraph, four days after the original Sunday Times story. It was fairly clear that she did not believe it entirely, but she got the Duke of Norfolk to discuss his role in the matter. He told her that he had put forward Cormac as his second place suggestion, after Timothy Radcliffe, because he felt that a 54-year-old would have a better chance than a 67-year-old. He did not put forward the name of Vincent Nicholls at all. Iím not sure what all this proves, except that the English Catholics are getting more gossipy in public than once they were, even if the Vatican remains as impervious as ever to the pressure of public opinion.

In a change of scarcely less moment for the religious life of England, the Guardian is changing religious affairs correspondents. James Meek, who did the job very well, took less than eight months to decide that science was more interesting; but he left an interesting Godslot behind, arguing for the churches to break up much more than they already have. "Heretics donít run the risk of being burned at the stake any more, yet Catholics and Anglicans sometimes act as if they do, mimicking, for obscure reasons, the obsessions with Ďunityí and the arcane horror of schisms demonstrated by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"There is an assumption that the fewer rival religions there are, the fewer religion-based conflicts. But might a myriad of tiny, subtly different faiths and denominations not be more peaceful than a handful of big, hard-edged ones?"

Well, it might, but on the other hand, the process of continual fission towards the truth he advocates was exactly that which produced the Revíd Ian Paisley. But even if Meek has not proved his point, the fact that he thought it needed making shows up the degree to which the Church of England has come to resemble an organisation in the last ten years or so, at least to the outside world. The idea that doctrinal disagreements might compel anyone to leave the Church of England seems to have been pretty much exploded by the experience of characters as various as John Broadhurst and Don Cupitt and even they seem to represent a narrowing of options compared to the traditional spread of clerical diversity.

It will make a wonderful trivia question at Christmas: at which cathedral did the disputes among the staff grow so heated that it required the intervention of a Nobel Peace Prize winner to get the parties out of court. The answer is of course Dundee, where the wonderfully named Bishop Neville Chamberlain and the Very Revíd Miriam "Attila the nun" Byrne flew back from a trip to see Desmond Tutu and to proclaim peace in their time. The deal was partially brokered by Richard Holloway, who deserves some credit for this. What distinguished cathedral conflicts from all other eccelesiastical scandals is that neither side ever has the faintest idea of when to stop escalating. No force and no retaliation ever seems disproportionate to the participants in these struggles. Never mind the Islamic bomb; the first cathedral chapter to get hold of nuclear weapons will blow the whole world to smithereens in a dispute over where to hang the choir robes.

Them the Financial Times comes news of an ingenious outreach program by the Brazilian Catholic church. It has launched its own free Internet Access service. "When they log on to the Internet, users of the free access service are directed to the churchís portal, which offers traditional information for the faithful such as mass times and a gospel of the day. As well as links to an insurance company, visitors can also buy a range of catholic memorabilia wich as a marble bust of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, Brazilís patron saint, or a porcelain angel with a bunch of grapes."

The article also contains a wonderful transposition of theology into marketing speak: "Under attack for two decades fro evangelical protestants, the catholic church as been revitalised by a movement called Charismatic Renewal which has adopted the popular music and easy-going style of the evangelicals." So thatís what Charismatic Renewal is: a music marketing term.

Just what the Synod will discuss is a difficult question to unpick from the coverage. The Daily Telegraphís headline seemed clear enough: "Church says BBC reduces religion to Ďtrite drivelí." Perhaps the communications unit could do the job more efficiently. Iím told he has just published another communications strategy but thereís nothing about it in the media. The Times had a tremendously excitable report saying that the Church faced a new financial crisis because the there are now 1,454 ordinands where last year there were only 1,392. "the last time the Church of England borrowed money was in the 1980s for property speculation. The property market crashed and millions of pounds were wiped off the Churchís assets." But perhaps the extra 62 ordinands will not, after all, have the effect of plunging the commissioners another £800m into the red: according the Telegraph, which relegated the story to a paragraph on the end of its report on the iniquities of the BBC, "There will also be a plea to parishes to provide another £1.25m Ö on top of the £320m already raised to cover "national Church responsibilities."

I know it is meant to be satirical, but the Peter Simple column in the Telegraph is utterly sincere in its attitude to race relations. This week he wished that England had joined the American Civil War. "Mightnít England, then over-prudently hesitating about whether to support the South all out have taken this heaven-sent opportunity. And mightnít a victorious and grateful South have applied to rejoin the British Empire, making all its subsequent history gloriously different?"

Glorious indeed. With columnists who take that attitude to slavery itís not surprising that the Telegraph canít see why people make a fuss about Joerg Haider.

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