Press Column Saturday 28 October 2000

This column may be a little jet-lagged: I’ve just spent five days on aeroplanes or in America, so in a spirit of perversity will write entirely about English religion this week. The murder of a Hindu priest in Leicester allowed Ruth Gledhill to set a milestone in religious journalism, at least in the Times, by writing a learned sidebar about Hindu attitudes to oral sex — apparently the Kama Sutra qualifies for these purposes as a Hindu scripture.

The Guardian Sautrday magazine carried a long and immensely favourable profile of Nicky Gumbel by Jon Ronson, a jewish agnostic. . I’m not entirely sure how accurate it was — for one thing, it repeats the line about Nicky having more staff than the Archbishop of Canterbury, which Mark Elsdon-Dew, quoted as the source, assured me that he would never say, because it was not true — but no doubt Elsdon-Dew will get over it for the sake of quotes like this: "At a cautious estimate, in Britain alone, in less than a decade, a quarter of a million agnostics have found God through Gumbel ... his course routinely transforms hardened unbelievers, the entrenched faithless, into confirmed Christians." Of course, hardened unbelievers don’t go to Alpha courses at all, any more than professional footballers attend computer science courses. If you don’t feel you’ll learn anything interesting, why bother? But what you might all soft unbelievers, like Ronson, do. His testimony is interesting because he is not repelled by many of the things which put people off the course. Of course he mentions the social setting: the Mercedes in the driveway, the fact that the leaders of his course are Nicky Gumbel, his wife Pippa, and another married couple, a doctor and an investment banker. But he also finds a former gang boss among the helpers on the course: "most vicars will proudly introduce you to some redeemed petty thief in their flock; once again Nicky attracts someone from the apex of his chosen profession".

And he goes on the course for the Holy Spirit weekend in Kidderminster, when most journalists tend to chicken out. Perhaps because of his enthusiasm, he gets some wonderful quotes: I liked Gumbel saying "If a paedophile said, ‘ever since I was a child, I found myself attracted to children’, we wouldn’t say that that was normal, would we? Now, I am not for a moment comparing homosexuals with paedophiles." Perish the thought!

One part of charm is the ability to seem reasonable, and to make your argument flow with the sparkling inevitability of a trout stream. This is something Ronson catches very well in Gumbel, perhaps because he swims with the current himself, even though he joins the group of "half-a-dozen furious agnostics" who walk out from the glossolalia session. Among these angry and disillusioned people is Alice, for whose horse Nicky later prays. The horse recovers, and Alice is partially converted by the experience. " ‘You sound like you’ve changed your mind again’ ,I say; ‘Oh, I don’t know, says Alice, ‘All I can say is that my horse got better and the pain is gone from my left side.’ She pauses. ‘for all my problems with Kidderminster, I’ve got to say that Nicky is quite brilliant. He’s wonderful.’ And I have to admit that, for all my problems with Kidderminster too, I can only agree with her."

Yet despite the improvement in the health of Alice’s horse, it would appear that Jon Ronson himself, and all his family, are still going to hell for being Jews, as Nicky has earlier explained they must. This strikes me as one of the underestimated innovations of the Alpha course. It flourishes in its joyfully Calvinistic way partly because no one really believes in hell any more. If the courses explained that everyone Jewish, homosexual, Muslim, or atheist, was going to die of cancer for their sins, and this showed the justice of God, they would not, I think, be as popular as they are. Yet hell is by definition infinitely worse than anything that can happen to us on earth, including all possible diseases. If Nicky Gumbel is right about the Jews, the Hugo Gryn is now somewhere worse than Auschwitz and so are most of the people who died there and all the pathetic boy soldiers of the Iran-Iraq war. Call me a hardened cynic but I hesitate to accuse Gumbel of insincerity; and if he sincerely believes what he preaches I can’t find him quite as charming as most people do.

The Catholic child abuse scandals continues with the sentencing of Fr Joseph Jordan in Cardiff. The Sunday Telegraph carried a story claiming that the Warwickshire CID are investigating "several senior church figures" who are accused of failing to respond to police warnings that their subordinates were abusing children. These seem to centre on three convicted paedophiles in the diocese of Birmingham. It had a wonderfully unspun quote from Kieran Conry, at the Catholic Media Office, "I was a priest in Birmingham when [one of them] was arrested and I had no idea what he had been doing even though I was in the next parish. The only vibe I got was that Penney was happy to be around children. People thought that was great."

But the most interesting Sunday Telegraph story was one from Jonathan Petre, about experiments that have shown patients reporting conscious experiences at a time when, measured by the instruments in the cardiac intensive care unit where they were, their brains were more or less dead. "By examining medical records, the researchers said the contention of many critics that near-death experiences were the result of a collapse of brain functions caused by lack of oxygen were highly unlikely. None of those who underwent the experience had low levels of oxygen."

One of the researchers involved says he believes that the experiments indicate that there is a mind there after the brain is dead. As I remember the original design for these experiments, there were going to be optical illusions hidden where patients could see them only if they did in fact rise above their bodies, as many have reported. But it appears that no one saw these, either as illusions or as they really are.

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