Press Column Saturday 01 July 2000

Itís a terrible thing for a man in my position to admit, but on Sundays I donít always read all the papers. This is not just a matter of not buying them, though that is part of it: if God or Mr Murdoch had meant me to pay for the Sunday Times he wouldnít have put it on the web. But sometimes I donít even check the web sites until Tuesday morning which is how I cam to be asking the Daily Telegraph web site whether any stories using the terms "God" or "church" had been published on Sunday. Two stories matched "God", and scored 51% for relevance to my interests: one was "Boxing: Referee hit in Tysonís 38 seconds of farce"; the other was "Blaming Keegan simply futile".

Outside the boxing ring or football field, God did not apparently affect the world. Among the churches, there was "Clericsí row over gays mars childrenís holy day" and a wonderful story about Spanish nun-runners. It turns out that even the Roman Catholic church in Spain is concerned about economic migrants: in this case girls from Kerala in southern India, who are joining Spanish convents to improve their lives. I canít myself see what is so reprehensible about this: poverty, chastity and obedience have always been attractive alternatives to starvation, rape and the exercise of arbitrary power. Besides, the average age of Spainís 13,000 nuns, the article says, is somewhere between 65 and 70. But the novices pay up to £500 to the nun-brokers who ship them to the convents, and this seems to be the sticking point.

Perhaps this is the answer to Mr Hagueís difficulties with religion. At last he has found some economic migrants that he can approve, and so win back the favour of the mainstream churches. He will be turning more and more of the social services over to "faith-based organisations" anyway if he follows the advice of Marvin Olasky, the Texan evangelical imported last week to a storm of derision from the Left. Nick Cohen, in the Observer, described Olasky as "emerging from the swamp of creationism, class hatred, and bigotry": this was more articulate than most but not more extreme. What distinguishes Nick from most columnists is that he studies the phenomena he spits at; and he was the only commentator to notice that Hague seems to have promised at Spring Harvest that "Christians will have the same right to national and digital [broadcasting] licenses as anyone else."

The Times, the Guardian and the Observer all carried long pieces asking whether Christians were about to start mattering politically, and concluding, sotto voce, that they arenít. Of course part of the difficulty was that the two gurus on offer are so unappetising. Hans Küng is all right until you try to read his books; and Olasky is a professor of journalism. Journalists are pretty twisted and cynical people, with a low view of humanity as a rule, but not even a hardened professional journalist thinks that politicians are so stupid and desperate as to take advice from professors of journalism. Another trouble is that the churches in Britain are united only in the most unpopular cause of all: the rights of poor foreigners. I donít think there is a single English church that approves of the treatment of asylum seekers, yet it is determined by the conflict between two of the most ostentatiously Christian politicians in Britain: Ann Widdecombe and Jack Straw.

Then there is abortion. The Guardian had a piece about a Scottish anti-abortion campaigner, Jim Dowson, whose organisation, Precious Life, was trying to hand 50,000 copies of a graphic anti-abortion leaflet at school gates. "The next logical step in Precious Lifeís campaign would be to picket clinics where terminaitons are performed Ö But Dowson has other, more direct plans. HE has vowed to post on the internet the names and addresses of doctors who perfomr terminaitons an; picketing the houses of surgeons, councillors and nurses will follow." Whether this gets a foothold in England remains to be seen. Whatís certain is that the Roman Catholic hierarchy can do nothing. Dowson is a fanatical Orangeman.

The Third Secret of Fatima was rather overshadowed by the announcement of the Human Genome Project, released on the same day. I canít help wondering whether this was not deliberate spinning by the Vatican: it was not a document on which you would want to pin your case for prophecy. The Times published a facsimile of the first page, written in slanting handwriting on yellow lined paper, but a curiously truncated text. People relying on it for guidance are likely to have their souls imperilled. Safer to believe the Daily Telegraph, which allowed one to notice the details that anchor it in peasant Portugal: "And we saw an immense light that is God: Ďsomething similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of ití a Bishop dressed in White Ďwe had the impression that it was the Holy Father.í How on earth did people seem in a mirror to those children? Presumably all blurry and bright and perhaps a little flyblown. Then there is the big cross, "of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark."

Comparing the one tiny photograph inside the Times of this text with all the huge pictures of genome sequences or blown-up chromosomes elsewhere in the papers was fascinating. One the one hand was a piece of arcane gobbledygook released because the Vatican was sure it no longer predicted anything at all; on the other, a piece of even more arcane gobbledygook which is supposed to predict everything about everyone. The moral, I suppose, is that science derives its authority from the opacity of the subject material. It still functions as a priesthood because no one outside the profession can possibly read the genome sequence.

Two footnotes to the Evening Standard hagiography of Nicky Gumbel. First, I have discovered the name of the author who was so successfully channelling Deborah Ross: it was Jon Ronson, who is capable of much better and funnier things. Secondly, Mark Elsdon Dew rings to say that of course he never for a moment said that Nicky Gumbel had more staff than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, even if he didnít have more influence.

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