Press Column Saturday 01 April 2000

The most important religious leader in British life this week was the Rev Martin Smyth MP, whose attempt to unseat David Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party seems to have destroyed any chance of further agreement in Ulster politics, and quite possibly to have destroyed even the limited largely tacit agreement between the three sides that none could win so they might as well settle for something less than defeat. The only paper that pays real attention to these problems is also the most seriously Christian of all the broadsheets: the Daily Telegraph. Its influence on Ulster affairs is almost entirely malign and sometimes wicked. None of these reflections come into the range of what is normally considered religious journalism. There is a general agreement to pretend that the disputes in Ulster have nothing to do with religion and it is just an achingly quaint coincidence that one lot call themselves Catholics and the others, Protestants. A lot of the ghastliness of religious journalism stems from the things one has to write about in the business; but what made it really unendurable are the things that you are forbidden to write about, and the way in which the few times when there is something that really matters, everyone agrees that it has nothing to do with religion. I suppose this is because if you talk to Ulstermen about politics they can sound quite reasonable.

In the middle of all these vortices we find Victoria Combe, whose husband is serving with the army in Northern Ireland for six months, and who left behind her, before going on maternity leave, a long and genuinely exclusive interview with Cormac Murphy O’Connor. Reading this in parallel with the Irish excitements is completely surreal. Here is a man renowned and indeed beloved for boring decency, which makes for a difficult interview in the first place. Then he refused to discuss Ireland, Section 28, or women priests at all. Fair enough, perhaps. But what remained after the outside world was so rigorously excluded were the concerns of Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice; so that Victoria, after wrestling with quotes such as "Ecumenism is the restoration of unity that was broken and therefore the restoration of full unity" was reduced to saying that "For 16 years he has been trusted by the Pope to be the joint chairman of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. No liberal would be allowed anywhere near such a body that engages in dialogue with the Church of England."

Given that Arcic has about as much chance of success as a project to reunite the sundered continents of Greenland with Antarctica it is really rather dispiriting to think that this is the most important thing he has to say. Perhaps, one hopes, there might be some golden mean in religion between the boring and the importantly malevolent; but most of that sort of thing seems to happen abroad, or at least in Edmonton. The Guardian had a wonderful story of Monsignor Mario Peressin, former Archbishop of L’Aquila who has left the Vatican a statue attributed to Praxiletes. In his will he made two stipulations. He wished it to be exhibited bearing a plaque that described it as a gift jointly form himself and Dr Joseph Palisi, "a Sicilian American friend of his". The importance of Sicilian-American friends in his life might explain how he managed to amass a fortune of £2.6m out of a salary of £500 a month. The statue alone is valued at £1.6m.

Of course, Dr Palisi was not a liberal. As Archbishop, "he denounced boy scouts and girl guided going on holiday together and warned parishioners that Satan was to be found in discotheques, televisions, and ‘particularly under miniskirts’." The inhabitants of Periclean Athens were notoriously little affected by the Satanic attractions concealed by a miniskirt. The statue itself shows a naked satyr pointing to the bits he’s not concealing under anything. So perhaps it is by Praxilites after all, even though the Archbishop himself wrote in his will "For reasons of conscience, I cannot indicate the provenance of the bronze." But this, though reassuring people who may have doubted that the Archbishop had a conscience at all, is counteracted by Italian experts who say it is a second or third century BC Roman copy, probably excavated from Pompei. If they are right, it would be illegal to export it form Italy to the Vatican museum, which is why the whole thing made the newspapers.


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