Press Column Saturday 02 December 2000

The news that Madonna is regularly to be seen in church was given due prominence in the Daily Telegraph. The author, Sandra Barwick, wrote the funniest piece on religion ever to appear in the Independent while I worked there, but she played this one pretty straight. The singer apparently attends a pleasant church in Bayswater that backs onto an extraordinarily noisy Chinese restaurant; but presumably will gravitate in the normal course of events to St Francis of Assisi, where Oliver McTernan used to officiate; I wonder what the Filipino hotel workers who make up such a large part of the congregation there will make of her. And, since she has recently announced that "I go to churches, I go to synagogues, I partake in all religions," there is no reason for her to stop there. Within walking distance of those churches, there are two synagogues, not speaking to each other, A Greek orthodox cathedral, a Serb orthodox church, a forward in faith parish, two other Anglican churches whose congregations are barely on speaking terms, and at least two black Pentecostal churches.

None of these places, however, are grand enough for her to get married in. She wanted Westminster Abbey, under the impression that this was where English divinities, such as Princess Diana, were married. When she learnt that it was actually St Paul’s she expressed a wish to get married there instead. "Listen, if you can be I a place like England, with so much grand architecture, why not take advantage?" This made a meal for the tabloids, which reported that she could not get married in either of these places becaseu she was not royal enough, although an icon. What made this curous was that they stated the real reason as well, presumably on the grounds that none of their readers who had reached the fourth paragraph "But chiefs said it was out of the question because Madonna — previously married to actor Sean Penn — is divorced" could remember what the first paragraph had said: "Pop queen Madonna’s hopes of getting married in St Paul’s Cathedral have been dashed — because she isn’t important enough."

It is all rather a change from the rules prevailing in California, where not only can anyone get married in a cathedral — the late Jerry Garcia’s fifth wedding was celebrated by Fr Matthew Fox in, I believe, Grace Cathedral — but anyone at all can marry them. I keep somewhere a certificate entitling me to solemnise marriages in the state of California that I picked up over the Internet, so if Madonna runs out of biddable clerics, I will perform the ceremony myself, providing that the world picture rights go exclusively to the Church Times.

She might prefer, of course, to get her existing marriage annulled, and remarry as a Catholic. A curious light was cast on the workings of the annulment process by a short note in Saturday’s Telegraph: a priest who was the office director of the Roman Catholic National Marriage Tribunal has been redeployed as an assistant parish priest after a stash of 150 homosexual images was discovered on his computer.

No Times reader, if asked to name a blonde religious icon famous for dancing in public, would answer Madonna. They have Ruth Gledhill instead; and last week she appeared answering a reader’s questionnaire; not, I think, entirely seriously. The very first question revealed that her most traumatic experience in a church was to be pitched out after the service into the cold sleet without even a cup of nescafe to warm her. "As a result of my At Your Service report, tea and coffee has been laid on at every subsequent service. Sometimes, parishioners will write and ask me to come to their church, simply to effect such a change."

Secondly, there is the ghastly business of contact with the public when she might be having contact with her maker: "Sometimes I have found myself in a church where everyone is kissing, hugging and shaking hands with people who are clearly well-known to them, while I am left all on my lonesome. All this turmoil invariably happens just before communion, at a time when one's mind is meant to be full of peace and love and thoughts of God.

"It is such a relief to visit a church where there is no ‘peace’, but these are becoming increasingly rare. Recently, during the ‘peace’ at the service at Westminster Abbey to inaugurate the General Synod of the Church of England, it was such a relief to note that the Queen, who was present, did not shake hands with anyone."

This information may not have been enough to silence all Times readers. Some frightful little bolshevik hippie calling himself "The Rev’d Martin Rhys" wrote in to ask whether there was any justification for the Church of England retaining its assets after disestablishment. Ruth calmly explained that there might not be any disestablishment, and that even if there were, half the money would be needed to pay pensions, and the other half stipends. "There are horrific stories circulating about parishes struggling to meet spiralling quota payments as the new demands for pension payments kick in." No one doubts the horror. The question that might be raised by unbelievers is why the parishes shouldn’t pay for their own priests, however painful the process may be.

But the bit I enjoyed most was Ruth’s discovery that we need the Bible to defend ourselves against scientists: "In the modern age, scientists are at peril of becoming the new Gods. Just because the myth of the Tower of Babel is old, does not make it irrelevant.

Take, for example, the area of food science. As an avid reader of newspaper health columns, I have in the last 20 years been vegetarian, vegan and carnivorous. The Jewish dietary laws are simple by comparison. The temptation to return to the Bible and take a scriptural approach to food is overwhelming."

As a piece of solemn mickey-taking, this dwarfs even A.N. Wilson’s announcement in the Guardian that the world will soon turn to Islam because it makes no claims about history which can ever be disproved.

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