Press Column Saturday 03 June 2000

The Sunday Telegraphís story about a huge BBC poll of British religious attitudes taught one lesson that is less than obvious: that people still feel it is expected that they should go to church occasionally. Otherwise, it seems only to have repeated what we already: that everyone lies to public opinion pollsters. How else is one to explain the claim that 23% of the population has attended a church service in the last month? At the same time, we learn that the number of people who regard themselves as belonging to a particular religion has fallen over the last decade, and the number who consider themselves Anglicans has fallen most of all. More people claim to believe in the devil than claim to go to church; twice as many people claim they have a soul as believe in God; and so on. The final confection of unreality was supplied by Stephen Sykes, normally eminently sensible, who said "This very much confirms what happened on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when people who were confronted by a tragic crisis fell back upon residual spiritual faith. Continual decline in faith is absolutely not inevitable." If professors of theology want to join in the general confusion and flight from reality by describing the death of Diana as "a tragic crisis" they are not going to do the reputation of their subject much good.

Another tragic crisis was highlighted by the Daily Express: "Why Buddhist monks are praying for my Waffles" was not about a miracle in the flagging career of a TV chef ó next week "The secret of successful choux pastry: papal blessing" ó but about a cat who got run over. "when Helen Simmons revealed on the Internet that her cat Waffles had been run over by a car, the response was phenomenal. In Vietnam, Buddhist monks lit incense for the pet in one of their temples, Gods and goddesses were invoked in India to help the catís recovery. And in Puerto Rico, the Catholic faithful said prayers and lit candles for the stricken puss."

"Helen, 41, is convinced that the international sympathy and concern for Waffles has helped the cat survive against the odds. ĎHer recovery is nothing short of a miracle, and a worldwide miracle at thatí, said Helen." There is even a picture of Waffles "Feline better". It is enough to make you sympathise with the BBC pollsters. When this kind of thing is reported as a tragic crisis, even though it is perfectly obvious that the reporter is laughing as hard as most readers, itís difficult to know what possible truth value could be attached to anything that people say publicly about faith and miracles. The contorted revisionist reasoning of David Jenkins does not come close to the tangly way in which the uneducated think about this stuff.

On a rather less tragic plane, we have Anne Atkins, and the problem of sex. "Common sense and the New Testament suggest that Christians should marry within the faith or not at all" she explained to the readers of the Daily Telegraph. I suppose it is a definition of muscular Christianity to suppose that common sense and the new testament make natural bedfellows, at least after marriage. But her piece suggests that I have been doing her an injustice for many years. She doesnít just pick on homosexuals. She can be every bit as patronising to heterosexuals too. Singleness "is a great option, according to St Paul. And thank goodness he said so: single Christians are certainly not second class. But when your hormones are raging and even the Prime Minister is broody, this can be thin consolation, in the short term." Presumably youíll feel better in the long term, when all your fornicating friends have gone to hell.

Mrs Atkins tells the story of "one gorgeous friend of mine" who "left her (live-in) boyfriend when she became a Christian. She then got engaged to a chap in her church who was, quite frankly, wet. Soon she broke off with him too. But then most of her single male contemporaries were divorced or gay. In her late thirties, clearly still longing for children, she said to me ĎIím so much better off unmarried than married to the wrong personí." This is normally a line which only the frequently married can deliver with complete sincerity, but letís assume for the moment that her friend was doing more than just whistling in the wind. In that case, singleness among evangelical women is merely a way of fast-forwarding through imaginary marriages until only the regrets are left. It gives a whole new dimension to the phrase "smug marrieds".

The Guardian had a long piece on the Popeís possible resignation, pegged to his eightieth birthday "which is expected to trigger the fiercest clamour yet for his resignation" ó not in my newspapers it didnít. But we have to take what pegs we can get in this business, and the round-up of comments about a possible resignation had two interesting quotes: one from Vittorio Messori, a journalist who asked the syrupy questions in their book Crossing the threshold of hope. He said "For some time, he has been asking God which is better, to keep bearing his cross or ó for his own good and the good of the church ó to lay it down." This is remarkable, if it means what it says: that the Pope believes it would be for the god of the Church if he were to step down. The other interesting quote came from Margaret Hebblethwaite, who thinks it would be for the good of the Church if he died instead: "it would not be so much a matter of having a backseat driver, a la Thatcher, as of having a puppet government. Let us enjoy his god points while he lives, and then have a clean break."

But what I liked best was the products of the fact grinder in the box opposite, listing six remarkable popes, starting with "St Peter, a Galilean fisherman and disciple, became the first Pope after Christ was crucified. He founded the holy see at Rome Ö" Well, that should shut up the people who say the Guardian is anti-Catholic.

Front Cuts Book Back