Press Column Saturday 06 January 2001

There are fifty weeks to go until next Christmas, but I hope you can all remember the advice that Fred Holcroft, of Wigan, Lancs, managed to have printed in the Daily Telegraph letters page, and remember that the Holy Family has nothing whatever in common with asylum seekers or other foreigners. SIR, he wrote: "Each Christmas the sentimentalists, abetted by leading clergymen, compare the plight of the homeless with Ďno room at the inní. This year the Archbishop of Canterbury threw in the asylum seekers, legal and bogus.

"Jesus of Nazareth was not homeless. He was happily married with a family on the way, a home owner-occupier, a taxpayer, a hardworking lower middle class self-employed craftsman (a natural target for this government)." So letís hear no more of this pinko nonsense in the next millennium. Anyone curious about other details of Josephís personal life, credit record, housing status, and voting intentions will have to write to Fred himself, who obviously has all these details at his fingertips.

It may be, of course, that his fingertips are not the organ he studies. The Independent carried shortly before Christmas an article on a clairvoyante with an unusual perspective. Ms Sam Amos is a telesales worker ó clearly an unusually gifted one, for in the evenings she persuades people that she can read their future from their bottoms at £30 for half hourís study. "Men usually have skimpy briefs on, which I can cope with, but I donít read bums without underpants on." she explained to Julia Stuart. Though she has elaborate theories about where on your bottom each destiny is written, she did admit, prior to a spectacularly inaccurate diagnosis of the reporterís life and circumstance, that "When Iím doing a reading, I just look for the shape of the bottom, and how it hangs, basically." I donít suppose she has ever made any of the really obvious deductions: "You will be worshipped as a sex symbol among the bushmen" or things like that, bu she did say, apparently with a straight face, that "Clients want to find out about people who have passed over more than anything. Dead people do come through because the bottom is kind of like a channel. Itís a focal point, like a crystal ball."

Waiting for spirits to emerge from bottoms at £60 an hour was about the only fund-raising activity not proposed in the Daily Telegraphís survey of rural churches, which involved Damian Thompson traipsing around the forgotten corners of the country and Victoria Combe blaming the ills of the Church of England on the Sixties and socialism. "Country congregations are being punished by a financial system that is rooted in Sixties socialist ideals of equal wealth for all. Over the past 30 years rural parishes have been forced to surrender any financial independence by giving their historic endowments and glebe to a diocesan Ďcentral potí. One parish on the outskirts of Kettering in Peterborough diocese handed over about £8 million in endowments to the pot" she started/. This was at least new words for an old song. Normally it is the rest of the Church of England which resents the sums paid out for pretty rural churches which no one uses.

Damian was much impressed by Peter Owen Jones, a man obviously capable of charm which entirely escapes the reader of his books. At least we learnt why his books are so strange: he was "creative director of a trendy advertising agency" in the Eighties, and even though he started every day with a spliff back then, this was not enough to rescue his prose style. But he still talks well: He says: "Resigning from various committees is the only way forward. It will leave room for the important stuff, such as talking to people in the pub."

"Putting cashpoints in the vestry or holding natural birthing classes in the nave is like admitting that we have failed Ö What matters is pastoral care. But the bright sparks coming out of theological college aren't interested in rural ministry. They want to go to a sink estate in Wolverhampton, then move up the ladder."

Quite why is it pastorally more caring to drink with people than to provide useful services is not explained in the otherwise exhaustive series. Of course, the Daily Telegraph has to write about rural ministry in the New Year. The Times did so, too: at least Simon Jenkins had a piece plugging his book on the subject. The book, incidentally, is magnificent. Jenkins believes that the answer to the crisis in parish churches to force them to be used by Christians of every denomination. "It is little short of outrageous that, rather than admit a rival creed or revive an original purpose, the Church should consider sale or demolition." This drew two letters (one from the Bishop of Ely) complaining that the writers shared their churches widely; one letter saying that "the purpose of the Church has never been as a curator of old buildings", and one which finished on a uniquely depressing note ó at least one which could only be illustrated from the pages of St Gargoylesí: "Churches need to have well-lit lively activity, with the hope that it is like this in the next world also."

That at least was original. At least I hope it was. All the other comments go round and round in very well-worn circles. Each section of the church understands that it is paying unfairly for the other bits. Since people will only pay for what they believe in, the ultimate logic of the financial crisis is that there will be no central administration at all. SO enjoy while you can the presence of the man described by the Financial Times as "tough-talking Reverend Doctor William Beaver, director of communications at the Church of England." He told their reporter. "Firstly we timed our campaign to coincide with Christmas, and secondly, we have a secret weapon ó the Holy Spirit."

This is worthy of the prophet Amos; one of them, at any rate.

This column doesnít much go in for proofs of the existence of God, but how else is one to interpret a snippet in the Daily Star? "A Catholic priest who took first prixe in a raffle to raise money for homeless children has found out that his prize is a free Vasectomy. Father Dominic Boha, 36, of Rio de Janeiro said ..Itís not needed."

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