Press Column

Before getting on to the conventional church news, two unconventional bits are worth noticing. The first, indeed, is hard to avoid: there are thousands of words in all the papers this morning about the life of Jill Dando. In the Daily Mail, "Justice for Jill: Special reports and analysis: pages 2-11" as well as "Jill’s search for love: Pages 39-42", where Brian Cathcart, a very good journalist indeed, has extruded a torrent of platitudinous slush, presumably under the unnatural stimulus of a very large cheque. The other papers are scarcely less extravagant: there are five full pages in the Guardian — about as many words as eleven in the Mail — and similar amounts in all the other broadsheets. But the Independent , for whom the Dando murder is the only story on the front page, beneath a skyline which promises "Reports, background, and analysis: pages 2,3,4,5,6,7) also carries a tiny death notice for Herbert McCabe, the Dominican, who will presumably be obituarised properly in due course.

Neither McCabe nor Jill Dando were saints. I have to say that two memories of Fr McCabe are more precious to me than anything I have ever seen on television: one where he nearly got my wife and me thrown out of the Polish Hearth Club for offering — as a good catholic should, he said — to assassinate Pope John Paul II; the second is of his teaching guests at his annual unbirthday party in the Oxford Blackfriars, an Italian communist song, Avanti Popolo with a chorus, bellowed out, of "Mussolini e un bastardo!" It seemed to him that such things were among the duties of a Christian intellectual, as much as teaching Alasdair MacIntyre about Aquinas. These were not habits or ambitions that would make him popular, even though they made him loved. What’s striking about Dando, who seems to have been loved as well as popular, is how very usual she seemed. She appeared to be only a little cleverer, only a little prettier, and just a tiny bit nicer, than most newspaper readers suppose themselves. It was possible to think that her life turned out so well because she was only a little luckier than we are, too.

This comes out very clearly in Cathcart’s treatment, where the most shocking thing he can find to say about her is that "Above all, in her long quest to find the elusive ‘Mr Right’ to share her life, she was a woman of powerful and very human passions, far from the colourless ‘Jill Blando’ at whom cynical critics liked to sneer." She was a horoscope brought to life.

Now I don’t think this has much to do with her Christianity. That was clearly a part of her personality: it seems to have played the role of one of the things that made her slightly nicer than ordinary beings: it didn’t stop her sleeping with men, but it meant it mattered when she did so. But what her ordinariness, and the effusion of print after her death, does cast a real light on is the nature of popular canonisation: it doesn’t have much to do with sanctity; still less with the kind of deliberate, disciplined, and pretty unremitting effort at holiness practised by Herbert McCabe. The process by which people become famous — icons, in the revealing term — has to do with their acquiring a significance as inexplicable as grace. Television, with its appearance of intimacy, helps it along: here is someone just like you, it seems to say, except that she matters. There are perfectly good biological and biochemical reasons for supposing that calculations of status are fundamental to our well-being; and we know, on one level, that most of the time we don’t matter at all in the wider world. On a sociological basis, the single secret of successful urban churches must be that they provide people with a place to matter. On a slightly more theological plane, it is surely one of the most incredible assertions of Christian belief that everyone matters, however insignificant.

Here endeth the lesson. Sorry. Back in the world of church news, Victoria Combe finally returned from holiday to notice the results of the bomb she had dropped on her departure. "Bishop apologises for agreeing to gay Mass." This carried the news that Bishop John Crowley of Middlesbrough "had apologised to the Catholic Church of England and Wales after agreeing to celebrate a thanksgiving mass for a homosexual couple". Perhaps this wasn’t news, but you have to admit there was a certain surprise value in the Bishop’s explanation of what had happened: "Bishop Crowley said that he did not know the two men were in a homosexual relationship and thought he was celebrating ‘friendship’." The thing that one admired about Herbert McCabe was that he would so clearly go wherever he thought the truth led him.

The Church of England membership figures came out without exciting the world greatly: one has to admire Steve Doughty’s take, in the Daily Mail. "More than one in ten Church of England weddings involves a divorcee, it was revealed yesterday .. the statistics will give hop to scores of thousands of couples wanting to restart their lives with a traditional church wedding." This may not tell us very much about the state of Church weddings: I believe it does, but, as Doughty points out, the figures do not record how many of the remarried divorcees have a partner still living. But it tells you something important about the Mail, and wahat the paper believes are the attitudes of its readers: remarriage after divorce is no longer something that happens to reprobates. It happens to Mail readers, and clergy who hold the line against it will soon stop being stout traditionalists, and turn in to the kind of monsters who keep teddy bears off tombstones.

Can tabloid newspapers fall for hoaxes? I mean, is it a hoax if you don’t care if it is true or not? The Daily Star had a piece about a "mad Rev", Pastor Jack Stahl, who dresses up like Tom Jones, the Weslsh singer. "It’s not unusual for him to don Tom’s trademark frilly shirts and tight pants to perform weddings and even exorcisms." What the paper seems to have missed is that Pastor Stahl is a minister of the Universal Life Church of Sacramento, California. This is an organisation so doctrinally lax that was myself ordained in it by email: after I got this news onto the BBC, the Church made me a Doctor of theology, and later sent a certificate of sainthood.

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