Press Column

I spent the week in Trier, brooding on the vanity of empires. You can still see the throne room of the Emperor Constantine there and it remains one of the most imposing buildings in the city. It is now a Protestant church: the organ fits comfortable into one of the huge window bays, seven metres high. The Catholic cathedral, built around the Empress Helena’s chapel and on the ruins of her palace — had just agreed to host a concert of secular music for the first time in 900 years, or nearly 1700 years , if you want to go back to the roots of the building. The great Roman gate of the city was preserved only because a hermit made it his home in 1050 AD; then Napoleon tore away the mediaeval churchy bits; and now it is preserved only because we believe in culture. With a fast-beating heart, I returned to see what news there had been of religion in my absence. Oh well.

The most interesting story did not appear in the newspapers at all: it was an interview with David Hope, conducted by Christopher Morgan, which only cropped up, without any byline, under the headline of "Transcript of an interview David Hope" on the Sunday Times’s web site. Now, "Archbishop appeals against a landslide" is actually quite a good story: much better, I think, than the Archbishops’ platitudinous statement that the Times turned into "Archbishops denounce spin" the previous week. There was even a strong second line in the Archbishop saying that he too would probably have thumped a protestor who threw eggs at him, just as John Prescott had done — though His Grace would presumably have given a better account of himself in the subsequent scuffle. But none of this appeared in the paper, and when it appeared on the web site, it did so without attribution. These look like the signs of a news desk handing out lessons in humility; and I think Chris is entitled to feel aggrieved that when he finally gets hold of a story in which a named, important source says interesting things on the record, the paper treats it with as much disdain as if it consisted entirely of anonymous gossip inflated out of all recognition.

In the Sunday Telegraph meanwhile, Jonathan Petre had a crack at the bishops’ expenses. There wasn’t much there, either: the Mellows Committee is to recommend even more drastic measures than a freeze on expenses. But he plays strictly by the rules. The rest of it was a properly attributed interview with the Dean of Ripon, who explained that if he were serving Chateau Lafite for 24 people, he would not charge it to the Church Commissioners. The implication that there are bishops or deans who do so is wonderful. Of course, it’s an even better story if you find them serving such wine at an intimate dinner for two.

The Independent on Sunday has one of those columns of snippets from the foreign press that are irresistible to read, though it is neither as far-fetched nor as dirty as the Private Eye True stories column. There were two religious stories in this week: one can’t have been original: a gang of Colombian cocaine smugglers were found impregnating bibles with liquid cocaine. I am sure I have heard of that particular scam before, but I may be confusing bibles here with religious figurines, which have certainly been used. The other story was of a multi-lingual confession form put out by Spanish priests on the Costa Del Sol. "Those seeking absolution read through a 19-point guide printed in English, French, and Italian, and German, and point to the relevant sin, or identify it by number rather like ordering a Chinese meal."

What lifts this above the usual rut of automated confession stories is that the priests who drew it up obviously loathe the holiday makers they are serving, and regard them as bloated capitalist swine. So the questions are not of the "What did you do last night, who with, and how often?" variety. Instead, the paper quoted the following: "Do I pay a fair wage to those who work for me, Do I help the poor, weak, old, and immigrants> Have I stolen from others? Have I given back what I stole?" Of course, this may simply be a tribute to the age and infirmity of the long-term expatriate residents of the Costa del Sol. Most of them aren’t really up to any very energetic forms of sin.

The discerning reader will have noticed by now that there has been very little religious news this week. In fact, we are going to need a miracle if I am to reach the end without cheating. Naturally I went to the various newspaper search pages and plugged in "Miracle" to see what might emerge. Here are some of the more notable "miracles" recorded by the Daily Telegraph this year. I give them in the simple purity of the headlines: "It’s a Miracle! A tasteful summer exhibition"; "'Miracle' puppy that swallowed 15in knife"; "Soya bean is ‘a little miracle’"; Stay slim — Eat Burgers"; and, perhaps the closest to what Daily Telegraph readers understand as Divine Intervention, "‘ Celtic Thatcher’ takes ion Brussels." It is only fair to add that two of the 63 stories referred to the deeds of saints: one on Mother Teresa, and one on Cairdnal Newman.

The Guardian, by contrast, has recorded 380 miracles this year. The Independent says only that it has more than 200, among them "Fish farms push Atlantic salmon towards extinction." This investigation shows that the Daily Telegraph is narrowly the paper that takes religion most seriously, in that someone there seems to have the idea that "miracle" means something slightly more than "unlikely event". Or it might just mean that none of these search engines cover the sports pages, where miracles are so common that you can see why the Promise Keepers wanted to hold their meetings in football stadia.

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