Press Column Saturday 13 January 2001

I must be reading Gay Times in my sleep. At leat, thatís what I told my wife when she asked why there were a set of cuttings from the personal ads in our bathroom. Itís true that I canít remember putting them there at all, but neither my wife nor our ten-year-old daughter are terribly likely suspects. I can only blame a reader, because the pages in question have clearly been sent by one. There is a post-it note drawing my attention to a good-looking young man who stands triumphant, if exhausted, in his dog collar between two sturdy lesbians. It is the Revíd Jonathan Blake, who left the Church of England after some difficulty over his heterosexual enthusiasms, but has been featured "Market Trader of the month" in Gay Times for his services. "For Jonathan it is a privilege to be able to offer such a ministry, until the legal system catches up." He has a small display ad in the classfieds, reached past the one that says "M3n, does your size, potency and performance matter" and the one for an improbably muscled personal trainer, who offers "A very friendly men-only gym".

The only thing truly mystifying about this story is how it got into my bathroom. Perhaps the anonymous donor, who signed himself, on a post-it "a secret CT reader" ó sorry, I think I have misread that. He is a secret GT reader ó snuck in while the house was sleeping. More likely. I used the cutting as a bookmark, in which case the story is weeks old; but, as the discerning reader will have noticed, thereís not a great deal of recent domestic news at the moment. The Guardian published one of the most wonderful and spooky pictures I have ever seen, showing a fully robed friar skydiving off a 20 metre cliff into the ocean ó except that he has no parachute. He is in fact Fernando Canchari, a man who commemorates every day the suicide of a Peruvian friar killed himself at this spot , except that where the friar jumped off the cliff our hero dives, which is braver, since you are allowing yourself to hope.

Certainly, his feat provides a wonderful illustration for the next article I write about church statistics. Next to it, there is a reminder of why conservative religions are so good at holding on to their members. "Taliban to execute Muslims who deny Islam" The supreme leader of the Taliban announced on the readio that "Any Muslim Afghan will be sentenced to death is he accepts Christianity and has converted to this nullified religion, or is seen inviting people to Christianity as well as porpagatins and distributing their books."

In a tabloid, the story would have ended there. However, the enxt two paragraphs add some greatly needed background, and leae the reader confused as he should be. The first points out that is is already a capital offence to convert out of Islam in Iran, the Yemen, and Saudi Arabia; the second reads, in full "Despite the ban on evangelism, followers of other faiths have been allowed to continue worshipping in Afghanistan. Large Sikh and Hindy communities meet at temples in Kabul, and a lone Jewish rabbi still lives in the city." Now thereís a man I would like to interview.

But of course it is much cheaper and easier to find a trend. This weekís is True Christianity, discovered by the Independent on Sunday. "A church at the heart of one of Britainís most impoverished communities has taken to heart Christís advice Ö and id selling its precious communion silver collection to feed the local poor, single mothers, and drug addicts." You have to read quite closely to discover that the collection was kept in a bank vault and had to be brought to Church, on the rare occasions when it was used, in a police car, with an escort." The decision of Holy Trinity church, in a deprived Edinburgh estate, was wonderful. They deserve the publicity. But it doesnít make a trend, and very few churches face such a clear-cut choice as they did.

From Russia in the Observer comes a headline to warm the hearts of everyone depressed by the previous story "Backlash of faith shakes atheists". "City authorities recently refused to register the Moscow society of atheists as a legitimate body." There was even a spokesman from Keston College to be sympathetic to their predicament, if not their cause. "Out of all belief systems, it is probably hardest to exist as an atheist [in Russia] today because this belief was so closely associated with the old order and has become discredited as a result. Atheists tend to be looked upon as strange relics of the Soviet Union."

Keston, of course, has a long and honourable history of watching the statist bits of the Orthodox church with justified suspicion. So itís not as ridiculous as it might seem for an organisation which existed to help Christians persecuted by organised atheism should worry when organised atheists are harassed by the church. But the resurgence of orthodoxy in Russia is one of those stories that just doesnít get properly covered and which must really matter. For one thing post-communist Russia is a perfect laboratory for conservative Christian pessimists who suppose that without religion there is no morality, and without morality, there can be no functioning capitalism. Perhaps the reintroduction of Orthodoxy into the class room will do that and in a generation or two Russian businessmen will not be gangsters. But the omens are not promising, when you consider what business morality was like in the Middle Ages, a period of unsurpassed devotion. The other notable statistic was that "Polls suggest aht 55% pf the Russian population are Orthodox believers, about 3% being regular church attenders." In other words, 70 years of intermittently savage persecution followed by ten years of virtual anarchy have brought Russian Orthodoxy to a condition which the Church of England needed only a Decade of Evangelism to reach.

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