Press Column

The affinity of sport with religious faith goes deep. Itís one of those fields where Pascalís wager really makes sense: after all, the sportsman loses nothing by supposing that there is a providence willing him on to win. Except in very rare cases, religious observance does nothing to hamper sporting excellence, and, even when it does, there may be hidden advantages ó"Well, if I could run on Sunday, I would surely beat him". The existence of an entire universe, made by a benevolent creator, must surely suggest to even the most dedicated sportsman that there are a few things in life outside his chosen field of struggle; and among nomadic circuses, like golf or tennis players, one can see that evangelical religion offers the same ready-made circles of friendship as it does in the more rootless parts of modern society. Equally, the abasement of the fan before his idol seems to map pretty neatly onto the old testament world view, as does the occasional, shattering, discovery that the other tribe has got a more powerful deity on match day. So itís not surprising that any search for "God" or "miracle" will turn up more on the sports pages than anywhere else; but even so it was a shock to discover that the Daily Mail lifted its eyes from the sublunary squabbles of the Tory leadership and proclaimed Goran Ivanisevic on its front page to be "The man who proves there is a God".

"After every vital shot in the final against Australiaís Pat Rafter, the 29-year-old Croatian Catholic had crossed himself and gazed up to Heaven. He believed God had sent the rain which delayed his previous match against Britainís Tim Henman when he looked like losing." One can see the appeal of any argument which suggests that British tennis players can only lose as a result of divine intervention ó God being too sporting to let us win all the time ó but even so, this seems a little thick. On the inside pages, thoguh, it gets laid on a whole lot thicker. "Crossing himself before big points, constantly glancing up to Heaven, Goran Ivanisevic never doubted that God was on his side. Even after three bitter Wimbledon final defeats he kept the faith. Yesterday God kept his part of the bargain. And Goran wept for gratitude."

This kept out of most editions of Tuesdayís paper what would otherwise have been a natural Mail story from the General Synod: the Church of England being denounced for abandoning the poor by the Bishop of Liverpool. The clearest and so the furthest off message statement of this came in the Guardian: "The church Ö also voted at its general synod in York to remove precisely the sort of indicators of poverty that it is calling on the government to adopt from its own methods of calculating the income it distributes to alleviate poverty." The Times put the whole thing on its front page, which seems to have persuaded the Mail that it was a story: "Senior bishops predicted a retreat by the Church of England from the poorest parts of the country as nearly half of its 43 dioceses will for the first time receive no support from the Church Commissioners because of its financial difficulties."

But for most of the day, the only religious news in the Daily Mail, apart from Godís interest in Wimbledon, was this: "The verger of All Saints Church, West Bromwich, has appealed for donations of knicker elastic to mend a church clock. David Lord said in his parish magazine that 18 inches of knicker elastic would allow him to recondition the 10-year-old timepiece."

It would, Iím sure, be unhelpful to speculate on how much knicker elastic is required to mend the finances of the Church of England.

The Times and the Daily Telegraph both carried stories about proposed changes in the mechanisms for electing bishops. No one else bothered. Itís not at first sight obvious why there should be such a left/right split in the coverage of religious affairs among the broadsheets. Itís not as if anyone can afford to ignore the potential market of people who go to church; the thought occurs, however, that ignoring the General Synod is not the same thing as ignoring Christianity: in fact it aligns the papers with most of their Anglican readership. The point was made most prettily by Don Cupitt, in the Guardian where he told a story about how a Bishop, asked to speak to the Sea of Faith conference, had pulled out on the grounds that he was a member of the Doctrine Commission. As Cupitt said, it appears that this post disqualifies a bishop from discussing Christian doctrine.

Much safer to stay in the House of Lords. This was the subject of some rather confusing reporting in the Times. On Friday, Ruth Gledhill had what looked like a completely staight report of the Synod debeating the matter, and resolving that more bishops in the House of Lords would be a Good Thing. Anthony Howard, a columnist who clearly has the Church of England as one of his hobbies, described a far more dramatic event the following Tuesday: "Last weekend the Church of England stopped just short of running up the flag of revolt against the Government. It fell to the highly pragmatic Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull, to persuade the General Synod meeting in York not to express its outright opposition to any diminution in the total number of bishops (26) who currently represent it in the House of Lords."

He went on to say that the Bishops were almost the only true meritocrats in the House of Lords: "Each and every one of them has, after all, got where he is ó alas, there are still no women ó through his own distinction in his chosen profession." This seems a terrible slur on all the members of the House of Lords whose chosen profession is making money, and whose hobby is handing it over to political parties. Perhaps the answer to everyoneís troubles is to reserve ten seats in the House of Lords for honorary bishops: captains of industry who have raised most money for the Church Commissioners.

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