Press Column Saturday 17 March 2001

Glumly, the tribe squats round a broken-down landrover in the outback. The sun burns. There is a whispering in the termite mounds around them Lizards lie panting in the shade. The food has long gone. The water cans are dry. One of the raises a jerrycan from a rusting heap of them and shakes it. There is still some petrol. In a moment, his apathy lifts and he flips back the lid. Before the others can react the contents gurgles down his throat. He starts to type with feverish enthusiasm: "According to the Church of England Newspaper, a retired bishop of Papua New Guinea is quite in favour of fox hunting." No: he takes another swig of petrol, and as the burning fumes rise through his brain, he types with greater energy. "A Church of England bishop has broken ranks with his colleagues by robustly defending fox-hunting, saying that while the church used to defend hunting and oppose buggery, the reverse now seemed to be true.

"The comments by the Rt Rev Paul Richardson, assistant bishop of Newcastle Ö are expected to outrage many in the Church of England, including a number of fellow bishops who have openly called for a ban on hunting with hounds."

Jonathan Petre, for it is he, sits back from his typewriter, and produces a mangy rollup. Flames shoot across the desert as he exhales. The rest of the tribe shuffles up to pay him homage for that story was the almost only church news in any of the Sunday papers last week. You see what Christopher Morgan is up against?

There was more fun to be had in the Sunday People, which had picked up a spicy vicar story in the Star : The Revíd John McKae has started taking his parishioners out for Indian meals. Between them, the papers came up with "Aloo be thy name", "Curry on preaching", "Sunday mass-alas" and, from the Peaple, a hymn note: "Donít breathe on me, breath of God!". The Star had even worked up a prayer for the occasion: "Thy king prawn come, with poppadum and a pint of Cobra." Clearly, there is one part of Richard Desmondís empire where morale is booming.

The Sun had a story which they could not decide whether to play straight or not and so rather fumbled. Dave Underhill, a student brought a suit from a charity shop to wear to job interviews. But he felt all weird and shivery when he wore it. That much is easy to believe: Iím forty six and I still feel like that whenever I wear a suit; but it has never occurred to me to have the suit exorcised, as Dave did, after consulting a medium. I have even suffered from another of his symptoms of demonic possession: waking in the morning to find the strewn across the room when I could have sworn I had folded it tidily. This condition is apparently quite common among students. Perhaps they should all be sprinkled with water.

In Stornoway, they have greater problems to worry about: foot and mouth disease, for one. It could be easily cured. "Such is our apprehension of the Divine displeasure that we appeal to you as First Minister to call for a national day of humiliation and prayer, in the hope that the Lordís judgement may be turned away from us", the Revíd John Macleod wrote to Henry McLeish, the first minister of the Scottish Assembly. Such appeals were traditional within living memory: what makes this one unusual is the reason Mr Macleod believes the nation has been afflicted with foot and mouth, floods, train crashes, Posh Ďní Becks, and so on. It is the abandonment of the Westminster Confession. Mr McLeish and the nation that he leads, must apologise because he extended "arm greetings from the people of Scotland" to the Pope on a recent visit to Rome. Not from these people he didnít.

Mr Macleod has also written to the Queen, more in sorrow than in anger. His presbytery "could not be other than grieved by the spectacle of our sovereign Head, clad in penitential black, paying her respects to the person identified by the Westminster divines in their Confession of Faith as Ďthe man of sin and the son of perditioní. Writing to Mr McLeish, the minister had specified Foot and Mouth disease as one of the consequences of ecumenism. Too the queen, he was vaguer. "The nation has passed through difficult times, and, for our part, we cannot but see the hand of God."

According to the Times, the most significant religious news of the week was that Lewis Wolpert has been brought in as this yearís token atheist to judge the Preacher of the Year awards. I think he has the measure of the task: "Professor Wolpert said that he had no fear that listening to six sermons in the final of the award would convert him." But of course all newspapers think their own publicity stunts are more important than anything else, which explains why the announcement that someone would win £1500 for a sermon was six times the size of the news on the same page, that Arthur Peacocke had just won £681,000 from John Templeton.

Chrissy Iley in the Sunday Times magazine had a very friendly story about a group of nuns who have made a plainchant single. It only mentioned sex once, right at the end, and then delicately. The quote which most perfectly caught their distance from the secular world came when Iley praised one of the singers. The Abbess replied. "Oh yes, but sometimes thatí not good for a choir. You can only have soloists occasionally; youíve got to merge in. Weíve also got people who are tone-deaf when they arrive. Bt after doing it three times a day every day, you learn." It must be wonderful to be a tone deaf nun, slowly hearing more and more of the harmonies around you as you grow into the vocation.

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