Press Column

Last week, funerals; this week, weddings and an interesting example of the powers of the press. Photographers can do an awful lot to make a subject look stupid. Perhaps the most striking example in living memory was John Voos’s shot of Mrs Thatcher walking across a backdrop of industrial wasteland on Tyneside, which was as close to powtry, as least to "Ozymandias", as any news photograph could get. But photographers can’t do it all. Christopher Thomond, who took the Guardian ‘s picture of the Rev’d Donald Allister, may have thought his subject was a pompous bigot, and almost certainly asked him to stand in a shaft light from one of the church windows, looking up. But only Mr Allister could have produced the expression of determined smugness with which he gazes into the light. It was almost redundant of Emma Brockes to write as she did "Looking pained and adopting the tone of one who has infinite patience with the self-decieved, Mr Allister says: ‘I hate this publicity. I hate being unpopularr. Days like this are a complete horror to me’." But in the photograph, he looks as if he were delivering theline that really deserved to make him famous: "Blake and his wife used to receive friends to their house in the nude. For a nationally known figure this is not what I would call suitable behaviour."

The story was a wonderful one for August. Mr Allister was the subject of a double-page spread in the Guardian, a leader in the Times , news stories everywhere, and an elegant kicking from Philip Hensher:, in the Independent: "The poem, and the whole of Milton, the long poem that the lyric prefaces, have long puzzled scholars … However, Donald, who knows what themes he expects from God - and, I suppose, from Blake, too - pressed on in dauntless fashion, proposing a single meaning of his own invention. ‘What it is actually saying is, wouldn't it be nice if Jesus had lived in England? Yet we all know that he did not, so it is just nonsense.’

"This seems rather hard of Donald, I must say. I mean, if he believes the Bible, he believes five impossible things before breakfast for a living (the Creation, the Resurrection, Noah's Ark, Jonah in the whale, slavery being a good idea, etc etc etc). So I don't see that it would have done him much harm to have listened to Blake asking whether Jesus had come to England for a couple of minutes, even if that were really what the poem was saying.

"The thing that cheers me greatly is that Christianity and the Church of England are, apparently, not interested at all in great art or literature, or anything that might conceivably inspire the deeper passions. They've given up on Blake, and wouldn't have any use for Milton, and are content, apparently, to let themselves wither away and die with a lot of prayer- group idiocies. The final, blissful, detail to the whole story is that Donald seriously proposes that people only like Jerusalem because of the tune, and ‘Martyn [his organist] has himself written a hymn on marriage and God's love to the tune of Jerusalem.’

Hensher goes on to the usual "religion will wither away" rant after that, which rather lets the side down. After all, the problem for humanists is not that religion provides such fertile soil for foolishness and bigotry; it is that foolishness and bigotry come so naturally to humans. This point was nicely made by a letter to the Guardian about Jerusalem:

"Years ago Catholic friends were refused the hymn at their wedding because it was deemed a socialist anthem and not religious. When my wife and I married eight years ago, we were refused the hymn at our humanist wedding because it was religious. Eerily, Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union, was acceptable.."

No one seems to have recorded what hymns were sung at the mass wedding when Archbishop Milingo got hitched to Maria Sung, though they were certainly selected for theological correctness by the Rev’d Sun Myung Moon, who performed the ceremony. Whatever, they don’t seem to have given the couple much happiness. First there came the news that Archbishop Milingo had gone to meet the Pope personally in an effort to avoid excommunication; next thing you know, he has been whisked away to a secret location, and his bride is left to make the headlines all by herself. The background is dramatic: confronted with an ultimatum from the Vatican, to renounce his wife or face excommunication, he left his wife in a hotel at Milan airport, and travelled to see the Pope in private with a Bishop’s ring on one hand and a wedding ring on the other. Then he disappeared; according to the Vatican statement, this was because "After the lamentable events to which he was a protagonist, he has decided to take a period of reflection and prayer in view of his total reconciliation."

Bertrand Russell had a rather similar reaction to his first honeymoon. But the mood passed. Mrs Milingo, however, remains enthusiastic. She turned up in St Peter’s Square, and announced first that she would fast there until her husband was returned to her; then, weeping, that she thought she was pregnant. Since St Peter’s Square is part of the Vatican City, I don’t see how she can mount her fast there is the authorities don’t want her too. But nothing in this story has been credible so far; it will be a great disappointment if it starts to make sense at this late hour.

At least you never got this kind of trouble with Cardinal Newman. The Daily Telegraph of all papers devoted the most space and the friendliest coverage to a historical study, first appearing in the Tablet of tombstones testifying to homosexual love. I had not known that the Cardinal shared his grave with another man, of whom he wrote, "I have ever thought that no bereavement was equal to a husband’s or a wife’s but I feel it is difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine." It is a better reason to wish him in heaven than any we are likely to find in the Cause for his beatification.

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