Press Column

This has been the week in which a discernible strand of Christian opposition to American policy has emerged in the British press. The most direct challenge to American orthodoxies, whether deliberate or not, came from the Archbishop of Canterbury ("as a spiritual leader, I know how intensely challenging these questions can be") in the Times, where he called for a diminution of sanctions against Iraq. He also wants a reform of the UN security council, presumably to diminish the influence of the superpowers. This is such a masterpiece of bad timing that it counts, I think, as a genuinely prophetic gesture. We’ll know if it was if the usual suspects turn out to maul him in tomorrow’s papers

But the first bishop off the mark was the Bishop of Chester, speaking at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. The Times managed to turn it into a traditional pinko bishop story, complete with Ann Widdecombe correcting the Bishop’s theology: "God is never present in evil" she said; though he had said "present with the terrorists whose hearts have turned to evil I great poverty of spirit", and it is hard to see how an omnipresent deity could have avoided this engagement. Still, the ambiguity of "with" gave a Labour MP, David Winnick, the chance to expostulate at even greater length "Does the Bishop take the view that God was with the Nazis… with the Japanese when they carried out the most terrible torture on prisoners of war? Was He with Pol Pot? Was he with Stalin…" ("Is that enough mass-murderers, Ruth?"). The only really sympathetic note came from the Conservative politician Gary Streeter, who said that it was hard for a Bible-believing Christian to dissent from the Bishop.

Curiously, it was the Daily Telegraph which carried a much more sympathetic account of the Bishop’s homily, perhaps because it was done by their man in Rome, who had no access to English reactions, and simply reported what he heard as clearly as possible. The only English angle was the story underneath reporting a marked rise in church attendance. This perhaps explains the extraordinary prominence given by the Times on Monday to the anthrax scare in Canterbury Cathedral, which occupied most of Page 3, complete with a long-lens picture of protectively garbed policemen "sealing off" the Cathedral "after a man of Middle Eastern appearance was seen sprinkling white powder in the crypt". The announcement that the powder was harmless and the cathedral quite safe, made a paragraph I the News in Brief section the next day: the march on Saturday of 250,000 people to Assisi calling for peace made two paragraphs. Wrong sort of foreign news, you see.

There was more normal news creeping into the papers this week, too. I happened to pick up a pre-war copy of Vanity Fair — which is still on the newsstands: the only Cathedral there was being used as a set for the Harry Potter film, and the only religious news, Chris Hitchens’ account of how he had given evidence to the tribunal investigating the Cause of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Now, Hitchens does not believe she is a saint: "It was a shock to me when I first discovered that none of the things commonly believed about Mother Teresa, — such as her unworldliness and her modesty — are even in the least bit true. And I am an atheist." He had written a pamphlet, The missionary Position attacking her in her lifetime, and this had made a television film, whose title, Hell’s Angel he greatly disliked. It got him into trouble in the most unexpected way, he said in this article. Giving a lecture on the subject, he was astonished to find a gang of bikers pushing towards him through the crowd. When they reached him, they handed him a lawyer’s letter — a "cease and desist" order complaining that he had infringed on their trademark. This was not the only disappointment in store for him. Now that the office of "Devil’s advocate" has ben abolished, he could not even give his evidence about Mother Teresa to the authority he thought most proper for it.

Several papers carried the news that a tooth attributed to St Luke might actually have belonged to him. This conclusion was reached on the basis of DNA analysis, which is less ridiculous than it might appear, since the DNA that was analysed was mitochondrial, meaning that it is passed down in the female line. Women, and so their DNA, tend to persist through history better than men, for they are raped and enslaved rather than killed by conquering armies. So it does make some sense to compare the relic’s DNA with that of modern Syrians or Greeks, however many times Greece and Syria have been invaded since 150 AD. The Independent observed only that the carbon dating was independently found to be consistent with the idea that the teeth might be Luke’s: somewhere between 72 and 416 AD. The Telegraph reported in addition that the most likely date was 300AD.

In the Financial Times, too, life goes on without unnecessary excitement about the war. The Saturday magazine, called, of course The Business, had an article about a lunatic asylum on Essex that has been converted to a "gated community", the sort of place from which poor people are excluded by law and security guards. The old asylum held 2,500 patients: their wards are now being sold as luxury apartments: three bedrooms for £325,000; four bedrooms for just under half a million. The former patients, of course, are now so well integrated into the community that they can sleep in any shop doorway they choose. The new visitors have even found a use for the chapel: it is now the swimming pool of the Eden Health Club. The altar has been replaced by a jacuzzi. The stained glass windows in the new gym have been preserved: they add colour if not light.

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