Press Column

My heroine this week is the Rev’d Katherine Rumens, the rector of St Giles, Cripplegate, who was asked by the Independent where she went for spiritual refreshment. Actually, the travel section asked the standard assortment of spiritual leaders: the Catholic bishop went to St Finbarr’s hermitage in County Cork; Zaki Badawi — you’ll be astonished to hear — "has always found spiritual fulfilment in Medina"; the Rabbi goes to Israel, and so on. Ms Rumens goes walking on Southend Pier with a friend: "We tend to do it when the weather is foul. We always have beer and fish and chips at the end of the pier. I like to call it marine theology." The paper solemnly listed the price of a rail journey to Southend from London (where everyone lives). What I liked most about this was that she is the only person who goes where there is any chance of solitude.

No one from the British Humanist Association was asked for his views. If it was quick on their feet, the Association could be arranging pilgrimages to Jerusalem at the moment for anti-spiritual refreshment, if anyone could hear the lecturer above the noise of the ceasefire.

There was a much more muted response than one might have expected to the appointment of an agnostic to run the BBCs religious programmes. The Sun did its best: "Ex-producer Alan Bookbinder — who sparked outrage when an erection was shown in his Human Body series— will be the first non-believer in the job’s 68-year history." It is nice to learn that the readers of the Sun find an erect penis shocking as well as novel.

The paper continued: "The appointment was condemned last night: Christina [sic] Odone, ex-Catholic Herald editor, said ‘It’s outrageous.’

"Joel Edwards, of the Evangelical Alliance, said: ‘Would they appoint a head of sport who knows nothing about football?’"

I would not have placed a bet on Cristina making it into the Sun quite like that, even with her name misspelled. The Sun managed to avoid the word "agnostic" altogether; the Mirror put its dictionary definition in a fact box. Apparently, Bookbinder described himself as an "atheist" when he got the job, switching smartly to "agnostic" three days later.

The spokesdroids for mainstream denominations were predictably soothing: "We are very interested that Mr Bookbinder recognises the importance of religion, is willing to take it seriously, and is interested in producing high quality religious programmes," said the Catholic Jim O’Donnell, while Jonathan Jennings was widely quoted as saying the Church of England was "relaxed" about the whole thing, which proves, I suppose, that the BBC is in a position to hand out date rape drugs to any denomination. But it is still interesting to speculate why Bookbinder got the job. I am told two things by everyone. He makes good television programmes; and he was the choice of Jane Root, the controller of BBC2. If the people running the BBC despise all the more conventional candidates, then it is probably a good thing for religious broadcasting that they put in someone they trust.

The question is whether he will be any good at finessing the most difficult question confronting anyone who deals with religion for a mass audience: is it true? This is not, pace Joel Edwards, a problem that confronts the head of Sport. No one asks whether football is true or not, any more than they ask whether novels are. And however badly sporting fans behave, they have only started one war: even their riots tend not to kill people. It’s true that sport might seem a category as nebulous as religion: it has no necessary connection with physical exertion, since sport can perfectly well be carried out on motorised trolleys, like golf, or without moving your feet at all, like darts. But in fact sport on television is easily defined. It is any activity which can be used to sell cigarettes or, at a pinch, alcohol.

Religion is notoriously more difficult to pin down but we can be absolutely certain that a state of disinterested benevolence towards all religion is impossible to achieve, and that no one would complain louder or longer than Joel Edwards if the wrong sort of religion were being advertised by the BBC. So there is no real point in asking for a religious broadcaster who feels that sort of generalised benevolence towards "faith". In the long run, the only future for sympathetic religious coverage in the grown-up media is to move it all under the arts departments. That way, too, the poor BBC religious department might have its exile in Manchester lifted, since everyone knows that art is far too important to happen in the provinces.

There is a sense in which the religious aftermath of the Rwandan genocide is pure farce. Nothing that any church could do can compare in enormity with what went on there. Certainly, the spectacle of Rwandan bishops lecturing the rest of the world on biblical morality is best greeted with a giggle pitched somewhere between "quite relaxed" and "helplessly stoned". But the case of Fr Athanase Seromba beggars belief all over again. He is a Hutu Catholic priest, who was until last week minding a parish outside Florence. His Sunday sermon was awaited unusual eagerness last week, for he had promised to explain in it why he had been summoned by the UN Tribunal on Rwanda to answer charges of genocide. They want him to explain a breakdown of pastoral relations in his former parish of Nyange which ended when he herded 2,500 Tutsis into the church so that they could be crushed by bulldozers.

After the war, the church spirited him to Rome to study, and then gave him a job in Florence, as a priest, under an assumed name, before moving him to his present post under his real name. When he failed to turn up, a diocesan spokesman explained that he had been taken to a quiet retreat to avoid journalists, and might stay there indefinitely. The Guardian’s report concluded perfectly: "Most of those spilling into the sunshine after Mass did not want to discuss the allegations. A local policeman, Vincenzo Forte, said they were nervous: ‘Everybody is worrying that if he is guilty the marriages and communions might turn out to be invalid. Where would that leave us?’"

Quite. It wouldn’t do at all to find the village was full of bastards. That’s what the Church is there to protect you from.

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