Press Column Saturday 24 February 2001

Perhaps there is a God. Ruth Gledhill spent all last week trying to escape from religious journalism by writing up the Timesís fantasy share competition, a form of gambling; at least it would be if the software worked, but day after day her stories had plunging portfolios only at the end; the greater part of the piece would be an explanation of how the software for the competition had crashed and left her unable to do anything. In the end, the paper had to raffle the Maserati which was meant to have been a prize for the best-behaving portfolio. It was not meant to be that kind of lottery.

The Guardianís media pages had a long rant by Steve Bates on the awfulness of the churchís press coverage (rant, here, is a technical term, applied to any piece in which it appears that the journalist actually has some emotional investment in his words, as opposed to the stuff about "500 killed in Ebola epidemic" which one forgets as soon as typing). "Does he want us to arrange suicides?" asked a rather indignant press officer, because he had referred nostalgically to the Crockfordís scandal.

And in a final touch of secularisation, Michelle Symonds, a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionnaireł became only the third person to leave the quiz show without any money at all after she flunked her final question: "Which word specifically links a kind of mammal with an archbishop or high-ranking bishop? A, Carnivore; B, Rodent; C, Primate; D, Marsupial." It could have been worse. She knew it was neither rodent nor carnivore.

But taken together, these signs of the Times suggest a forward-looking conclusion. That office of the Archbishop of Canterbury must be actively rebranded. Out goes old-fashioned out of touch "primates". In come cuddly, dynamic, forward-looking marsupials. There is a vast iconography here to be exploited. Instead of simply referring to "The marsupial of the province of the Southern Cone, or the Marsupial of All England," they could be given the titles of individual animals. Obviously, this is impossible with Primates. Gibraltar and Europe might justly have a Barbary Ape, but who would want the titles of Bonobo, or Baboon?

But the marsupial order is full of inspiring role models: The Wombat, shyly retreating to his burrow when the membership figures appear, is a figure we can all recognise, whereas the Numbat, small, intelligent, and agile, is surely the leader of a thoroughly modern province. I would love to know which dignitary of the Anglican Communion resembles the delightful "sugar glider", described by one proud owner: "Sugar Gliders have become popular pets in the United States, and anyone who has ever seen one can easily tell you why. Besides being intelligent, playful and inquisitive, they are just darn cute. They also don't smell bad (if their diet is correct), don't have fleas, don't need shots, are relatively inexpensive to keep, and having one in your pocket is a sure-fire way to meet people and make new friends!"

Marsupials are distinguished from placental mammals by having four molar teeth, which explains the importance that so many clergy put on really wide smiles. They need to show that they are really wombat material. The male marsupial is further distinguished in a way which explains the expression of overwhelming smugness sometimes to be discerned on accredited wombats.

It is perhaps a slight hindrance to this scheme of improvement that the most wombat-like Australians I have ever met are all members of Forward in Faith, but the mother church has a big pouch, wherein all manners of creatures may suckle. And the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat, a species of whom only 65 are left, can be left to some endangered traditionalist province, especially as only fifteen of them are breeding females. And I bet that none are teenagers.

It was in this context that the steel-tipped boots of the Revíd Sydney Riley came marching in to provide some real news. After the death of his first wife, he subjected his teenaged daughters to a regime of Victorian severity, kicking them for impertinence, and told them that if they complained they would never be believed because he was a vicar. There was a full page on the story in all the tabloids and fairly lavish coverage in the broadsheets. Even without the boots, the story would have played well because of the fork he used to stab them with if they talked at mealtimes. But there is something deliciously weird about disciplining children by kicking them on the shins with steel-capped boots, and they appeared in the first paragraph of every version of the story. The Star went for the obvious headline: "The vicar from hell"; the others tried various variations on the theme of "bully". But the most interesting linguistic note was struck by the London giveaway Metro, which described Rileysí "Three-year reign of abuse". Clearly the word now means something rather different from simply insulting people. Iím not sure whether the next edition of Robert Conquestís great work on Stalin will be called "The great abuse".

The other fine piece of religious news in the Sun was Carl Lindlay, an unemployed sound engineer who was so angry when his girlfriend dumped him for spending too much time on a games console that he changed his name by deed poll to "The Rev Play Station 2" and plans to build a fifteen foot high temple to the thing in his back garden. He told the paper, "Anna said I worshipped my Playstation like a god, so I thought, why not? Iím with it more than Iím with her. Iím deadly serious about the temple. Why shouldnít I worship the Playstation? Itís my life. My games are everything to me."

If you thin this casts a dispiriting light on the interplay between computers and human beings, you have not been reading the Times media pages. Brian MacArthur fulminated there about the Daily Mailís decision to publish four pictures of terrorised (not "abused") children that had been seized in the Wonderland investigation of child pornography. Then, he said, "The Mail had only 30 protests and almost as many calls of support, ó compared with 300,000 protests when it published pictures of the maltreatment of a Chipperfield chimpanzee." What can one say? Perhaps rebranding primates as wombats is not in fact the way to win public sympathy.

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