Press Column Saturday 24 March 2001

It’s too easy to ask which newspaper columnist is least likely to cry "Hallelujah! Thank God got the Bishop of Bath and Wells" — at least when you remember that Lord Tebbit picks up a crust or two in his old age by writing for the Mail on Sunday. As almost the last survivors still active from the great years of the war between Mrs Thatcher and the liberal-pinko-elitist Church of England it is perhaps inevitable that they should at last be reconciled over a heap of corpses. Fox corpses, in this instance: for Jim Thompson had apparently made a speech about fox-hunting in the House of Lords which actually came down quite clearly in favour of it. In another lifetime, the old polecat Tebbit might have made more of the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells’ admission that "Bambi had me under my seat and in tears". But last week he even bowdlerised him a little: there the Bishop, according to Hansard, lamented that sparrowhawks ate pigeons alive on the lawns of the palace, the Noble Lord left out the word "alive" in his praise. It may not be the lion lying down with the lamb, but it’s probably as close as we shall get for a while.

From Tebbit the mind by an easy association of ideas ends up in Medellin, a city which was once upon a time one of the most civilised in Colombia. The Independent ‘s Sunday magazine had a report from the poor barrios of the city, where there are nearly 5,000 murders every year. The whole are is divided into warring and heavily armed territories. The story has the obligatory brave and dedicated Catholic social worker, but it also has a deity I have never come across before. "At a bend in the road, Andres pauses for a moment. He bows his head to a whitewashed shrine the Madonna of the Assassins, crosses himself, and kisses his trigger finger. ‘We always come to the altar before we do a job’ he says. On the wall behind the statue a dedicatory plaque reads, ‘Thanks for the help. The Boys’."

The Church of England appears to be holding its own by less drastic means, though only Times readers will have learnt of this. Ruth Gledhill had on Saturday an excellent story on a report on church growth from Christian Research which seems to have shown that everything everyone believed on the subject was wrong. Well, reading it closely, it doesn’t show that church attendance is actually rising across the country as a whole. But it does seem to show something really fascinating: that church growth has nothing to do with church doctrine. Where churches are growing evangelicals are no better at it than anyone else; in fact large evangelical churches are losing members fastest of all while small rural ones are gaining. It’s not clear how much they are growing by: the Times says "almost 60% of the churches with fewer than ten worshippers show growth, albeit of 5 per cent."

Dr Peter Cameron wrote from St Mary’s Rectory in Dunkeld to praise this method of accounting: "What a clever solution to the problem of declining church numbers: change the basic unit from one person to half a person, and you double the numbers overnight.

"But it will entail some revision of the Gospels: eg, ‘when one or one-and-a-half are gathered together in my name’; and what shepherd will not go after the half that is missing?’ And, of course, the feeding of the 10,000?"

Perhaps the moral of this all is simply that people want to join groups small enough for them to feel that they make a difference. This is also suggested by the shorter of the two pieces in the Observer’s special supplement on Britain today which dealt with religion. This had a cell of one of the New Frontiers churches meeting in Camberley. Hardly any time was spent discussing what they believe, or how they differed from the world around them. Instead, the article talked about they way they deal with each other, and with prospective recruits, and the tightness of their social world. One prospect had recently given birth, so the group is asked for volunteers to visit her and the baby with dinner on five nights of the following week. The leader says "When you meet in small groups, everyone’s got a contribution to bring. That gives responsibility to people. I don’ thtink you can ‘do’ Christian values in large groups."

A similar perspective emerges from the other large piece on religion in the same magazine: a study of a mosque in the East End, and specifically of three children there whose ambition is to be religious teachers, or mullahs, as a hostile piece would doubtless have called them. These children are art of " a younger, increasingly orthodox generation of British Muslims"; and a large part of their motivation, according to Burhan Wazir, who wrote the piece is that it is a route to respect and a professionw hich works better than the secular school system in the East End. "There’s nothing else, I want to do" says one eleven year old, "Everyone respects a religious teacher, and I’m not that interested in school. He sits for a moment, pondering his future: ‘Normally, I can’t wait to get her once school finishes. I mean,. IO like other things, pop music, sports, and my friends — but this is where I feel I can do something and I want to be able to pass that on."

The Daily Telegraph letters page never ceases to surprise. This week there was a letter from the Archpriest Sergei Hackel, provoked by the news that the man who wrote Stalin’s national anthem has rewritten it to invoke God’s protection in the new post-communist Russia. The tune remains the same, just as the men running Russia remain the same ones who rose through the communist party, and the Archpriest concludes his letter, "Maybe the time has come for anthem makers of every kind to leave God out of texts like these Too easily we take his name in vain."

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