The Press 21 June 1997
There are angels in the Daily Mail and healings in Prospect magazine. The Sunday Times has the Dalai Lama endorsing prostitution. But the serious broadsheet press had practically nothing about religion this week. None the less, Christianity seems to have survived.
It is now clear that there are two ways to get the Daily Mail to treat your thoughts with reverence. The first is to spend twenty years denouncing anyone who reminds the readers of the people they admired at seventeen: feminists, asylum scroungers, adulterers, bohemians. The second, less tiring, method requires supernatural assistance: anything you say on the direct authority of God will be treated as gospel, even when it's the Bible Code.
Diana Cooper, a 56-year-old Surrey woman, sees angels. She also talks to them in the bath, and hold courses to enable others to meet them. One of her clients got his taps unstuck by an angel, which must have been cheaper, as well as quicker, than a conventional plumber. Angels, as is well-known, don't mind being called out on Christmas day.
The relationship that all this stuff has with Christianity is complicated. "At one stage, the Angel showed me Jesus", she told the Mail, and added immediately: "I'm not a Christian. [Jesus] was standing on a platform looking the other way. The angel said that the light from His eyes was so bright it would burn me.
Then I looked down and underneath us was a great hall full of people who had beautiful rainbow auras around them. I asked the angel 'Am I down there?' He said: 'No, you're on a platform. You're a teacher.'
"An hour later I opened my eyes and, with a start, realised I was back in Cobham."
Emboldened by this experience, she left her husband and set up as a teacher of hypnotherapy. This stuff is presented entirely uncritically in the Mail's Monday New Age section. The previous week's special had been a double-page spread on Reading Toes: discernment through bunions. By a cosmic coincidence, my wife proof-read that book for a local New Age publisher, so I have some idea of what complete tripe it is. My admiration is unbounded for whoever had the job of making it look as if it contained any sense at all.
This does raise interesting questions about the Mail's relations with Christianity. I am sure that if you looked in the right places, you would find Christians who spoke as freely to angels as Ms Cooper does; but they do not represent the sort of Christianity of which the Mail approves. That has a duty to be as dull as possible, and largely concerned with keeping it in your trousers, or cassock as the case may be.
Hence the delight with which the tabloids all fell on the Norwich diocesan recommendation that priests should guard against sexual frustration inside marriage lest they be tempted outside it. "Let us Lay" was the Sun's headline. Of course, this was exactly the right way to treat the story. Whenever anyone in a dog collar says something incontestably sensible, it is news. Every diocese now has policies of this sort, and none would be news at all without some twist like this sudden solicitude for the vicar's sex life. I wonder if Archdeacons will include inquiries into their visitations. Or, if congregationalist forces increase, perhaps PCCs will start to demand a reckoning from their priests at the end of the year.
But charismatic Christianity is getting a little less esoteric. There was a lovely little story in Prospect magazine, which is the nearest we now have to Encounter, about accompanying an elderly, pious, and very ill woman ("even on her better days, she looked like Tutankhamun with the bandages off") to "the Anglican healing service held once a month in the local church. Unlike the emotionally charged healing circuses conducted by charismatic power evangelists in conference centres these unobtrusive services, held on the last Thursday of the month are quiet, contemplative, poorly attended affairs."
The fun that Jeremy Clarke pokes is gentle, and tempered by the knowledge that the healers are trying to help, and doing no harm. "While hands were being laid on our heads I could hear Eva's intercessors sternly rebuking the spirits of ill-health who had taken up residence in her body. Fortunately, the spirits of sex and shopping which in habit my own rudely healthy body are less easily discerned, Every month I knelt down and felt the hands on my head and wondered whether I was about to be rumbled; but every month the layers on of hands would draw a complete blank. They would sigh and moan with righteous anguish, and sometimes, as a last resort, they would grip my head and vibrate it a bit, while discreetly murmuring invocations in strange tongues. But it was all to no avail, and my demons would enjoy security of tenure for at least another month."
This is so much more elegant and perspicacious than almost anything I have read in the newspapers for months that I felt I had to quote it. It is also a nice example of the way in which almost everything can get absorbed into the fabric of an English village, given time, even earnest miracle workers.
The fashionability, and wealth, of Tibetan Buddhism is a phenomenon. One reason must be that it is a religion which many Westerners feel they can make up as they go along. To be a Buddhist means you can be spiritual and get laid a lot. So the sudden appearance of old-fashioned homophobia on the part of a living deity must have come as a shock to the more sensitive inhabitants of San Francisco.
According to the Sunday Times, the Dalai Lama told a crowd there that "From the Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct." However, his message for the inhabitants of Los Angeles was even more worrying. "Sexual misconduct for men and women consists of oral and anal sex" he told an audience there. What on earth will the poor dears do now? The only consolation he left them was that "To have sexual relations with a prostitute paid by you and not by a third person does not constitute improper behaviour."
This is the only story about Buddhist doctrine I can ever remember reading in the Sunday Times.