The Press Saturday, May 23rd 1998
Remember the hooha about the Promise Keepers last autumn? They were going to come over here and fill football stadiums with hordes of weeping men getting away from their wives. It was a wonderful story until Alan Franks of the Times was sent on their preliminary tour and found that they were to all appearances sane. Worse still, there were only about fourteen of them in the entire country. Shortly thereafter the founder's wife went public with her story and the parent organisation went broke. But even before the bubble broke it was a decidedly curious story; for if British men want to have a religious experience in a football stadium they go to watch a football match. The two themes were nicely brought together by Tom Sutcliffe, the Independent's television critic.
" 'Cardinal Hume there, a rabid Newcastle United fan,' said the commentator as a camera passed over the crowd during the warm-up for the FA Cup Final. A lot of people find they are football fans on Cup Final day, of course, but the word 'rabid' did seem to imply that the Cardinal was doing more than merely recognise one of sport's holy days of obligation. Indeed I found the mental picture that 'rabid' conjured strangely satisfying — you could imagne Basil, wearing a heavily-logoed black and white soutane and a fun wig, and chanting 'We 'ate Arsenal and we 'ate Arsenal. We are the Arsenal 'aters.' When it was later revealed that the Archbishop of Canterbury was a keen Arsenal supporter the fantasy was complete. On one side of a Wembley-bound tube train sits the Anglican primate, sweating anxiously in his red and white fin-foam mitre, because he has inadvertently boarded a carriage crammed with the diocesan chapter of the Toon Army. On the other side of the train, hanging boisterously from the straps, is Cardinal Hume, his finger jabbing derisively at his plump counterpart as he leads a chorus of 'Who ate all the pies?'"
It is delightful to find one writer left on the Independent who dares blaspheme against football.
It was the Independent, too, which pointed out on its front page that both prelates spent Saturday afternoon watching the cup final rather than demonstrating against Third World debt in Birmingham.
All quiet on the Westminster Front this week. The best religious buildings story was in Neal Ascherson's column in the Observer. Ascherson was sacked from the Independent on Sunday last winter in a manoeuvre of duplicitous stupidity remarkable even by the standards of Canary Wharf. His mistake was to suppose that columnists should have several subjects and know something profound about all of them. The present fashion is for columnists like William Leith or the slightly less fictitious Bridget Jones who write about nothing but themselves. Even then they get their comic effects from total ignorance of their subject matter.
Ascherson was reflecting on the Indian atomic bomb. What was frightening, he said, was that it was so small: small enough that it could very well be used without sparking off Armageddon. This will inevitably lead to an arms race with Pakistan, and by the time the two countries fight their next war they probably will have enough nuclear material to spark off Armageddon, but they will be expecting to get away with it. How did this come about? Ascherson excavated the beginnings of the tragedy and found them in the rise of Hindu nationalism, exemplified in 1992 when a mob sacked and rased a mosque in the town of Ayodha because it had purportedly been built 400 years ago on the site of a Hindu temple which itself commemorated the birthplace of a god. The BJP, the party which now runs India, had encouraged the sack, but in order to get elected had dropped its demand that the original Hindu temple be rebuilt in the ruins. Testing an atom bomb was the moderate alternative in their programme. Ascherson concluded that "For India's rulers, the nation's real doomsday machine is not out there at the test site in the Punjab. It is hidden in Uttar Pradesh, in a pile of stones which was once a mosque." That is why newspapers should cover religion.
Of course, for total and utter pradesh, Anne Atkins is your man. Even by her standards, it is original to argue that you can't allow heterosexual divorcees to marry in church because then the gays will want it too and giving in to them is unthinkable. QED. The Daily Telegraph had her debating with that well-known lay theologian Annabel Heseltine the propriety of second marriages in Church. Ms Heseltine's fiancé is a divorced Catholic and she explains her ovaries are not getting any younger so she wants to marry him. "I have been brought up as a Protestant," she wrote "so I found it ironic that when we got down to basics it was my Church and not his — the 'strict' Catholic one — that could not countenance remarriage in church."
She is not so much smiling as bursting with adoration in the photograph with her fiancé. Beneath them, Mr and Mrs Atkins look more — how can I put this — married. Every time they're photographed together, with Anne explaining how she does exactly what Shaun (in background) wants, he looks more and more haunted. No wonder that she can't imagine a priest daring to tell a parishioner on his own initiative that he can't be remarried, though others can. "What is the poor parish priest to say? 'Unlike the couple I married last week, you two don't seem to have repented' of 'I only allowed it to Mrs B because her first husband beat her up.' Such discrimination is unworkable. If we allow it for some, we must allow it for all. Vicars who break the rules (as our neighbouring vicar does) are being cruel to other couples." Isn't it wonderful to contemplate Shaun and Anne spending the rest of their lives together as an encouragement to the rest of us.