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Wearing a word out

02 November 2006

FUNNY old things, clichés. A peculiar discomfort steals upon the conscientious writer when you realise that the only phrase that says most tersely what needs saying has been abused so much that it means hardly anything. But to set parameters did once clearly mean to establish the boundaries within which things might vary. And there were three stories last week which set the parameters for all stories about the interaction of African religious traditions with English society.

Towards the extremes of fraud and folly came the story of Kevin Bird, the window-fitter who asked Mansor Barry, a psychic from Equatorial Guinea who now practises in Birmingham, to help him get his girlfriend back. The Daily Mail devoted most of a page to this story, describing Mr Barry as a witch-doctor, which seems fair enough until you reflect that this is a qualification awarded only to black charlatans. Carole Caplin is a "New Age guru", and the developers of the BX3.4 helmet, which "uses harmless electromagnetic waves to prevent hair falling out and to stimulate regrowth", are just "doctors", according to their display advertisement in today’s Mail.

Over the course of five sessions, Mr Barry extracted from the lovelorn Kevin Bird "items of underwear", a urine sample, and £1500. Only after the girlfriend failed to ring him did Mr Bird realise what had been taken. The police told him that they could not help; so now he has gone to the trading-standards officers.

THIS contrasts with the decision of the Advertising Standards Authority, which turned down a complaint against the Peniel Church in Brentwood, Essex, which had advertised on a poster "miracles — healing — faith". This, the church claimed, was simply a reference to its teaching the Bible, and not in any way a suggestion that it was itself peddling miracles. This is the same church that had an ASA complaint upheld against it in 1999, over a newspaper advertisement that claimed "a sick man was miraculously healed after being brought into Peniel’s Sunday-morning service." But the Mail reported, straight-faced, the ASA opinion: "Most people in the UK [are] aware of Christian beliefs, and would understand that the poster referred to spiritual, not physical, miracles and healing."

The Charity Commissioners ruled on an even more successful Evangelical church, the Kingsway Christian Centre. They have just announced that the pastor and founder, Matthew Ashimolowo, originally a Nigerian Muslim, must repay the church £200,000: The Times gave the story even more room than its earlier discovery that the Roman Catholic Church does not hold all the Bible to be literally true.

"When investigators visited the church in September 2002, they ‘noted boxes containing finance papers being loaded into a car’. These turned out to be invoices, cheques and cash related to that financial year. The investigators concluded that this incident showed ‘at the very least a serious lack of control’ by the trustees."

AND SO to the good news: a whole page in The Guardian, carrying an interview with Dr Sentamu on the day his appointment was confirmed. "Dr Sentamu said: ‘Some of our disagreements are not Christian, really. . . It seems to suggest that all the great evils of the world are being perpetrated by gay and lesbian people, which I cannot believe to be the case. . . To suggest that to be gay equals evil: I find that quite unbelievable.

" ‘Is somebody saying a gay or lesbian can’t live in Christ? What matters in the end to me is to do what my mother said to me as a little child: John, never point a finger at anybody, because when you do, three other fingers are pointing back at you. All of us are sinners, all of us have baggage. Why should my baggage as a heterosexual be more acceptable than the baggage of a gay person?’ "

He also said that he would be perfectly willing to consecrate women bishops, if that were the Church’s will. This made an interesting contrast with the story in last week’s Telegraph, where Jonathan Petre attributed to "the highest levels of the Church" a plan for Dr Williams not to consecrate any women bishops, as a way to retain ties with Forward in Faith.

But Forward in Faith does not want such ties. Geoffrey Kirk had a letter in the following day’s paper demanding a third province, and this is where the real news in the original story comes in: Petre said that "the ‘third province’ idea is totally unacceptable to the Church’s leadership, which regards it as little more than officially sanctioned schism." He is a scrupulous journalist. He didn’t just make that up.


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