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Press: Saying goodbye to The Times

05 January 2012

by Andrew Brown

Saying hello to the church: Peter Oborne on a rise in congregations in London and elsewhere, in the Sunday Telegraph magazine, Seven

Saying hello to the church: Peter Oborne on a rise in congregations in London and elsewhere, in the Sunday Telegraph magazine, Seven

THE first irritation of the New Year came with Decca Aitkenhead’s review of the old year in The Guardian’s Saturday magazine. “Nothing will ever fully explain”, she wrote, “why Anders Breivik woke up one morning in July and set off a bomb in Oslo killing eight, before moving on to a political youth summer camp on the picturesque island of Utøya, where the 32-year-old Christian laughed and cheered as he calmly gunned down 69 teenagers.”

Among the factors that might explain it, his being a Christian is surely not high among them. I can’t believe that the subs would have let through “the 32-year-old Muslim” or “Jew” if those epithets had been applicable. So why was this allowed? “Christian”, here, means obviously something like “gloomy nutcase”, but it is not a stereotype that helps us to under­stand the world.

I AM happy not to be as disgruntled with my paper as the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, is with The Times. He has given up the online edition with a memorable blast on his blog:

“When the Times paywall came in, I subscribed, mainly because someone’s got to pay for journalism and it could have been a fruitful way to go. The upside was occasional pieces of the most superb journalism — Simon Barnes, I will miss you, sir.

“The downside was a tedious sense of being trapped at a fundamentally narrow and super­ficial party, surrounded by low-grade right-wing bores, stories spun up in a hurry, often lifted from the internet or agencies anyway, a dreadfully sparse and low standard of scientific, historical, educational, and religious reporting.

“By December I noticed I could only be bothered to download The Times once a fort­night, out of a sense of duty. Why? I wondered. So I stopped.”

The real problem — for the whole news­paper business — is that the features that Bishop Wilson most dislikes, “stories spun up in a hurry, often lifted from the internet or agencies”, are the general symptoms of news turned into a commodity. Once that happens, you cannot compete on its quality.

It’s not fair to compare newspapers with family cars, because if cars were as inaccurate on corners as newspapers are on stories, you would take your life in your hands each time you popped out to Tesco. But they are alike in an important sense: the industry has reached a level of technical competence where it doesn’t really matter what you buy. Any mere driver who really cares about the difference between a Fiat and a Ford is a deluded, if romantic, bore. Yet caring a great deal about these things is the only way to change them even a little.

THERE was a long piece in the Sunday Telegraph magazine by Peter Oborne on the revival of the Church in even such un­promising places as Islington, where “slowly but surely, the St Mary’s congregation seems to be swelling.

“Over the last 12 months, attendance at the main Sunday service at the church (where my wife Martine is curate) has risen by nearly 20 per cent, from around 95 to 115. Though much of this is down to [the Revd Simon] Harvey’s hard work and charisma, the growing popularity of St Mary’s is part of a much wider and very striking phenomenon.”

He makes a good case that churchgoing of all sorts is rising in London. He suggests that this is happening elsewhere in the country, but we just don’t know. The most thought­ful voice in the piece, the Revd Simon Harvey’s, gives one good reason why this can’t be assumed: “In London, every parish has a church and a minister, whereas in other parts of the country, clergy can cover 8-12 churches. You’ve got to have a relationship with the minister. You’ve got to have somebody out there in the front of the church.”

ALSO in The Sunday Telegraph was the Rt Revd Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, doing his Archbishop-over-the-water impression. “One issue is religious literacy in the Civil Service, Parli­ament and local authorities. What Mr Cameron said about Christian ideas being embedded in our constitutional arrangements is no longer understood in the corridors of power. A disconnected view of history and the fog of multiculturalism have all but erased such memory from official consciousness.”

The trouble with this view is that govern­ments follow where public opinion tells them. The myth of a Christian, providential history of Britain, which justified the Empire, has not survived its fall. If ever Christianity is to spread back out and up from the parish level, it will need a new mythical explanation of British — quite probably, English — history. Without that, it will never defeat the casual disdain of Decca Aitkenhead.

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