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The influentuial 0.0037 per cent

04 January 2013

Cheering: Cole Moreton in The Sunday Telegraph

Cheering: Cole Moreton in The Sunday Telegraph

LET ME greet the new year with a really heartfelt trumpeting of disgust. The Guardian has published its figures for the number of comments on its site - roughly 600,000 a month.

While this looks like an enormous figure, it is dwarfed by the number of page views: 70 million unique users in November 2012, according to the audited figures. And within the 20,000 comments a day (compared with 200-300 paper letters), the greater part are produced by a small number of highly motivated commenters.

Martin Belam, who used to work for The Guardian's web operation, analysed these stats on his blog: "At least 20 per cent of the comments left on the Guardian website each month come from only 2600 user accounts, who together make up just 0.0037 per cent of The Guardian's declared monthly audience."

This is a figure that grows more awful the longer you consider it. I can think of one particularly dedicated atheist who has posted more than 10,000 times on The Guardian's belief site - almost always within working hours. A rough calculation suggests that, if he spends a minute-and-a-half on every post, that's six solid 40-hour weeks his employer has unwittingly contributed to the cause of atheist agitprop.

That figure is not really a problem for the newspaper. On the other hand, the noise made by the 0.0037 per cent does skew the kind of things that get published, at least online. We naturally take them to be representative of the wider sample of readers. Yet there is no real reason to suppose that they are.

It's all rather like the way in which Forward in Faith got taken seriously until the Ordinariate came along and offered the chance to do what some of its members had so long threatened. But even the papalist Anglo-Catholics made up rather more than 0.0037 per cent of the laity of the Church of England: perhaps a thousand times as much at their height.

COLE MORETON, formerly of this parish, had an extremely cheering piece in The Sunday Telegraph, for which he was, of course, attacked in the online comments:

"The Church lacks the money or the people to put a professional into every parish as it once used to. Often, the work is done by a part-time volunteer. One bishop told me: 'We are turning from an institution into a voluntary organisation, with all the challenges that involves.'

"But there is still cause for the rest of us to be grateful. Anglicans give up 22.3 million hours every month to work that benefits their local community. The Sunday Telegraph asked representatives of every diocese in England to say what their church did that they were most proud of, and the response was overwhelming: night shelters, food banks, credit unions, housing trusts, legal advice, street patrols, and support groups were all mentioned. Countless churches will serve hot Christmas dinners to the lonely or homeless.

"Of course, many other denominations do the same. Atheists and agnostics work just as hard. But nobody else has the same kind of national network, or historic connections with people in authority. The challenge is to make it work for a nation that is going through great cultural and ethnic change."

AN INTERESTING sidelight on this came from the New York Times, which handed over Maureen Dow's column to a Roman Catholic priest whom she particularly admires, Fr Kevin O'Neil: "He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother's hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael's blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Fr Kevin's reluctance to minister to the dying."

The crux of his piece was this passage: "We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God's presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."

What makes it fascinating is the part that God plays in that last sentence: up to the word "as", he has written the perfect humanist manifesto: ""We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference." It seems to me that the interesting, and quite possibly impossible, task would be to explain how the difference - which any thoughtful person has felt - is what is meant by "God".

At a time when "religion" has become a toxic brand, as Linda Woodhead says, this is the way for the Church of England to get taken seriously once more. But the odd thing is that it involves not talking about God at all. No one will hear that. Instead, you have to make people see the difference, whatever that may be.


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