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While seated one day at the Synod

14 February 2014

"Higher power": the FT Weekend Magazine

"Higher power": the FT Weekend Magazine

ONE of the things about media people is that we believe we're like Bishop Berkeley's God: our gaze holds everything in existence, and what we don't see isn't real. By this criterion, the Church of England is already ectoplasmic, a frail and shapeless thing glimpsed only in dark rooms by sympathetic investigators.

In the run-up to this week's General Synod, the only person in the press to find an angle on its proceedings was Ruth Gledhill at The Times, whose angle was either extremely acute or extremely obtuse. In any case, it was a long way from obvious: "The Church of England's General Synod will next week debate a new form of the baptism service that removes a requirement for parents and godparents to 'repent sins' and 'reject the Devil'.

"Yet out there, in wider society, belief in the Devil and all his works is in places as strong as it has ever been, along with belief in the power of ordained clergy to banish evil and evil spirits."

And so, seamlessly, into the memoirs of a retired exorcist who is also an expert on butterflies.

"He describes being called in to help highly intelligent people from the professional classes who admit to being 'in league with the Devil', people who start speaking in incomprehensible 'demonic tongues' that rattle out 'like a machine gun', people who walk around looking decades older than their years, men who gnaw table legs, women who launch themselves six feet into the air when anointed with oil by a diocesan exorcist."

I am writing this while half-listening to the Synod's debate on women bishops. One woman has just compared her excitement to that of Moses - about to die, but vouschafed at last a glimpse of the Promised Land. She sounds, as she says this, about as excited as a tortoise offered a chance to learn sky diving. The scene would be hugely improved by random members launching six feet into the air.

THERE were various treatments of the story that archaeologists have proved that Abraham, supposing he existed, could not have had any camels. They were not domesticated until after 950BC. My favourite was the New York Times, because it had the most exquisitely mealy-mouthed quote. The paper is not normally shy of alienating Christian fundamentalists, but it does have a very large Jewish readership, some of whom suppose that Israel has a biblical mandate to the country that Moses may or may not have seen.

The science is unequivocal: "The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century BC - centuries after the patriarchs lived, and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Dr Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads."

None the less, "One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories," Dr Mizrahi said in an email. "This does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background."

THE FT Weekend Magazine
had a wonderfully wry story by Gary Silverman about Carl Cole, a Christian who reinvented himself as a real-estate agent in California after a conviction for molesting one of his students in North Carolina. He became hugely rich by supplying mortgages to anyone who wanted one.

"A man with Cole's mindset wound up feeling right at home in the US real-estate business of the first decade of the new millennium. Miraculous things seemed to happen to Cole with regularity," Silverman writes, and later: "Crisp & Cole had become connected to a higher power - Wall Street."

Now Cole faces a long jail sentence in the aftermath of the crash. When he comes out, he hopes to move north to join his son, who was also jailed for his part in the scam. There he will pursue his interest in environmental causes.

AT THIS point, the tranquillity of the press room was interrupted by the Synod's vote. I am delighted to have been comprehensively wrong in my earlier predictions of disaster. I even learned something in the course of the afternoon, which was that 39 people were convinced by Canon David Banting's argument that the Synod was in danger of acting too fast.

If you want to know why the rest of the world looks askance at the workings of the Synod, a close study of his speech would be illuminating. But, of course, the media would never report it, so we can, as usual, blame them.

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