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A cup, a split, a spat, and a Rat

04 April 2014


I AM writing this on the morning of 1 April; so it took some time to work out that The Times was serious about its story asking whether the Holy Grail had turned up in a provincial museum in Northern Spain. What makes it particularly shaming is that it carries the byline of Tom Whipple, the science correspondent. These people are meant to have some sense of the authority of scholarship and of research, but clearly, when it comes to "religion", none of that counts for anything.

It would help a little if he knew the meaning of long words like "archaeologist": "For two millennia, finding the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, has been the, well, holy grail of archaeology." This smashes "since the Reformation" right out of the park as hyperbole.

Later, he writes: "While the pilgrims seem convinced, many archaeologists are not. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, said: 'This is idiotic, and there must be scores of cups making the same claim. The fact that someone may have dated this object as ancient at best shows that it is ancient.'"

But never mind: he has consulted some other sources: "To Indiana Jones, it was a simple carpenter's cup. To Dan Brown, it was the earthly remains of Mary Magdalene. In Monty Python meanwhile, details of its location are guarded by the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and a ferocious rabbit.

"It turns out they are all wrong. Because the Holy Grail, the relic which has inspired and tantalised Christendom for centuries, could in fact be a jewel-encrusted goblet on display in a small museum in northern Spain. And there are no rabbits in sight."

The story tells us a great deal about The Times, but also about contemporary journalism, and the degree of background knowledgeyou can assume about the Church or Christianity.

THAT, in turn, has a bearing on a story that I wish I never had to write about again. As part of a long profile of Justin Welby for The Guardian, I spoke to him on the phone in the early part of the week, and asked him for a quote about gay marriage. He said: "The Church should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being."

This seemed to me, and still does, a notable change of tone (not substance), and I wrote a story saying so. I was immediately attacked by a number of intelligent people, publicly and privately, for supposing that the Archbishop had said anything new. And I suppose technically all he had done was to shut up about something old. What's worrying, from the point of view of PR, is the suspicion that some of these people believe their own propaganda, and really suppose that the earlier official statements were heard as demonstrating the love of Christ simply because they talked about it.

I may be wrong, just as I might have been wrong to say that Nick Holtam's welcome for gay marriage will have re-opened divisions. But it does seem quite absurd to pretend that the Church, and even the House of Bishops, is not profoundly divided on this question, and that any clear statement either for or against will not remind them of this.

The difficulty isn't the faction fighting. It's reaching out to people for whom church politics mean as little as the Holy Grail. That's easily done on a parish level, but the trick is harder through the media.

NOW, a nasty little spat among Roman Catholic journalists. Damian Thompson of the Telegraph hates The Tablet in general and its Rome correspondent Robert Mickens in particular. For years he has kept up a stream of spiteful and childish invective in that direction: there are 265 references on his blog to "Bobbie Mickens". (Mickens is "Bobby" to his friends, which don't, oddly enough, include Thompson.) Last week, Thompson finally got his man.

Mickens posted on Facebook a picture of the 98-year-old former secretary of Pope John XXIII, who has just been made a Cardinal by Pope Francis. Underneath he asked: "Do you think he'll make it to the Rat's funeral?", an offhand reference to Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. A friend replied that, with any luck, he would make the canonisation of his former boss, and "The Rat's funeral the next day would be a bonus."

Damian reproduced the exchange on his blog. The Tablet almost at once suspended Mickens. The moral is that no one will take any notice of what you say on the internet unless you wish they hadn't.

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