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
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
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