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Press: ‘Dear God, we’re not sure you exist, but . . .’

19 January 2018


THERE may be nothing new or surprising in the ComRes poll for Tearfund, which showed how persistent the habit of prayer remains even after the habit of churchgoing has vanished. But it still made The Observer and The Times.

The latter used what I thought was a rather elastic definition of prayer (although it is in the survey): that 12 per cent of those who pray do so while exercising, and 20 per cent while cooking. Are they counting every shout of “Jesus!”?

Harriet Sherwood’s Observer piece had a series of quotes that illustrated precisely what is meant by the claim that “religion is now a toxic brand.” “Henry, 64, said he prays every night, kneeling by his bed, despite not being religious.

“Asked if he believed in God, he said: ‘I don’t know but I would describe myself at the sceptical end of agnosticism. I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as religious.’

“Henry, who requested anonymity, starts by silently reciting the Lord’s Prayer and then asks for his loved ones to be kept safe and well. ‘Sometimes I include other specific people or suffering groups. Then I have a fuzzy moment about me — not concrete thoughts, and I don’t ask for specific things.’

“He said he had no idea if God heard his prayers, and said the act of praying did not make him feel better.”

This reminded me of the horrifying recent discovery that, by the measures used by Church House, Westminster, someone who slinks into morning prayer in the local cathedral three or four times a month qualifies as among the six per cent of most engaged Christians in the country. This may be the most convincing evidence of church decline which I have ever come across.


TIM FARRON got himself back in the news by retracting his earlier retraction of his beliefs about gay sex. Thomas Cranmer he isn’t. He was the recipient of an elegant kicking from Tom Harris (himself a Christian) in The Daily Telegraph: “In fact, the Bible’s homophobia is hardly the least palatable instruction in Christian teaching; how grateful Tim Farron must be that he wasn’t asked what happens to non-Christians after they die.

“Imagine the headline: ‘Farron refuses to con­firm that most people in Britain are going to Hell’. Maybe the 2017 election was better, after all, for the Liberal Democrats than it might have been.”


THE end of the Berliner-sized Guardian is also an end to the dream that paper newspapers had a future as a premium product.

The economics of the format, halfway between tabloid and broadsheet, were always crazy in this country. Because no one else printed papers in that size, the newspaper could not share the £80-million costs of the specially built print sites and presses.

So, you could write the whole thing off as an expression of late-period Rusbridger hubris, from the period between 2006 and 2008, when the business went from being a fountain of money to being an apparently bottomless sinkhole. When the Berliner was introduced, in 2005, the circulation of The Guardian was 385,000; last November the printed circulation was 146,000.

But you cannot blame that on the format. The Berliner was the culmination of 150 years of learning how to make newspapers beautiful and informative. It reminded me of a tea clipper: the very perfection of a fast-sailing cargo ship which appeared just as steam power was conquering the oceans.

Even making allowances for nostalgia (and I am one of those readers who hate most change), the Berliner was a physically delightful thing. The picture spread in the middle was large enough to produce some really striking and frameable effects. The layout was full of subtle signposting about the importance of stories, and the way in which they fitted together with others, which have proved much harder to reproduce on the web.

The newspaper designer knows exactly what colours will be printed, and what size their work will be seen at. The web designer has only a crude idea of the colours that any given reader’s screen will display — as anyone can see by holding a phone up against a proper screen displaying the same page. The web designer also has to fit everything into different layout sizes that can work on screens bigger than a broad­sheet page and as small as an iPhone.

There is, necessarily, less information that can be conveyed that way. It is a gain in punch and simplification, which are among the most important aims of journalism, but it is also a loss of the sense that the world is a complex place where lots is going on.

There’s nothing wrong with the tabloid, and no doubt there will be nostalgic pieces written when that, too, is superseded or merely re­­designed. Broadsheet newspapers were best read at breakfast time, with a cigarette and coffee over the ruins of bacon and eggs.

The world in which they flourished has gone for good. But they deserve a quiet exequy before being bundled and thrown, egg-stained, into the oubliette of history.

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