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Press: Westminster Abbey or trainers? No contest

19 June 2020


The Archbishop of Canterbury; the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; and the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle pray at the Shrine of Edward the Confessor inside Westminster Abbey, on Monday

The Archbishop of Canterbury; the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; and the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr David Hoyle pr...

I WILL get on to the most significant story of the year — perhaps of the decade — in a little while. Be warned that it looks entirely insignificant at first: a cloud no bigger than a distant keyboard.

First, though, there was plenty of other news around. The Independent reported from Sheffield on the reopening of cathedrals to private prayer. “The queue for the city’s Primark stretched down the road and round the block. The queue for the nearby Cathedral Church of St Marie — the region’s main [Roman] Catholic centre — topped out at just half a dozen.

“‘This is the world we live in,’ said Bob Rae, one of those six. ‘People find their joy in different ways.’

“Even that dwarfed the numbers waiting at the Anglican Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul. Just three worshippers were sat on steps there when doors were released for the first time since March.”

This was not a mocking piece: it gave space and care to the people interviewed, and had lovely observational touches, such as the bell-ringer whose callouses had disappeared under lockdown. But all the churchgoers to whom the reporter, Colin Drury, talked were retired.

The Daily Mail ran the same stunt, less enterprisingly, in London, where Westminster Abbey and Oxford Street opened on the same day: “At Westminster Abbey, a handful of members of the public joined the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster for a moment of private reflection and prayer.

“A mile away, in Oxford Circus, meanwhile, security guards had to intervene as disciples of the ‘swoosh’ — as Nike calls its famous logo — attempted to congregate inside the Niketown sports shoe shop.

“Given a choice between rediscovering one of the world’s greatest churches (for now, the Abbey is open solely for private devotions) or a germ-filled stampede for a pair of trainers, there was no contest — despite the combined praying power of the two Primates on their knees.”


THE New York Times had a delightful story about the trade in relics on eBay: “For a little more than $2000, you can buy a small silver-plated case containing some hair of the Virgin Mary, a relic venerated by Catholic believers.

“A more significant investment, $16,750, will get you an austere multichambered reliquary with 50 of ‘the most important relics in Christendom’, including the remains of top-tier saints like St John the Baptist and St Benedict. But devotees on more of a budget can easily find scraps of the True Cross soaked in Jesus’ blood, ancient-looking nails containing iron filings of the nails used in the crucifixion, garments of martyrs, skullcaps worn by popes and the personal effects of revered mystics.

“Most of the relics on sale online are counterfeit junk.”

Naturally I clicked through to check this. I have to say that $16,750 seems a suspiciously low price for relics of all 12 apostles, along with Saints Ambrose, Benedict, Jerome, and many others. But the hair of the Virgin Mary is an even odder proposition, for when you scroll down the listing: “Ebay policy prohibits the sale of human remains and requires a disclosure of what the relics are: these relics are a piece of wood, which are [sic] allowed by eBay.”


BUT that is not the phoniest story, or the most important, of the week. Let me introduce you to: “United Methodists Agree to Historic Split: Those who oppose gay marriage will form their own denomination.”

The story reads: “After two days of intense debate, the United Methodist Church has agreed to a historic split — one that is expected to end in the creation of a new denomination, one that will be ‘theologically and socially conservative’ according to The Washington Post.

“The majority of delegates attending the church’s annual General Conference in May voted to strengthen a ban on the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and to write new rules that will ‘discipline’ clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings. But those who opposed these measures have a new plan: They say they will form a separate denomination by 2020, calling their church the Christian Methodist denomination.

“The Post notes that the denomination, which claims 12.5 million members, was in the early 20th century the ‘largest Protestant denomination in the US’, but that it has been shrinking in recent decades. The new split will be the second in the church’s history. The first occurred in 1968, when roughly 10% of the denomination left to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church.”

The point about this story is that everything but the headline was written by a computer program, GPT-3, after it was given three news stories to read and then the headline as a prompt. It is indistinguishable, even to an expert eye, from what a human news reporter might churn out — right down to the mistake at the end: the Churches did not split, but united, in 1968.

You may regard this either as a testimony to the intelligence of computers or a demonstration of the stupidity of conventional news reporting. Either way, it’s going to put a lot of human journalists out of work.

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