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Press: Glimpses of the reality of evil — and goodness

16 July 2021

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THE British Museum has an exhibition on about St Thomas Becket which sounds excellent (Arts, 11 June), and was treated with unusual religious literacy by Julia Smith in the London Review of Books: “Townspeople who were in the cathedral at the time of his death instinctively dipped their handkerchiefs or fingers in the congealing blood. Taken home and diluted with water, it became a drink with powerful effects.

“The representations of Becket’s earliest miracles introduce us to life in 12th-century England — and to what a saint’s mercy meant. Ralph the Leper drank St Thomas’s Water and washed his sores in it until his pustules disappeared. Two congenitally crippled sisters arrived on crutches but left walking unaided. In distant Bedfordshire, the peasant Eilward — wrongly accused of thieving — is blinded and castrated in front of a royal justice. Subsequent panels show Becket visiting Eilward in a vision, the restoration of his eyes and genitals, the amazement of his fellows at this sight and his pilgrimage to Canterbury, where he gave an account to the monks and other pilgrims.”

I do hope that the Home Secretary stays well away. It might give her ideas about the treatment of asylum-seekers.

The piece concludes, though, with a sobering reflection: “Visitors are presumed to know what an archbishop is and does and, roughly, what the psalms and Mass are. . . the curators have taken for granted some understanding of the centrality of saints and their relics to medieval Christianity”; and Smith goes away wondering how much of that would be remotely comprehensible to the ordinary Londoners in the streets outside.

 

ONE hint is provided by the absolute absence of General Synod coverage, except for stories in The Times and the Telegraph about the expense of bishops. Another is the curious silence about the Ven. Mina Smallman’s faith in the stories about her forgiving the murderer of her daughters (News, 9 July). The Guardian did mention her as the first black archdeacon in the Church of England, but neither PA (in the Evening Standard) nor The Sun mentioned Christianity at all in their coverage, as far as I could see.

It was interesting to see, though, what the papers did with a quote that they all used about the murderer coming out of jail as “a killing machine”. The Sun played it for chills, as did PA. Only The Guardian picked up what was meant, I think, as the point: this was a criticism of the prison system and its inability to help inmates, or even to prevent their becoming much worse.

The case provides a horrifying glimpse of the collapse of our overloaded criminal- justice system: the murderer ended up in prison rather than in a secure mental hospital, after killing two strangers because he believed that he had made a pact with a devil to win the Euromillions lottery if only he killed six women in six months. And if you already believe in the reality of evil, a stretch in an English prison today can only strengthen your faith.

 

SOMETIMES, though, goodness leaks in. My former colleague at The Guardian Walter Schwarz was a lovely man and a good journalist, but one handicapped as religious-affairs correspondent by his inability to suppose that anyone might really believe all that stuff. In the early ’90s, he was sent to investigate the Children of God: a group of lay-led churches meeting in people’s houses which had dispensed with the limiting factors of a trained and professionalised clergy. The women of the group were sent out to make disciples of strange men, a practice known as “flirty fishing”.

Bexy Cameron, whose interview with Harriet Sherwood was published in The Guardian last week, was then an 11-year-old child in the church, who had just emerged from a year of “‘silence [sic] restriction’ when she was forbidden to speak with anyone except her assigned leader”. She was chosen to assure Walter Schwarz that there was nothing sinister about the church, whose leader, David Berg, was wanted by the FBI over allegations of rape, incest, incarceration, and kidnapping.

“Cameron and her siblings and peers had no access to television or newspapers and never went to school,” Sherwood writes. Cameron tells Sherwood: “We had no idea what was going on in the outside world, but we were told that the media was evil and people were out to get us.” She had been primed with answers to all the questions they thought he might ask, but his first question was completely unexpected, and threw her right off balance. He asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“It was the first time I’d ever thought about the concept of being grown up or becoming something. We were raised to believe that we were going to die in the ‘End Time’ wars, that we were going to be martyrs. So when he asked me that, it was an epiphany.”

In her later teenage years, she did escape, and has now written a memoir of her upbringing. Journalists spend so much time — as we must — thinking up tricky questions to impress an audience. This story shows the astonishing power of straightforward, human questions addressed to the person in front of you.

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