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Press: The Times joins Swifties at German service

17 May 2024


THE TIMES carried both the best lead and the worst ending to a religious story this week. The good lead would, in fact, have fitted either story: “‘Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby,’ the priest said solemnly.”

This was the first story about German Protestant Christianity that I have seen in the British press this century, and the last that I expect to see, too, until Taylor Swift releases another album; for it was an account of a Swift-themed service in Heidelberg. About 1200 people attended.

“Before the last song, the fan favourite Shake it Off, [Vincenzo] Petracca [the priest] invited people to stand up and dance, saying: ‘An angel calls out to you to shake off the negative energy. Amen.’” And then, just to remind us that we are in Germany, the story continues: “Stiff churchgoers hesitantly started moving their shoulders to the beat of the music and clapping their hands.”

Phyllis Akalin, who wrote the story, had obviously attended the service herself, and talked to people. Compare this with the other sort of journalism, where the nearest the reporter gets to leaving the office is opening a fresh browser tab.

BOTH The Times and the Mail carried reports of a Roman Catholic priest who had told his congregation in a Good Friday sermon that Jesus would have died with an erection as a result of his crucifixion. Whatever the priest had intended by this, the reaction was rather different.

What shocked me, though, was the filler section of the Times story. “It is not the first time that a clergyman’s comments have led to outrage,” the story continued (noise of frantic googling; sigh of reporter’s relief). “In 2019, the Rev Dr Anand Sodadasi, of Holy Trinity Church in Chrishall, Essex, questioned whether Father Christmas was real in a service for primary school children.”

That’s outrage? It’s enough to make you rise from your stool and throw it at the nearest bishop.

But wait! There was another example: “In 2016, pastor Paul Hedger caused outrage when he told his congregation at Isleham High Street Church in Cambridgeshire that he would be voting to leave the EU, adding: ‘I believe God has told us to do this.’ It led one parishioner to walk out in protest.”

There followed a magnificent non-sequitur: “Last year, the Vatican launched an investigation into claims that a ‘sex party’ had been held at St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle during the coronavirus lockdown. The sex party had allegedly taken place in a building attached to the cathedral.”

The filler portion of the story is proof that we don’t need AI to provide long stretches of continuous prose for which the post-modernist slogan “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” is literally (hah) true, and that there is no sign of understanding the story as a human might, and no context except what is supplied by the tags in the newspaper’s database, and the whims of Google.

Whether it makes any difference to the reader is another question, one on which hinges the future of journalism as a worthwhile trade.

CATHERINE BENNETT, in The Observer, had a piece much more thoughtful than the headline would suggest. If you’re going to attack Islam in that paper, it’s much safer to put “faith groups” in the headline, so that people will think that you’re having a go at Christians, too; but the matter of her piece was an attack on the demands for the Labour Party put forward by an organisation, The Muslim Vote (TMV), after it appeared that equivocation about the war in Gaza had led to a drop in Labour support in heavily Muslim areas.

After the usual progressive shopping list — “an end to compulsory worship in schools, to faith schools, to appointed clerics in the House of Lords, to daily prayers in the Commons, even to — impossible dream — the last ghastly homily on the BBC’s Thought for the Day. Had it not been for Mr Bates, it seems a certainty that the C of E’s favourite CEO, the Rev Paula Vennells, would be regularly explaining God to Radio 4 listeners” — she moves on to two of TMV’s concrete demands.

First, in response to its demand for prayers in schools, she writes: “legislating an end to religious rituals in non-religious state schools might be a simpler and ultimately more harmonious alternative.”

Second, the TMV also wants an end to the statute that prohibits “spiritual influence” at elections, to which Bennett comments, “unless a political group actively hoped to use spiritual pressure to advance its interests, it is hard to see why it would, at a moment of maximum leverage, make its legitimacy a priority.”

This all points at a story to watch: the coming schism in the Green Party between the exiled Corbynites and Islamists who vote Green because they hate Sir Keir Starmer, and what you might call the Anglican wing, whose idea of a righteous uprising is Extinction Rebellion rather than an intifada led by Hamas.

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