WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS
WHAT an extraordinary week it was for Christianity. Last Sunday, this paper reported the curious tale of a Christian sect run by an insurance salesman taking over a local Conservative constituency association in Essex and encouraging fears that it would use this political platform to spread its view that EastEnders is evil. After that, things got worse. The Archbishop of Canterbury was pictured in Thursday's Telegraph beaming in his Biggles get-up after flying above Cumbria in an RAF Harrier jump- jet. Then the Pope finally published a half-hearted apology to the Jews saying that he was sorry about the Holocaust. "Only when [questions of complicity] have been acknowledged and adequately answered will the Jews accept a Vatican apology for past misdeeds," Clifford Longley wrote in his Telegraph column.

On Tuesday, the Guardian dealt with present misdeeds: "A karate club is to get the chop from a church hall after the vicar branded it un-Christian." According to the report, the Rev Peter Sibley, of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, had no problems about them hitting and kicking each other, but he found the "meditation and links with spirituality" rather un-Christian.

The Telegraph added to Christianity's problems with a report of research by some American sociologists showing that the more fervently religious a Christian is, the fatter he gets. Or, as the headline put it: "The meek shall inherit the girth", or to pun it another way, "Paunchiness is next to Godliness". Apparently the link between obesity and devoutness applies mainly to Christians, with Southern Baptists the most fat and fervent of the lot.

In view of all this weight of evidence, it was hardly surprising to read in Friday's Guardian of "Our irrelevant church" and a secret memo calling for ecclesiastical spin-doctors to be appointed because "the Church of England is culturally light years behind the rest of society because of its innate conservatism and resistance to change".

That "innate conservatism" may, however, have encouraged one sinner to return to the flock. According to the Mail, Jonathan Aitken - you remember him, that poor chap who stabbed himself in the wallet with his sword of truth - "is said to be writing a novel, taking stock, looking to his future and seeking solace in the Church". That was just about the only nice thing said about Mr Aitken last week. Indeed, the only difference between the various reports of his "arrest" or "voluntary interview with the police" was whether newspapers called him "former cabinet minister" or gave him his full title of "disgraced former cabinet minister". The Guardian, not surprisingly, led the DFCM pack but the Independent and the Mail also used the same adjective. The Times replaced "disgraced" with "55-year- old" and the Sun had "shamed Tory". Several papers delighted in mentioning that the ex-minister was "on the verge of financial ruin", though they also said he was a "multi-millionaire" with a pounds 115,000-a-year GEC-Marconi consultancy while his biggest financial problem was a legal bill of pounds 1.8m. None satisfactorily explained how Multi plus GEC minus 1.8 equals ruin.

Disgraced and despised though Aitken has been, another man led the field in adjectival abuse by a mile last week. The Times called him "abrasive"; the Mail said "surly" and "insensitive", the Telegraph used the full Thesaurus of "arrogant", "shameful", "clumsy", "testy" and "abrasive". And all because of another of those diplomatic incidents that, the Telegraph told us, "the diplomatic press corps invariably refers to as 'Cook-ups'".

The Israeli leg of Robin Cook's trip to the Middle East ("How to go round the world in a matter of daze", as the Telegraph called it) was not a success. When the row over his visit to the Har Homa settlement began to simmer, the Times made the worst prediction of the week: after misjudging the situation in a news report headed "Cook bows to Israelis in row over visit to settlement", it stated in a leading article on Tuesday: "Mr Cook will still dine tonight with Mr Netanyahu."

The Telegraph was condemnatory: "The incident began with babyish posturing and ended in humiliation," it wrote, and summed up his performance in headmasterly tones: "A minister of whom much was expected has become a political liability." The Mail produced one of the most potent reports on the dinner-date fiasco. Reporting Mr Cook's remark, "I've had three four-course meals already since coming to the Middle East. It's something of a mercy to be spared another meal", it wrote: "Mr Cook evidently enjoyed the laughter that his observation earned from the world's media. It drowned the groans of his retinue. They had assumed, wrongly, that things couldn't get any worse."

The Independent took a view from the other side of the empty dinner- table with a profile of Benjamin Netanyahu whose wife, we learnt somewhat irrelevantly, once sacked a nanny for burning the soup. Describing him as a "political street-fighter who gets his retaliation in first" it mentioned that "his claim [that Britain had broken its promise of no contact with the Palestinians] was fairly demonstrably untrue". Moving on to the second leg of this Cook's tour, Robert Fisk in the Independent saw the positive side of the Israel fiasco: "If Mr Cook's 'diplomatic disaster' has illuminated to the world just how inflexible Israel is, then so much the better."

Not quite as reviled as Robin Cook, but not far behind, came the Lord Chancellor's ludicrously expensive wallpaper. "Olive green flock with pineapple motif" (Guardian), "dark green" (Telegraph), "two shades of guacamole green with a bold floral design" (Independent) and best of all: "hideous dark-green flock embossed with the initials ER ... the sort of thing a curry house owner might put up if he'd just won the lottery" (Marcel D'Argy Smith in the Mail).

I had hoped to get through without mentioning Tuesday's ritual in the House of Commons, but the angle the Sun found for its report proved irrestistible. "Budget hits Spice Girls for pounds 2m each" was not, as some of the paper's readers might have have thought, Mr Brown's unexpected imposition of a pounds 1m-per-nipple tax, but only something to do with foreign earnings deductions.

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