Spiritual moment on the benches

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The Independent Online
Westminster is a bad place to find MPs at the moment - they are to be discovered just about anywhere else; 200 Labour MPs have, we are told, been campaigning in the Wirral, along with 50 Tories. Given that yesterday's keynote health debate was attended by fewer than 100 MPs in total, perhaps it would have been better to move business up to the Denis Thatcher suite in the Village Hotel, Brumborough. There, after prawn cocktails washed down with Mateus Rose, Mr Decibel and Mr Smith could have traded statistics until it was time to go back on the knocker.

But those happy few who remained witnessed a rather moving, spiritual exchange. It came during the monthly five minutes in which the MP who represents the Church Commissioners, Michael Alison (C, Selby), answers questions from members about the Church of England.

The first up was Simon Hughes who - as a Liberal Democrat sitting for the seat of Bermondsey - is a kind of secular bishop, sent to save souls in a savage land. His first three Special Interests listed as Human Rights and Civil Liberties, Youth Affairs and Social Injustice, Mr Hughes reminds me of a youngish curate from a sitcom - always about to be let down by the worldliness of others.

He wished to deprecate the recent remarks of the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury criticising modern services. But the church should seek to "involve everybody", gushed The Rev Hughes, adding with ghastly vicarish matiness, "let's get 'em all in!"

Grrr! I don't want to be "got in", so that I can sing songs of social injustice alongside Simon Hughes; I don't think it's Parliament's business how many people go to church (or to synagogue or temple or mosque). But Mr Alison did. It was not just "Happy Clappies", who should be welcomed, but "the Militant Tendency, the National Front and others whose views are known to the congregation and in more exalted circles". This was a bit unnerving. I'd understood about High Church, Low Church, traditional and evangelical - but the revelation that Militant were involved came as a shock. What do they argue for at General Synod? Nationalise the top 200 sacraments? Punitive tithes for fat-cat archbishops?

Newham's Tony Banks tried to help out. He is a disestablishment man, and - perversely - took the side of tradition. What was driving people out of church, he said, were all these here new-fangled services. "People don't go to church to be felt up by the person next to them," he said mystifyingly, "they go to have the hand of God laid upon them, not the hand of someone else." I think that something nasty once happened to Mr Banks in a church, and he has never quite recovered.

Mr Alison was unsympathetic. Never mind the Happy Clappies, he said, "the honourable gentleman - al-arse - represents the Shouty-Louty tendency!" who - presumably - go about breaking tambourines, belching during contemplation and heckling Simon Hughes.

The tone was raised by none other than Michael Fabricant, who wished to draw attention to the 801st anniversary of Lichfield Cathedral. "Last night", he told the House happily, "there was a service for Lichfield Girl Guides!" "Bet you were there!" shouted shouty-louty Tony. Mr Banks is almost certainly right; last week Mr Fabricant joined the celebrations of Lichfield Morris Men, dressed in waistcoat and ribbons.

On Sunday night I am sure that enthusiasm won out over discretion yet again, and that Mr F will have managed to squeeze into a fetching little blue outfit, complete with the statutory woggles. Ging-gang-goolie-goolie- wotcha!

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