Thomas Sutcliffe: A fall from grace to delight connoisseurs

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The Independent Online

It looks as if the Thou Shalt Laugh Comedy Night has been cancelled. On Sunday it was still being offered as one of the forthcoming highlights on the New Life Church's website. But when I checked yesterday it had gone.

And who could blame the congregants, really? They're not in much of a laughing mood at the New Life Church, since their founder, Pastor Ted Haggard, an influential evangelist, was revealed to have visited a male prostitute and bought methamphetamines - a subject that has proved a comedy Klondike for secular stand-ups.

Deliciously, it seems another name has been added to the Honour Board of Hypocrisy - along with Jim Bakker (sexual incontinence and fraud), Rush Limbaugh (prescription drug addiction) and Jimmy Swaggart - who surely tops the list, since he went out of his way to excoriate Jim Bakker as "a cancer on the body of Christ" shortly before it was revealed that he regularly visited prostitutes himself.

Connoisseurs of exposure would surely have enjoyed the details of Haggard's fall, too - from the initial attempts at damage limitation to the apparent incompatibility between his vertical and horizontal positions on homosexuality.

Haggard was supporting a proposed amendment on the Colorado ballot that aimed to ban same-sex marriages and, as a Biblical literalist, had Old Testament views on homosexual activity. And anyone who saw Richard Dawkins' Root of All Evil programmes will know that Pastor Ted could become testy if scriptural authority was questioned. After Dawkins had defended evolutionary theory in conversation with Haggard, the preacher ran him off church property, saying: "You called my children animals."

At the most literal level, too, Haggard wasn't practising what he preached. In a sermon he gave on 3 September he acknowledged, with what now looks like confessional brinkmanship, that everyone could make moral mistakes ... "buying something we know we shouldn't really be buying, making a deal we know we shouldn't really be making".

The solution, he told his adoring congregation, was to "draw a line in the timeline of your life ... If you have a secret thing going on with someone, you're going to settle that today". And, as if one hostage to fortune was not enough, he added this: "One of the reasons why I like local church ministry is because you know where the guy lives, you know who the guy sleeps with ..." Well, some of them anyway.

There are some problems with this picture of condign humiliation, though. Look into Haggard's record a little deeper, for example, and you discover that although he opposed gay marriage, he has also suggested that states should be free to enact civil unions for gay couples. He was even described as an "evanjellyfish" by a dogmatic colleague after publicly agreeing with the Supreme Court when it struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law.

Nor was he afraid of putting distance himself and his more dogmatic brethren on the Christian Right. He rebuked Pat Robertson after the latter had called for Hugo Chavez's assassination, spoke out against the use of torture on terrorist suspects, and has argued for the importance of the fight against global warming.

He recently garaged the red Chevy pickup that viewers saw screeching to a halt near Dawkins' startled film crew and replaced it with a scooter, which is rather better on the leading-by-example front than the Prince of Charles has ever managed.

To put it in fiercely secular terms he was, despite all that deluded God stuff, not all bad. Which, as disappointing as it might be, suggests that even the fiercest secularists should forego the gleeful schadenfreude and look in their hearts for an atheist equivalent of Christian forgiveness. His replacement is unlikely to be better.

Gallery of guilty pleasures

I flew up to Edinburgh for a retrospective of the work of the Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon last week (left), feeling distinctly uneasy about the large carbon footprint I was leaving behind me. Was my journey ecologically justifiable? Well, I enjoyed what I saw of the show, but perhaps because of the guilty conscience I couldn't help but wonder about its energy consumption too, particularly that portion housed in the Royal Scottish Academy, which includes several large-scale video works such as Play Dead; Real Time (left) and a particularly power-hungry installation titled Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work From About 1992 Until Now, To Be Seen On Monitors, Some with Headphones, Others Run Silently, And All Simultaneously, which consists of about 20 television monitors and attendant DVD players on permanent loop. I only hope they switch it off at the wall every night.

* We've been following the burgeoning affair between Ruth Archer and Sam the Cowman with mounting pleasure in our house - largely because physical passion is so funny on radio. The moment Ruth goes "Oh Sam" and Sam goes "Oh Ruth" we know it's the cue for a noise like a heifer trying to swallow a duvet. Transcribed, it would read something like "Mmumfrerroohumferr", with attendant rustling and moaning noises thrown in by the actors on what seems to be a jazz improvisation basis. Needless to say we can hardly wait for the 15,000th episode tonight - when the couple may, or may not,consummate their affair in an Oxford hotel. And while fans may be divided over the proper or most plausible outcome to the storyline, I'm afraid such considerations don't even arise for me. I just want to hear the sound-effect that accompanies vigorous adultery.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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