Charlie Courtauld: Proud to be a hypocrite

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The Independent Online

Flick through the pages of any paper and you'll discover that a new crime has been added to the list. Hypocrisy. It's the excuse for a thousand Fleet Street stings, particularly on those Hamiltons. It seems that everybody's at it. From gay MPs who speak out for "the family", via Tony Blair, who raises his own salary while calling for public-sector pay restraint, to Charlie Kennedy (who smokes like a chimney) calling for greater tobacco restrictions. "Bloody hypocrites!" we cry. But is it so bad?

I speak as a practised hypocrite. Only last weekend Lucy and I assembled a troupe of friends at St Margaret's C of E Church, Gosfield, after the morning service had finished. We filed in for the baptism of our baby boy, Rory. Candles were lit, sermons made, promises delivered. All very harmless, all very English. A wall of gravestones marks the plots where generations of my family rest in peace. The only flaw? I don't believe in God. To me, the service was a catalogue of gobbledygook. It would be great to believe that there is a heaven, a happy retirement home for nice people and house-trained pug dogs. But I'm afraid that the idea stretches my credulity to breaking point.

It was not ever thus. There was a time – when I was around 16 – when I suffered what can only be described as a crisis of atheism. For a while, I started going to extra church services, offering to make the readings, ring the bells, mix the wine. Not only that, I opted to take an A-level in Divinity, hoping that by careful Bible study I would move closer to grace. But the effect was opposite. The A-level course called for close textual analysis of four Bible books: two from the Old Testament, two from the New.

The OT books first, Amos and Hosea. Two of the biggest bores ever to walk the Holy Land in bare feet. To his credit, Hosea came up with that line about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind, but otherwise this miserable duo wrote the most dreary catalogues of doom imaginable. How the editors of the Bible allowed these books to slip through I'll never know.

From the New Testament, it was Luke and Acts. The miraculous meanderings of Saul and Jesus left me unmoved. I stopped going to church: someone else was brought in to mix the drinks and pull the ropes. But I stuck with the A-level course: after all, it was supposedly dead easy to get a top grade.

And so it stood, for years. Lucy and I elected not to get married in church. The Henley register office did the deed. We went to church on family occasions, but did so without feeling too hypocritical. But then that christening question arose. Not, at first, with regard to our own children but with friends' babies. The road to hypocrisy hell began with a phone call from Lucy and James, who had just had their first baby: "Hi, Lucy here. James and I would be very honoured [oh, oh – here it comes] if you'd agree to be one of Dudley's godfathers."

"Me? Lovely. But I don't believe in God."

"No worries. Nor do the others. It doesn't matter at all these days."

"Oh. In that case I'd be delighted." And so a place was reserved for me in hell.

Since then, I've accepted three more such invitations, for Emily, Sophie and Con (who has yet to be christened). Each time, I've trooped into the church, mumbled the obligatory words and gone back for a delicious lunch and prezzie fest. We've followed the same procedure with our kids, now all duly christened. And how lovely it's been: nobody hurt, everyone happy.

But the first faltering steps on the slippery slope to full-blown hypocrisy had been taken. Once your child is christened, and has watched a few episodes of Bear in the Big Blue House (Channel 5 kids' output), it's time to think about schooling. And if, like us, you live out in the sticks, you may discover that the Church of England (as part of its get- 'em-young recruitment policy) has all but monopolised the village school system. At least we don't have to be regular attenders to get Daisy a place. Under those circumstances I don't know what I'd do. Yes, I do. I'd cross my fingers and turn up, like the confirmed hypocrite I am. And in my Divinity A-level? I got a measly C. God can spot a hypocrite. See you in hell, Hamiltons.

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