Christina Patterson: Ancient words clash with living cultures

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The Independent Online

The trouble with targets, as headteachers, hospitals and Gordon Brown could tell you, is that they're quite hard to hit. For the truly determined, however, there's always a way. Don't register patients until you're sure you can see them in the allocated time frame. Make A-levels easier. Cut the hurdles and fast-track.

In the great reforming tradition of Martin Luther, Pope John Paul II worked his silk socks off to raise the productivity of the Catholic Church. More souls, more miracles and more saints was the general message, and on the last of these, at least, he can hardly be faulted. During his pontificate, he created more saints than in the previous 17 papal reigns put together, hitting, before his death in 2005, a record-breaking 482. He even had a special saints' tsar (well, he didn't call it that) set up to expedite the process. Give him Simon Cowell etc, and he could surely have made it to a round 500.

Boring Benedict is taking a slightly more Germanic approach to the process. Checking the paperwork. Reading it, even. "His indication," says Archbishop Michele Di Ruberto, "is to do things with maximum seriousness, taking all the time necessary." All the time necessary? Just what planet is he on?

The planet he's on, of course, is the Vatican, a pretty little theme-park in one of Europe's prettiest capital cities, one which offers guided tours to American presidents, acrylic chasubles and near-annual diktats on sex. The Vatican favours a natural approach. No nasty chemicals, pills, jellies, ribbed accessories or any kind of (sorry, Cherie) "equipment" which might hinder the mass production of Catholic souls. And Italians, 88 per cent of whom describe themselves as Catholic, have responded with the lowest birth-rate in Europe. They have, it seems, chosen to emulate the sexual habits of the Virgin Mary.

Africa, however, has not. Unable to muster the self-control of their European cousins, African Catholics are continuing to copulate like there's no tomorrow, thus ensuring (by obeying the papal edict not to use a condom) that there is, indeed, for many of them, no tomorrow. You can't grow a soul without planting a (sometimes HIV-infected) seed, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

What no one has told the Africans is that you're not meant to take this stuff seriously. Look, OK, that's what it says in the rules, but do you think anyone in Italy ever obeys the rules? It would be like taking the latest publication from the Italian inland revenue and suggesting that it might in some way correspond to tax revenue received.

This, clearly, is a problem that extends to African Anglicans, too. As Rowan Williams agonises about the position of the Anglican church on issues ranging from Sharia law to homosexuality (in speeches so complicated even he sometimes doesn't seem to understand them), his African counterparts are preaching fire, brimstone and a book called the Bible. "It is an issue of Biblical authority and the Lordship of Jesus Christ," thundered the Bishop of Uganda on the Today programme on Monday, when asked about the divisions in the Anglican communion . "The word of God never changes."

Er, no. The words in that collection of historic documents assembled into what we now call the Bible, unlike the number of saints, and of A-grade passes at A-level, don't change. What changes are the cultures in which they're read. In the West (but not, for complex historical reasons, in the US), the leaders of our main Christian churches are largely intellectual men (yes, men) who thrive on theological nuance. In Africa, they aren't.

It's all a bit of a holy headache. The big tent of the Anglican communion is, I fear, set for the same fate as the saints' tsar.

Why don't you come on over, Valerie

It's hard to be a singleton. It's hard, in fact, to be Valerie Singleton. That, at least, was the message of an excruciatingly embarrassing interview she gave this week. Scotching the 30-odd-year-old rumour that she was a lesbian, Singleton launched into an exhaustingly detailed anc cliché-ridden account of her hetero(sexual) encounters over the years, starting with a "wonderful smoochy night" with Albert Finney and continuing with an evening with Purves in which "one thing led to another", "really enjoyable" sex with a man who "unfortunately was married" and so on, ad nauseam. "I am no goody-two-shoes," she said, a bit desperately. "It's a wonder that I ever appeared on children's television". No,Valerie, the wonder is that a single woman still feels she has to try so hard to prove she's not a shrivelled old prude.

* The solution to our problems, we're often told, lies within. Not in some creepy, new-age guru just-submit-to-the-universe kind of way, but really within us. In our chemicals, hormones etc. The trouble is that we appear to be the product of a slightly slapdash cook – one whose hand slipped just when he was adding the adrenaline or sprinkling the serotonin. Or even, it seems, omitting the oxytocin, the hormone which promotes romantic feelings, helps mothers bond with new-born babies, and reduces anxiety and shyness.

Now scientists have collected the stuff (from cows? mothers? lovers?) and bottled it. It will, apparently, soon be on sale, perhaps alongside footballers' fragrances, as a nasal spray. It is, says the neuroscientist who developed it, "a very safe product that does not have any side effects and is not addictive". So, no more shyness, no more binge-drinking, mortifying drunken encounters or agonised flashbacks. Marvellous, isn't it, how every day scientific discoveries bring us closer and closer to peace, harmony, utopia – and pharmaceutical profits.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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