Joan Smith: Loosen your collar, Cardinal, and lighten up

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The Independent Online

It's always nice to see the opposition admitting defeat. First it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, telling Anglicans last year that we are becoming a nation of atheists. Now it's Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, with a similar message to Catholics.

The Cardinal's analysis is, if anything, even more bleak, a candid admission that Christianity is close to being "vanquished" in Britain – an interesting choice of language, as if there is a war going on and believers are on the losing side. Christians will have to adapt, the Cardinal says, to "an alien culture", dominated by shopping, New Age therapies, sex and drugs and rock'n'roll.

Well, he didn't quite use those words, though he did have a swipe at that old ecclesiastical bugbear, recreational sex. Personally, I have never been attracted by the other sort, which must logically count as work; I have had enough of that after a long day at the wordprocessor, without having to meet a quota of orgasms by the end of the evening. I also, by the way, do quite a lot of recreational reading and gardening, but I've noticed the church never has a pop at those. Anyway, I am getting off the subject. Even though the archbishops are beginning to sound like the late Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii – woe, woe, he used to cry, with much rending of garments – it is my intention to try and take them seriously. Indeed, as a practising alien myself (rather accomplished by now, in fact), I feel it is nothing less than my duty to cheer them up. Guys, things aren't as bad as you think. Or, if they are, it's only because you're looking at them from a jolly selfish perspective.

I mean, I can understand why you're feeling pessimistic. No CEO likes to see his market disappearing, and the current position of Christianity is, in that sense, analogous to that of Marks & Spencer, another former brand leader that appears to have gone into terminal decline. But the state of the Christian balance sheet, so to speak, is no guide at all to the state of the country, and to suggest otherwise is to fall into the egregious error of conflating a belief in God with the capacity to lead a good life. Murphy-O'Connor did exactly that last week, expressing heartfelt regret that Christianity no longer influences people's moral decisions, nor those of the Government.

I am not wholly convinced by this argument, given that quite a few people who do not attend church still claim to be inspired by Judaeo-Christian values. But even if he is correct, the decline of organised religion does not mean we are all lumbering about in a moral swamp, unable to see beyond instant gratification and narrow self-interest. On the contrary, I can think of plenty of evidence – the arrests of Pinochet and Milosevic, the campaign to cancel debt in developing countries, the anti-globalisation movement – to suggest that we are being energised by a new and radical moral agenda.

Admittedly it isn't much concerned with people's sex lives, and what a relief that is; I have always regarded the church's traditional teaching on homosexuality, contraception and sex outside marriage as the cause of a great deal of unnecessary human suffering. But non-believers are just as capable of making a critique of the malign effects of late-20th-century capitalism, of the relentless targeting of potential consumers, as any priest or cardinal. And that, I think, is what lies behind the genuine sense of failure and powerlessness that the church hierarchy has begun to express in a series of unprecedented public admissions.

These are men who have lost much of their authority, and cannot believe it has happened so quickly; like the Royal Family, they can no longer rely on the deference they once took for granted. This is actually a very good thing and I don't see why all the people in this country who have developed their own values, who are involved in campaigns for human rights or to protect the environment, should shoulder the blame for the church's predicament. Christians do not have a monopoly on morality, any more than followers of Islam, Judaism or any other religion. Their creed may be becoming redundant, but that says next to nothing about the spiritual health of the nation.

A smack in the face for the child-beaters

Now for some really shocking news: the British are about to lose their historic right to beat their children. This latest encroachment on our freedoms comes, inevitably, from Strasbourg, where those foreign Johnnies at the European Court of Human Rights have decided that British law should be amended; amazingly, they didn't like a case in which a man who beat his stepson with a 3ft cane was cleared by an English court of causing actual bodily harm. The Scottish Executive reacted to the ruling by announcing plans to make physical punishment of children under the age of three a criminal offence. England and Wales may have to adopt similar measures.

What next? A ban on giving your wife a clip round the ear? (Oh, I forgot, that's illegal already. Sort of.) What I find really shocking is the fact that smacking children has to be banned at all; if it isn't OK for an adult to strike someone their own size, it surely cannot be right to beat a defenceless child. Most revealing of all was The Daily Telegraph's disbelieving reaction, expressed in the front-page headline, "A crime to smack your own child". Seldom has the notion of chil- dren as their parents' property been so cruelly exposed, and I am grateful to Strasbourg for offering some ele- ments of British society a lesson in civilised behaviour.

Celeb-free zone

Time for an apology. Alert readers will have noticed that I did not offer an opinion last week on Victoria Beckham's lip ring. Today's column is entirely lacking in speculation on the cause of the break-up of Kate Winslet's marriage to somebody or other, and its relation, if any, to her recent weight loss. This is only partly explained by the fact that I have never seen Winslet act. (I didn't go to see Titanic because I already knew the ending.)

The awful truth – and what a shameful admission it is for a columnist – is that I don't give a toss about any of these people. If one of them does something mildly interesting, like calling for an inquiry into police brutality at the Genoa summit, I suppose I might change my mind. For the moment, however, I am bored senseless by the self-aggrandising antics of celebrities. Whatever Victoria Beckham does next, I'm afraid you won't read it here.

This column is brought to you by...

Sponsorship, of course, is another matter. Product placement is common in films and, in that sense, Fay Weldon (below) is merely ahead of the game in accepting payment from an Italian jewellery firm to puff their products in her latest novel. I am not a fan of Weldon, but I can't help feeling this lucrative association between business and literature shouldn't stop here. Football teams have been sponsored for years, and there's no reason why it shouldn't apply to authors as well. I am open to offers, and prepared to appear at literary festivals in designer outfits with discreet but visible logos. But I might have to draw the line at a McDonald's baseball cap.

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