Terence Blacker: The fashion for invoking the name of God

Headline-grabbing chaplaincies have been announced at nightclubs, shopping centres, in the City
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The Independent Online

Down the centuries, God has acquired something of a reputation for moving in a mysterious way His wonders to perform, and so perhaps one should not be too surprised that He is about to appear on the catwalk.

One of His representatives on Earth, the Reverend Joanna Jepson, has left her current post of curate at St Michael's Church, Chester, to become the first chaplain to be employed by the London College of Fashion.

Explaining the appointment, the college's head, Frances Corner, has said she was looking for a more holistic approach to education. "Fashion is more than just clothes," she told the press. "It should make you feel good, and spirituality can have the same role." It was to cater to the spiritual needs of the would-be models and designers that the chaplaincy has been created.

I am bewildered by this line of reasoning. One can see that there is more to the business than mere clothes - there's the cocaine, the parties and the sex for a start - but when Ms Corner suggests that it is, above all, about feeling good, that spirituality should play its part, she loses me. If she really believes that fashion is not about looks, she might cast an eye over those at the college who are training to be models. Are any of them plump or plain, yet glowing with an inner beauty? I suspect not.

As if to confirm that the fashion business is primarily about image, an attractive photograph of the Reverend Joanna, perched upon a stool in a designer's studio, has appeared with reports of her appointment. It is, Lord forgive me, a babe shot. No chaplain has ever looked cuter. The pose, from the smiling, camera-friendly face down to the adorably wanton bare feet, is perfect. It is the girl-next-door look but with a hint of invitation - and the invitation is not to prayer. The nicest touch of all is that around Joanna's bare neck is what appears at first to be an elegant choker but which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a designer dog-collar.

Clearly, Joanna Jepson is going places. Her impressive campaign last year against late abortion brought her to public attention, and proved that looks combined with faith have considerable media pulling power. In a press profile at the time, she expressed the view that people were increasingly "putting their aspirations in precarious places, defining their identity in their image". Too often, we were identifying ourselves through "vacuous external features". It was a sound point and now, at the age of 30, she has followed up these thoughts by bringing spiritual values to the home of the vacuous external feature, the fashion industry.

As far as the London College of Fashion is concerned, she would seem to be the perfect appointment. She has already proved herself to be bright and media-friendly. Many of the students will feel at ease when turning to her pastoral care. Fashion may, as Ms Corner claims, have a serious side but an ambitious model would naturally prefer not to expose her spiritual side to what is known in the trade as "a minger".

But it is one thing for a college dedicated to the fashion business to decide that inner beauty matters too, quite another to appoint a Church of England priest to do the job. Why, as a matter of interest, did God need to become involved? If there was a need to provide pastoral care to students of different faiths or of none, would it not have made sense to turn to a professional counsellor? For all her qualities, the Reverend Joanna arrives with a well-defined set of beliefs, a particular version of morality which she has already shown she is prepared to push and promote. In those circumstances, it might well be difficult for some students - a devout Muslim for example, or a girl with an unwanted pregnancy - to seek spiritual or emotional guidance from her.

There is a broader picture here. A faith bandwagon is trundling along. Over the past few years, Christianity has become modish, with God's name being invoked by an increasing number of image-conscious politicians, sports stars and possible even models. The theological name-drop has become part of a celebrity's PR package, a shorthand way of conveying the serious, moral, spiritual, "private" side of their personality.

Being a campaigning organisation, the Church of England has taken advantage of the situation. It is in the soul-harvesting business and will gather its crop where it may. Priests have begun to appear on discussion programmes, as if their faith has by its nature set them down upon the path of wisdom. Zany, headline-grabbing chaplaincies have been announced - at nightclubs, shopping centres, in the City, at Manchester United football club.

There has been a growing assumption, rarely contested, that somehow spiritual health and Christianity are essentially the same thing, that God and good are interchangeable. One has only to listen to the views of, say, Christian Voice on homosexuality or free expression, or to study the role of evangelicalism in America, to realise that this a dangerously wide of the mark. Religion and politics are never far apart. Faith is not neutral, a balm for the troubled soul, a sort of value-added type of therapy.

When the Church of England becomes part of the new establishment, even if it is only pitching its tent in shopping centres, clubs or colleges, a certain wariness is in order. What is going on has less to do with spirituality than with fashion.

terblacker@aol.com

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