The celestial spin doctors are working overtime

The steady, confident tread of Christian soldiers, marching as to war, is growing louder
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It was a peculiar reversal. Up in the pulpit, I looked down upon my congregation which included, in the front row, the vicar. In spite of our being in a church, the celebration was largely a secular occasion, the closing of a year-long festival to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival in Diss of John Skelton, the first poet laureate. Removed from the court where he had been tutor to the boy who would be Henry VIII, Skelton was for a while the town's rector and a considerably more rumbustious character than most modern churchmen.

It was a peculiar reversal. Up in the pulpit, I looked down upon my congregation which included, in the front row, the vicar. In spite of our being in a church, the celebration was largely a secular occasion, the closing of a year-long festival to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival in Diss of John Skelton, the first poet laureate. Removed from the court where he had been tutor to the boy who would be Henry VIII, Skelton was for a while the town's rector and a considerably more rumbustious character than most modern churchmen.

When scandalised parishioners reported the fact that he was living with a common-law wife who hade borne him a child, Skelton responded by holding his naked child aloft in the pulpit one Sunday morning and devoting his sermon to an unfavourable comparison between his domestic arrangements and those of his congregation. "You have foul wives," he thundered. "I have a fair wench, of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think."

Five centuries later, the address by Skelton's successor to close the festival was more measured. The past few months, said the vicar, had reminded us all that music and writing and the kinship of performer and audience were expressions of community. Essentially, that community meant one thing - and that thing was God.

It was at this point that I was tempted to return to the pulpit and to express my disagreement in forthright, Skeltonian terms. For, even by His own high standards of immanence, God does seem to be all around us at the moment. It is as if a celestial spin-doctor had been at work spreading the word about how important religion is, clogging up the media with positive, uplifting stories with a Christian theme.

Over the past few days, the clause on incitement to religious hatred in the Government's Serious Organised Crime and Police bill has churned up alarm and debate as has, in a sillier way, Posh and Becks' nativity scene. The philosopher Anthony Flew, once a famous sceptic on religious matters, was reported in the Sunday papers as having had a change of heart on the Creation. An organising intelligence was behind it, after all, he said. "As people have certainly been influenced by me, I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done."

Elsewhere, the row over the sexuality of bishops has rumbled on. BBC1's Breakfast with Frost featured an interview with the Archbishop of York who argued that the rise of what he described as "secularist tendencies" called into question whether Britain was truly a Christian society. That view was in its turn contradicted by newly published results of the 2001 census which revealed that 71.1 per cent of all respondents had described themselves as Christians.

If the Archbishop of York is right about the decline of Christianity, how is it that we are discussing matters of faith so endlessly these days? There is something in the mood of the moment that suggests that faith has become fashionable, that the sound of the steady, confident tread of Christian soldiers, marching as to war, is growing louder in our ears.

By its nature, a new interest in religion need not be alarming. We live in a fidgety, hedonistic time; a spot of what the country singers call "old time religion" might introduce a small, helpful element of moral seriousness. But there is something cold and complacent about contemporary Christianity. Low-church radicalism, which saw action as the best expression of faith and was beyond the political establishment, is out of favour; Methodism advertises itself on beermats; church opposition to the introduction of massive casinos has been muted. Instead, the emphasis - on the progress of faith, the sexuality of priests, the number of believers - is inward-looking and self-obsessed.

One does not have to look far to see the baleful effects of a faith encrusted by triumphalism, and propelled by a need to turn over a healthy profit in the form of converted souls. The advance of fundamentalist church groups in America, led by God's representative in the White House, has become synonymous with a bizarre form of faith that turns upside down what one had assumed were Christian values. Instead of tolerance, there is the antipathy towards anyone whose beliefs and way of life does not conform to those of family-based, capitalist America.

The idea that peace was a cornerstone of religious belief is now a distant joke while openness to ideas has given way to a desire to have censored any part of mass entertainment of which the new moralists disapprove. A recent film version of The Merchant of Venice reached screens in America without a 16th century fresco - its nude cherubims were deemed too risky to show.

Many of us among the brave 10,000 or so atheists will be hoping to see a decline in religious enthusiasm this Christmas, that the activities of faith-based clubs will receive less emphasis, and more will be given to the sort of morality which has some effect in this life, not the next. A sharp increase in those good old secularist tendencies, in other words.

terblacker@aol.com

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