Faith value

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The Independent Online
Of all the indignities heaped upon the Prince of Wales's head this week, being told who not to screw by a tubby, middle-aged prelate must be the worst. The Venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, has spoken thus of Charles and Camilla (the woman whom HRH has adored for two decades): "If they remain friends, that's fine. If he carries on a relationship, that's quite another matter. Adultery is a sin."

As advice goes, this is in the "play it again, Nero" league. It is obvious that the more Charles and Camilla can get it together, the better off they will be. Then, at last, stiffness can migrate from the upper lip. She will begin to look younger and he can stop mounting horses (a traditional royal displacement activity).

But what is it that emboldens the Archdeacon to speak like this to the heir to the throne? He hasn't been trained by Relate or the Samaritans. The dictionary tells us that an archdeacon is essentially little more than a bishop's nark. And don't be fooled by the "Venerable" - that can mean either "worthy of reverence on account of great age, religious associations, character, position etc." or simply "title given to archdeacon in the Church of England". In Austin's case, it is clearly the latter. And that is his sole qualification for seeking to direct the Royal libido - his senior membership of the C of E. So it is also that the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man of extreme moderation - intellectually, spiritually and charismatically - as leader of the established church, has to be consulted by the Queen on whether Charles can divorce.

I can tolerate the Church in its place; doing good works, preaching tolerance and maintaining cathedrals. But dressing up in silly hats and carrying funny sticks, like extras in a bad remake of The Prisoner of Zenda, or intoning platitudinous rubbish in a sing-song voice does not, in my opinion, qualify you for a major role in deciding the constitutional future of the nation. If the Queen wanted good advice, she should have consulted Claire Rayner ("Darling, of course you're anxious, but nobody will thank you for getting involved. Have you thought about Prozac?")

My own preference would be for Charles to eschew religion altogether. The historical imperatives behind the establishment of the Church of England have now been exhausted. We do not need a replacement.

But for some time now, I have been uncomfortably aware that this rationalist viewpoint is increasingly unfashionable. Where previously Christians and other Deists used to keep quiet for fear of ridicule, today's dinner parties are dominated by bold confessions of faith.

Only a few weeks ago, two very good friends of mine proudly told an animated group of media folk that they were experiencing immense benefit from "psychic massage". I got ready for a really good scoff (how does the masseur get his fingers through your ears, that kind of thing), until I realised that everyone else was taking it seriously.

My unbelief was passe, boring, a relic of duller, more rational times. Within minutes, perfectly sensible people were swapping tales of the New Age, of crystals, reflexology, aromatherapy and God. It is now perfectly possible to be assailed for your improbable faith in European Monetary Union by someone who wishes to be reincarnated as an ant.

Admitting defeat, I propose that we handle this whole establishment question in a more efficient manner. My proposal is this: the State (Queen, PM, Governor of the Bank of England and Director-General of the BBC) should put the contract for established church, or religion, out to tender. Applicants could be judged on the basis of their modernity, the enthusiasm of their adherents, the age and gender profile of their congregations and what they offer in the afterlife.

Once awarded, the contract should be reviewed at the beginning of each reign by Ofgod, whose first Director-General should be anyone other than the Venerable George Austin.

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