John Walsh Column

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The Independent Online
The Bishop of Birmingham seems a remarkable fellow. He appears fantastically unbothered by the seething hatreds and accusations of racism that have been flying around his King's Norton parish for the past couple of years, since the Rev Eve Pitts was taken on as part of the ecclesiastical team.

The trouble was revealed when the Rev Pitts complained in church that, almost from the time of her appointment, she had been treated as "a doormat" by her senior colleague; she assumed the bishop would support her, but found only a typed letter of resignation waiting for her signature at the episcopal HQ.

When asked about the matter, the Bish assured the press his turbulent vicar was a "talented pastor" and that, if she would resign quietly, she would get her full stipend and could keep her parish house.

For a leading cleric to assume this would be any comfort to a person who had pursued her vocation through a thousand obstacles, to become the country's first black lady vicar, seems howlingly insensitive. Next day, the Bish announced his engagement to Ms Sabine Bird, with the words "We are both surprised and delighted by this turn of events", as if it were happening to somebody else. How detached from reality must you be, to be surprised by your own actions?

But then Bishops of Birmingham have always been a little wayward. Philip Hoare, who has just finished writing a study of the celebrated "47,000 perverts" trial in 1918, points out that the Bishop of Birmingham at the time was one Russell Wakefield, an upstanding chap, pillar of the Established Church, who presided over the "Cinema Commission of Enquiry" in 1917, set up by the National Council of Public Morals to look into loose behaviour on screen.

Possibly fired by images of celluloid smut, the upstanding bishop set his crozier at Marie Stopes, the shockingly controversial women's rights campaigner and contraception impresario, who was on the commission representing the Society of Authors.

"The Bishop was so devoted to me, he implored me to marry him and said he would give up being a Bishop if I would only promise," Ms Stopes wrote to Oscar Wilde's paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas. "But of course he was far too old for me." What on earth do they put in the holy water in Brummieland?

Maybe the Bishop would have benefited from a little chat with the Almighty, and I don't mean prayer, or meditation or mystical communion, I mean a conversation. That is what an American writer called Neale Donald Walsch claims to have done; and the resulting colloquy, Conversations with God, is a best-seller.

Mr Walsch's "uncommon dialogue" with the Almighty began in 1992 when he was writing an irritable letter to Him (as you do) complaining about his lot in menopausal terms: "Why isn't my life working?" ... "What have I done to deserve a life of such continuing struggle?" To his amazement, his pen began writing by itself and God, he claims, replied. Walsch says the answers from on high came fluently, as if he were taking dictation, and went on for three years.

What kind of conversationalist does God turn out to be? He alternates snappy interchanges, like Socratic dialogues, with long tirades about creation, death, the soul and how to avoid being a Bad Person. He talks about "damage limitation" and "optimum advantage", says "no way" a lot and quotes from "your Shakespeare". He sprinkles his discourse with camp French italics ("n'est-ce pas?") and makes dull little jokes about hell - "Good grief," cries Walsch after one sally, "you're a regular comedian." "It took you this long to find that out?" God enquires witheringly. "You looked at the world lately?"

God is surprisingly liberal about sex ("If I didn't want you to play certain games, I wouldn't have given you the toys") but as disobliging as a Chancellor on Budget Day when it comes to booze and fags ("If you've ever taken alcohol into your body, you have very little will to live"). Oh and the Creator of All Things explains that yeah, there is life on other planets, sure, they've visited the earth and yup, they're looking at us now - but (displaying, for a spiritual being, an unexpected degree of publishing savvy) He can't say any more because it's all going in a follow-up volume.

"This does not seem," Walsch comments, with masterly understatement, of this self-created pile of bollocks, "like what a communication with God would feel like". The Redeemer ripostes, in Woody Allen-sprache: "You want bells and whistles? I'll see what I can arrange."

Last year Michael Bogdanaov attacked theatre critics, and now four of them are to direct plays at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, thus risking the scorn and critical abuse that are their own stock-in-trade. Speaking on the Today programme, Bogdanov said: "Of course I welcome this news. I'm glad to be able to initiate a debate into ..." I can't remember what it was supposed to be into - something like "Creativity and Critical Responsibility", I expect. But I'd stopped listening by then, having cut myself with a razor out of sheer irritation.

And what was it Noel Gallagher said, when they asked him about the fuss he had caused with his pronouncement that taking ecstacy was like having a cup of tea in the morning? "I'm vurry glad," he intoned, negotiating his way uncertainly through this syllabic minefield, "to have init - inish - initiated a debate on the danger of drugs ..." And lastly, if you can stand it, there is Luciano Benetton, the supersmooth capo di capo of the Italian clothing dynasty. When I interviewed him last year, and asked about one of his bad-taste advertisements (the bloodstained army jacket one? the copulating horses one? the HIV one?), he replied: "No we're not worried by the public's reaction. We are happy to have initiated a debate about Bosnia/ racism/ Aids

Are you as tired as I am of all this debate-initiation? It is now the standard response from anybody whose unprompted response would have been "Yes I was a complete pillock to have done/said/published that, wasn't I?".

The Football Bung trial has been left hanging in mid-air, like a freeze- framed goalkeeper; but while it has gone on, a curious levity had prevailed. This is partly due to the judge, Mr Justice Tuckey, who punctuated the action with strange utterances. "OK let's break for lunch," he said one day to nobody in particular, "or in the vernacular of the Zimbabwean trial, let's grab a graze ..." Summing up the evidence of Bruce Grobbelaar's former friend Chris Vincent, who contacted the tabloids about the goalie's alleged iniquities, he waggishly noted: "Mr Vincent has been called every name under the sun - although that's rather an unfortunate way of putting it ..."

The hilarity seemed to spread to Mr Grobbelaar. The balding net-diver was leaving court one day when a fan from the gallery plucked his sleeve. "Can you and I play golf when this is all over, Bruce?" he asked. "I don't think so," said Grobbelaar, "I can only see myself playing computer golf for the immediate future." "Oh come now," said the fan, "I believe one of those open prisons has a lovely nine-hole course ..." "Thanks for the moral support," growled Grobbelaar.