Religious art gives away very little about what people are supposed to do in Heaven, other than stand around. The title of this week's report, "The Mystery of Salvation", doesn't throw much light on the matter although the text has hot news, so to speak, on the topic of Hell. The church has been playing down the torments of the other place in recent decades, admitting that "Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a monster".
Its attempt to persuade us that he isn't includes a vision of Heaven consisting not of "eternal and static perfection" but an everlasting "participation in the life of God". This is as baffling as most theological pronouncements: I hadn't expected long chats about variable mortgage rates or the latest Tarantino movie but, if this is the complete programme, I don't think waverers will be rushing to sign up. The report anticipates this response, though in a somewhat churlish manner.
"Hell is not eternal torment but the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being," it says irritably. "Whether there be any who do so choose, only God knows." My first reading of this convoluted formulation was that non-believers face being zapped by some cosmic ray gun, which is only marginally less sadistic than being toasted over a flaming pit. It also follows tradition in being profoundly undemocratic: join us or be atomised instead of join us or be chargrilled.
But there is another interpretation which doesn't seem to have occurred to the church's doctrine commission: that Heaven, like Tinkerbell, exists only if you believe in it. This makes paradise a late contender for the list of national fairy tales I wrote about last week, although the consequences of not subscribing to it are more severe than those for wanting to get rid of the Windsors. Not just atheists but members of other faiths are condemned unless they convert.
The report is, in other words, an example of old-fashioned cultural imperialism, which explains its popularity on the church's evangelical wing. The Right Rev John Taylor, former Bishop of St Albans and a member of the doctrine commission, characterised it as "a strong traditional piece of Anglican theology. Anything less and I would have been unhappy." I suppose that's muscular Christianity for you. But then I never did like compulsory games.
THE problem with our attachment to moribund institutions is that they swing into action at key moments in national life. I'm thinking not so much of Britain as France, where the agnostic Francois Mitterrand was mourned this week at a requiem mass in Notre Dame and a simultaneous service in the parish church of his home town, Jarnac.
The ceremonies were stage-managed by Mitterrand himself, who made his wishes clear in a letter accompanying his will. During his address at Notre Dame the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, employed a slightly awkward formula - that "Francois Mitterrand had implied that he believed in the communion of saints" - which suggested that an accommodation had been reached to allow the former president a church funeral.
Perhaps Mitterrand, who seems to have been anxious to secure his place in French history, felt a service in Notre Dame was nothing less than his due. Yet with the decline in religious belief in the West, the question of how to honour celebrated citizens who don't believe in God needs to be addressed. My preference is for a simple secular ceremony at which people who knew the dead person are allowed to speak, instead of leaving it to priests. I don't think Catullus's moving farewell to his brother can be bettered: atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
I'M ON dangerous territory here, quoting Latin again. I've had faxes from several classically-educated readers who spotted the mistake inserted by an unknown agent - definitely not me, guv - in my quotation from Virgil's Aeneid last week. Recalling the warning to the Trojans not to accept gifts from the Greeks, I used the correct word (dona) only to have it appear in print as dora, which is coincidentally Greek for the same thing. Professor T R Thomas got in touch from Cleveland to congratulate me on an "inspired" emendation which, he suggests, deconstructs the Aeneid as an account of a Club 18-30 holiday: "I fear some Greeks are carrying Dora".
Another correspondent, who did not attach his or her name, wanted to know whether Dora was the name of the horse. This is patently ridiculous. Anyone who knows anything about the siege of Troy will remember she was called Mabel.
JUST a thought in case the Government goes ahead with its craven plan to deport Mohammed al-Masari on Tuesday. If the Saudis are allowed to pick someone they would like to have expelled from Britain, why not extend the privilege to those of us who actually live here? I know the Government claims Mr al-Masari's compulsory Caribbean holiday has as much to do with protecting British economic interests as conciliating one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. But that only strengthens the case for selective expulsion.
Whatever harm Mr al-Masari is said to have done to the British economy pales into insignificance beside Black Wednesday and the other financial catastrophes - prolonged recession, the collapse of the housing market - perpetrated during the two terms of John Major's administration. The man is dangerous and should be deported at once.Reuse content