The brightness and the glory

A 154-foot tower, a chandelier weighing 300 kilos. Stephen Smithgains entry to the Mormon temple in

It must have been all the excitement, but as I entered the soaring new Mormon temple in Lancashire, I was distracted by an urge to perform an irredeemably earth-bound function. Under my breath, I asked a colleague whether he thought the builder's spec had included anything so worldly as a Gents. Hardly had we taken another pace across the marble flags than my elbow was seized in a firm but kindly grip. A man in a dark suit, whom I'd last noticed in a distant corner, had materialised noiselessly at my side. "I understand that you'd like to go to the bathroom," he murmured.

Paying a call at the temple, if that's the expression I want, provided a rare insight into one of Britain's fastest-growing but least understood religious movements. First, and at the risk of sounding like an Irish swimmer, I should say that I had not been taking any stimulants, because those popular diuretics, alcohol, tea and coffee, are off the Mormon menu. The cubicle itself boasted state-of-the-art Armitage Shanks vitreousware, and was carpeted in beige shagpile to ankle height, as indeed was the temple throughout. There have been rumours that these floor coverings will be ripped up and thrown out after a series of open days which finished last summer, but church authorities have dismissed this. However, they say that the temple had undergone "cleansing" - understood to be both spiritual and domestic - before its formal dedication last June.

Most impressive of all was the display of trouble-shooting by my friend in the dark suit. Having led me to the WC, he waited for me outside it, not unlike a prison escort. I'm sure that if I'd succumbed to a temptation to scribble something on the walls, he would have been through the door and snatching the Biro out of my hand before you could say Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the style the Mormons favour. Very reasonably, they didn't want people defacing their temple after they'd just spent a reported £100 million on it. Spokesmen were coy about the exact price tag, which was odd considering they went out of their way to explain that only the best raw materials had been good enough, North American cherry and Austrian crystal finding their way to the site, at junction eight of the M61. A formula I heard from more than one pair of lips was, "The key question is not what it cost, but what it's worth". Funds came from the 10 per cent of income every follower gives the Mormons.

At every doorway, on every passage, the church's investment was protected by an "elder". This was something of a misnomer; with a buzzsaw haircut and corn-fed complexion, the typical elder was actually more like a younger. Brought over from the church's American heartland for the big launch, the elders looked and sounded like Navy Seals attending a dressy reception ashore.

Thousands of visitors have been anticipated from far and wide for what you might call the Mormon experience, most of them, admittedly, converts from the United States. The nearest town is Chorley, not necessarily the sort of place you'd bracket with Beaver, or so I guessed. But the youthful elder reassured me: "Chorley's a small town, it kind of reminds me of home."

As far as the Mormons are concerned, the temple is really an outpost of nearby Preston, the base of their oldest branch. In 1837 seven missionaries arrived from New York to look up relatives in the town. Before long, they were preaching and baptising new believers in the waters of the Ribble. The Mormons now claim 180,000 members in the British Isles. They believe that theirs is the true church, restored by God in the last century. Cecil O Samuelson Jr, the president of the Mormons in Britain, made a speech about an American called Joseph Smith bearing witness to "two personages whose brightness and glory defied all description". Samuelson had the steely hair of a Republican senator. He explained that further revelations led to the discovery of gold plates inscribed with what turned out to be the text of the Book of Mormon, a kind of addendum to the Bible. Whenever I looked up from my notepad, Samuelson's eyes were on me.

He led the way through the temple's rinsed air and artificial light to a baptismal font in the basement. Twelve life-size fibreglass oxen, one for each of the tribes of Israel, were supporting a sunken whirlpool bath. The domed ceiling was a Milky Way of shimmering bulbs. Mormons maintain that baptismal privileges can be conferred beyond the grave, entire family trees united in God's sight by the act of a believer standing in for his late relations at the hygienic foot-spa. This raised the interesting textural crux: what if a dead ancestor was perfectly happy not being a Mormon? While I was pondering this, the president said that the greatest number of people for whom he had acted as a baptismal proxy at one go was a dozen. Whites were worn during the ceremony. "We have a significant laundry challenge," said Samuelson. The pool gurgled.

The president of the church is a useful man to know if you're a Mormon. Most church events happen in relatively humble chapels, and not every follower may enter the temple of Preston. Select men and women will receive a "temple recommend", a sign that they are in good standing with a member of the rank of bishop.

On a different Chorley morning, the temple not yet finished, a roly-poly man had breathlessly propelled his recommend across a table to me. He said, "That's literally priceless, that. No money on earth can buy that."

Oh, I knew how difficult it was to get into the temple, alright. I discovered it that day, when the Mormons declined to admit me and even disappointed their own PR people, who had made the journey from London. We would all have to wait for the one-off press tour.

The temple was finished in Sardinian granite, which recalled the cliff-face of the palace erected by the Ceausescus in Bucharest; it was as much of a bunker as the abandoned American embassy in Saigon. On the face of it, though, the stakes were much higher in Chorley. Inside the temple, it was possible to learn the meaning of life, or so I gathered. There was even a taster of the ambrosial hereafter.

Despite their strict admissions policy, the Mormons were far from inhospitable. They were unfailingly courteous - almost creepily so, if that doesn't sound ungrateful - putting up with any number of irreverent questions. The spire of the temple was a tapering digit thrust 154 feet into the sky, capped by a golden trumpeter representing an angel called Moroni, but the rest of the structure had the undisguisable look of a municipal crematorium. I asked the roly-poly man: "Be honest, do you really think it's beautiful?"

He said, "I do, yes. But you could show the Taj Mahal to half a dozen people and they'd all have a different view."

The temple, and the coming of the Mormons to Lancashire in large numbers, have certainly provoked different views. One shopper told me, "I think it's great, actually. It's got people talking." Another said, "It's just opulence for opulence's sake."

"You know the film Independence Day, where the spaceship suddenly appears over the White House? It's like that with the temple," said Reverend Ian Dewar, vicar of All Saints Church in the village of Appleby Bridge. The Anglican church has joined forces with the Catholics, the Baptists and others to produce a leaflet challenging the Mormons' claims to be Christian. Reverend Don Gilkes made his parish church available while the temple was holding its open days, in case disoriented members of the public needed a stiffening shot of caffeine and a chat. He told me that the Mormons' views on doctrines such as baptism and heaven were at odds with established teaching. The churches in turn have been accused of running scared, outflanked by the Mormons' remorseless doorstep proselytising (they reckon to tread 1,000 front paths for every convert they make). The Mormons deny they will be staking out the porches of Chorley. They will be training missionaries, they say, not sending them out willy-nilly into the roads around the temple - which brings me back to the guided tour.

We were in the wedding guests' waiting room, among wipe-clean lacquered panels and scenes from the life of Christ. Devoted Mormon couples don't have to settle for pledging themselves to each other "till death us do part". They can cement their marriages for eternity in a "sealing room". Here, the conversation pieces included a bench with a doily over it and mirrors facing each other, allowing the bride and groom to observe themselves for as far as they could see in each direction, a representation of their timeless union.

Now we were penetrating the inner sanctum of the temple, the very heart of the Mormon creed. In the ordinance room, nothing less than the chronology of creation was brought to life. Samuelson said, "In this room we have the opportunity of learning the things to answer life's great questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?"

Never mind that it was an antiseptic sort of chamber; not after a build-up like that. Unfortunately, there was a let-down on the way: it emerged that our party would not be vouchsafed the mysteries of the ordinance room. We had to be content with titbits.

Still, the best was yet to come, or so we had been given to understand: the celestial room, a place of beauty, peace, reverence; an appetiser for the afterlife. "We will ask that we don't have lots of dialogue in there," said Samuelson.

What to say of the vision of paradise presented by the celestial room? Picture a reception suite for the use of minor royalty, as envisaged by the set designers of a South American soap opera. It was done out in the vivid lemons of daytime television. There was a chandelier, which weighed 300 kilos.

The Mormons have now shut their doors to the outside world, and the ineffable comforts of the celestial room are reserved for the elite of the church. I wouldn't have missed the temple for anything, even though, by the end of my visit, the soul-searching riddle "What am I doing here?" had become a rhetorical question.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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