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25 December 2000

Bring out those tambourines again

NS Christmas - Madonna, Jane Fonda, Britney Spears: Christians are suddenly sexy again. Cel

By Celia Brayfield

What have the following got in common: Britney Spears, Tony Blair, Jane Fonda, Paul Boateng, Delia Smith, William Hague? They are all out-and-proud Christians. And what about these high-profile couples: Gordon Brown and Sarah Macaulay, or Madonna and Guy Ritchie? They chose to get married in a church. I should also mention that Madonna has struck a deal to have her son, Rocco, baptised in front of 25 Church of Scotland elders, instead of the public ceremony required for non-celebs. So the crucifixes were all for real and the sacrilegious wind-up she did in the 1980s was a load of old hype.

And how many church services appeared on the mainstream TV news following the death of Damilola Taylor, who bled to death after being stabbed on his way home from school? None? One? Three or more? The answer is three or more, each better attended than the last. First, the regular Sunday service at Peckham Methodist Church, then a memorial service, at which Damilola’s family spoke movingly of their loss, and finally a special service held at the conclusion of a march through the streets.

Like the murder of Sarah Payne and the Paddington rail crash, the trauma of this ten-year-old’s death has prompted the manifestation of a kind of street belief, which selects an established church as a vehicle for the grief, anger and fear of a community. It may look tacky when seen from Hampstead, but the seeds of a people’s Christianity are sprouting in our spiritual vacuum.

This is despite George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, predicting that Christianity in Britain is one generation away from extinction; and despite a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph revealing that more than half of self-professed British Christians go to church only on special occasions and can’t name any of the four gospels. Recently, the author A N Wilson greeted the new prayer book with howls of dismay and, in the Guardian, prophesied that the Muslim crescent will soon overtake the Christian cross.

This claim got a feisty response from the newspaper’s readers, who suggested that the holy fogey “should get out more”. “A N Wilson should look at the inner cities and council estates,” wrote Bob Holman from Easterhouse, Glasgow. “Perhaps the Church of Oxbridge professors, bishops and elitist choristers is dying. But in other places it is very much alive.”

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Holman is spot on. Formal worship has clearly become the spiritual equivalent of a Jane Asher occasion cake. Late in 1999, the looming millennium finally embarrassed the Church of England into admitting that, in 1997, average weekly church attendances had fallen below one million for the first time. The Church had been covering up the evidence ever since.

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The Catholic congregation is larger, just over one million, but is none the less falling at the same rate of around 2 per cent a year. The Baptists, however, are increasing in number as fast as the larger churches are declining. The “new” churches, meaning the happy-clappy tendency with their fishy car mascots and the hymns that sound like out-takes from Evita, are swelling even faster: the UK Evangelical Alliance now has more than one million members.

Put these figures together and we have around four million regular Christian worshippers in Britain, a number that nudges the 15 per cent defined by trend analysts as the necessary presence to start creating a consensus.

That estimate is made without factoring-in the Loyola persuasion, the dormant Christians. Loyolas get their name from the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, who famously promised: “Give me a child when he is seven and I will give you the man.” The chief of the Loyolas is Bob Geldof, whose Live Aid fight against world hunger must have had Jesuits high-fiving. This year, he arranged a dignified funeral for his ex-wife and took on her child by another man. The Loyolas show their true colours under pressure.

The participation of Jane Fonda usually indicates that a cause is cutting-edge. Look at her track record: power coupling in the Nineties, aerobics in the Eighties, feminism in the Seventies, protest in the Sixties. And now she is born again, and has traded in Ted Turner for an evangelical Christian guru.

Belief and fame have a symbiotic relationship, because the victims of celebrity culture have an exceptionally hard time making sense of the world. Perhaps the role models in Hello! magazine have had a trickle-down effect, because now there is stirring at the grass roots. The Advertising Standards Authority advised copywriters to avoid religious references after an ad for Diesel jeans – which showed nuns in blue denim under their habits – provoked the highest number of complaints this year.

The shock resurrection of Christianity is most obvious in politics. This autumn, the Prime Minister followed William Hague’s ex-ample, wading into a 6,000-strong conference of evangelical Christians at Brighton in his role as a fisher of votes. Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Chris Smith are all members of the Christian Socialist Movement.

At the next election – when an adjustment in the rules will permit, for the first time, former members of the clergy to stand – a former Catholic priest and a former Anglican vicar are expected to run for safe seats. This is prompting Westminster atheists, concerned about their career development, to accuse new Labour of acting like a Christian mafia dealing in the opium of the people. Atheists and agnostics – you know, those rational types who believe in science and stuff they can hit with a hammer – flip into rabid terror at the idea that faith and power may be related. Recently, many a London dinner party has been enlivened by the contortions of faith-free thinkers trying to rationalise their distaste for Christianity. Their challenge is to reach the far side of political correctness and find a way of muzzling Christians that can’t be used equally well against Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or Sikhs.

Matthew Parris, the sketch writer at the Times, personified their agony recently, when he rode to the defence of Margaret Beckett, alleging that she had been “ambushed” by nine MPs wanting more time to debate the issue of embryo stem-cell research. All her assailants were Christians, he noted, but none of them said so. Surely it was time for faith to become a declarable interest? After an elegant preamble to emphasise the fairness of his mind, Parris cited the “typical” tearoom conversation that goes: “Why is Mr X MP banging on about abortion/gay rights/world disarmament/alcoholism?” “Oh, didn’t you know? He’s a Catholic/ homosexual/Quaker/reformed alcoholic.”

One does not need a Jesuit-trained mind to spot that, if the notional Catholic and Quaker are to be required to declare their interests, then the homosexual and the reformed alcoholic should be invited to do likewise. I trust Parris will be putting this idea to Stonewall shortly.

Now we have the piteous plight of the Conservative Party in Brentwood and Ongar, accused of having been infiltrated by the Peniel Pentecostal Church in Pilgrims Hatch, near Brentwood. The independent MP and former TV reporter Martin Bell is the white knight offering himself as champion to see off the charismatic dragon, and stop Essex becoming the Bible Belt of Britain. Shame, really – we could do with a new round of Essex girl jokes. Q: What does an Essex girl do after sex with a Tory voter? A: Claim she’s raised the dead and call the rest of the church in to witness the miracle?

For the first time in my life, I have the delusion that I know how Madonna feels. When you have a new baby, your imagination fast-forwards to the day when the bundle in your arms will have become the nightmare in Doc Martens, snarling: “But why do I have to be good?” Then you think of your own teenage years and realise that “Because I say so” isn’t going to cut it.

The government has just launched its citizenship curriculum, aimed at the moral guidance and spiritual care of school- children. It is relentlessly multicultural and words such as “faith” and “love” have been scrupulously eradicated, but it’s got that old Loyola smell, all the same. Perhaps the crisis of Christianity is over. Perhaps, with faith, it is simply necessary to reinvent the wheel every half-century or so.

Somebody get a chair; Matthew Parris is looking rather pale.