- IT'S A low-budget animated film with none of the techno-wizardry
of the recent hit Toy Story 2, and the story is 2,000 years old. But across
the country the public are flocking to The Miracle Maker, a version of
the life of Jesus based on the Gospel of St Luke and starring a collection
of finger-high clay figures.
- At Manchester's Showcase Cinema, advanced bookings have
exceeded those for Titanic. It has sold out in Swindon, Sheffield and Streatham,
South London, according to distributor Icon, which says interest is so
great it has had to increase the number of prints nationwide from 100 to
170. Many multi-screen cinemas are moving it to their bigger auditoriums.
- In London, haunting images of Jesus bear down on commuters,
promoting the exhibition Seeing Salvation at the National Gallery. Director
Neil MacGregor, who tonight begins a four-part BBC2 series on Images of
Christ in Art, says he is astonished at the numbers visiting the exhibition,
upwards of 5,000 a day, already past 100,000. Even the exhibition catalogue
has entered the top 10 best-selling books.
- Maybe it's the Lenten season, but just as the public
are flocking to watch images of Jesus, a clutch of celebrities have announced
that they, too, have seen the Light.
- The Damascene conversion for Fay Weldon, author of The
Life and Loves of a She-Devil, came as she was writing a literary preface
to St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians where she encountered "timeless
truths". In an unlikely case of the misogynist converting the feminist,
Weldon has been baptised into the Church of England.
- Jonathan Aitken, after his release from jail, has swapped
the simple sword of truth for the breastplate of righteousness. As he explained
to Jeremy Paxman last week, when he heard the voice of God, time stopped.
Or at least his Rolex did.
- Not to be outdone, the erotic novelist and journalist,
AA Gill, rose from his pew to announce that he too was "on the Godsquad",
and aware also of the damage this admission would do to his carefully cultivated
image. "Sometimes the one thing that seems to unite every frothingly
barmy simpleton on the planet is a belief in God, and I'm with them,"
he says. "How I wish I could be on the cool team."
- So the Church which spent much of last year lamenting
its lack of millennium prominence is suddenly getting coverage of biblical
proportions. We may harbour doubts about God's omnipotence, but there is
no doubting his omnipresence. And yet, with Easter three weeks away, while
He can undoubtedly fill cinema seats and art galleries, His difficulty
is still putting bums on pews. Church attendances continue to fall spectacularly.
The most recent survey found that numbers at mainline Anglican, Catholic
and Methodist churches have declined from 4.7million in 1989 to 3.7million
in 1998. Falling rolls inevitably prompt a cash crisis: things are so bad
that last week the Bishop of Blackburn announced that he would have to
axe 25 vicars unless churchgoers raised another million. An Express investigation
a day later revealed that diocese have been selling off historic assets
to fund clergy pensions.
- The Church of England retains its establishment role
but its interventions in the public arena appear ham-fisted and out of
touch: witness the shambles over the repeal of Section 28 when, despite
hammering out a deal with the Government, the compromise amendment was
defeated because not enough bishops turned up at the House of Lords to
- A new MORI poll, Mapping Britain's Moral Values, finds
the Church one of the least respected institutions in Britain - only the
police are held in lower regard.
- But the enigma of Britain's spiritual health is captured
in the same poll, which reports that while less than a quarter of those
questioned attended church, more than half thought religion important.
We believe but we don't want to take it too far.
- "The paradox of our time," says Robert Ashby,
director of the British Humanist Association, "is the growing sense
of religiosity without gods." When Weldon talks of her new-found love
of "orderliness, pews and music", he notes, "she barely
mentions anything theological". Likewise, Gill admits: "I believe
in an awful lot of things my fellow Christians oppose."
- Today's converts, says Ashby, do not buy into the traditional
belief structure. "They are arrogant. They join the movement and then
they pick and mix what they will or won't believe, they just invent their
- The Internet is emblematic of the emerging DIY faith
zone. Visit, for example, the website Belief.net where surfers first choose
their preferred religion from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam,
Judaism or Others. Once a god tickles their religious fancy, they can then
delve deep into their souls via an interactive road map entitled "What's
Your Spiritual Type?" For these web-surfers, religions must become
more fluid and less doctrinaire. But it's not just wed-surfers who have
the desire to mix and match their faith. The Prime Minister is a confirmed
Anglican, married to a devout Roman Catholic, but last week he too revealed
that he has taken to reading the Koran before bed.
- Prince Charles, the next head of the Church of England,
wants to be Defender of Faiths. "Our spiritual life has become fragmented,"
says Michael Buerk, presenter of the forthcoming BBC series Soul of Britain,
which promises a national spiritual audit. "People have started to
cherry-pick from faiths, be it New Age religions or the established orthodoxies,
and construct their own view of life."
- Yet as interest in eastern therapies, New Age books and
spiritual tourism booms, the image of Jesus Christ himself remains potent.
At the National Gallery, Mr MacGregor says it remains one of the most powerful
in history. "In a secular society people still turn to the language
of Christian art to think about the big questions like love and suffering,
loss and hope," he explains. "You don't need to believe that
this man was the Son of God to be very moved by these works of art. In
the same way that Hamlet or King Lear treat universal themes through a
central figure, they can be seen as examining the joy, suffering and hope
of everyone in any age."
- Even if traditionalists despise the idea of letting people
sign up and then believing what they like, the broad-minded, look-the-other
way tradition of modern Anglicanism ought to be well-positioned for such
a "pick-and-mix" environment.
- But the Church remains a bloated dinosaur weighed down
by an accumulation of impractical buildings which it cannot afford to maintain
and a hierarchical structure from another age. Perhaps some quarters have
got the message. Last month St Paul's Cathedral loosened its vestments
with a high-tech "labyrinth" installation in which worshippers
were given headphones and a CD player and invited to listen to ambient
music as they wandering through a series of post-modern "stations".
One was a lap-top computer where you said a prayer and lit a virtual candle.
- The Church, says Dr Richard Burridge, Dean of King's
College in London, is slowly turning to address the needs of post-modern
spiritual grazers. "We are having to adapt to new forms or association
and create new kinds of service because simply offering the Prayer Book
and Choral Matins on Sunday morning no longer matches people's evident
spiritual hunger," he says.
- So the third millennium message for the Church is that
spiritual hunger keeps people open to the old, old story. But, just like
the film company, the keepers of the faith need to rethink their means
- As Richard E Grant, who speaks the part of John the Baptist
in The Miracle Maker, puts it: "If the story has been told thousands
and thousands of times in different ways, this is certainly a way in which
I've never seen it before. To be able to see that after 2,000 years is
- The ten new Commandments
- How the church could change if it wants to thrive in
- 1. Join with other denominations and dispose of half
your buildings, diverting the proceeds to world's poor.
- 2. Introduce sex equality. Dump half the bishops, appoint
women to replace them. Elect first Archbishop Georgina.
- 3. Abandon pretensions to grandeur. Jump from the House
of Lords before you're pushed.
- 4. Have evening services. Drop the sermon when there
is nothing to say.
- 5. Let other faiths and local community groups use your
buildings. Bring back medieval-style markets into the sanctuary.
- 6. Launch spiritual sustenance online.
- 7. Offer spiritual exercises and techniques from other
- 8. Use TV and video, with recorded music when the choir
have all died. Drop the anachronistic hymns, sack useless clergy, stand
up and interrupt when they're talking cassocks.
- 9. Turn churches into walk-in spiritual clinics.
- 10. Stand for things, not against them. Host new political
movements which promote the common good.
- © Express Newspapers, 2000
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