Hugh Baker does some serious thinking with the help of Wayne, Shane, Darren and David Mellor

TRAVELLING HOME from North Wales one Saturday evening, I turned the radio to \’93606\’94 on Radio Five Live. Let me explain to the non cognoscenti, it is two hours of analysis of The Things That matter. Chelsea supporting toff David Mellor joins in joyful badinage with Wayne from Wandsworth, Shane from Sheffield and others, exploring the Football Firmament.

Usually discussion wanders far and wide, from Arsenal to York and all clubs in between. This Saturday, however, there was only one topic of conversation: Glenn Hoddle. Hardly a word was breathed in the poor man’s defence as Wayne, Lisa, Darren and others weighed in to attack the hapless Anglo-Buddhist.

At this distance, you’ve probably drawn your own conclusions about the affair. What I think we ought to notice, though, was the size of affair it was. Prayers were offered for the salvation of Glenn by members of my congregation, many of whom think that Blackburn Rovers are a north country walking club. Somehow it mattered.

Unwittingly, the luckless Glenn had given his enemies an excuse to sack him by treading on an inviolable fault line in our society. The battle between Christians in Sport and Eileen Drewery for the soul of Glenn is, in microcosm, the battle going on for the Soul of the Nation – and, indeed, the whole of the First World. The Dark Riders of oriental Mysticism have been making their forays deeper and deeper into the Shire of Christendom and its culture.

The Dark Riders’ success has, of course, been aided by the long-standing public prejudice that it doesn’t really matter what you believe. Time was what you believed dictated what you voted (or I should say of pre-democratic Europe, for whom you fought). The whole continental map was changed because man embraced a different understanding of the nature of the Church. (There were, I know, other things afoot which produced and shaped the Reformation. Even so, the Reformation stands as a thing in itself: without its specifically religious dynamic the Reformation would not have happened.)

The only places where religion can now be said to be a power in European political life are those unhappy corners such as Northern Ireland or Bosnia, where the battles of past centuries are still being fought. The rest of us, watching them from our place of prosperous secular ease can easily reach the conclusion that we’re better off in a society where few people believe anything very deeply. Religion reduced to the importance of macramé or other homely hobbies leads, we decide, to peaceful coexistence and multi-faith mateyness for all.

Glenn’s faux pas asks questions of this ecumenical dream. It lays bare one of the conclusions you reach if you embrace the Dark Riders’ doctrine. It’s their own fault the handicapped are handicapped. It’s all down to what they did last time around. There is, therefore, no obligation on the rest of us to do anything to relieve their plight. The star’s position at their birth announced their Karma, and they must accept it as being good for them.

If enough people in a society think like this, what you believe will shape our way of doing things. Poverty and illness, far from being enemies to be overcome, will be seen as healthy spiritual regulation we should not tamper with. A deep fatalism will set in. (A friend of mine on a internal flight in China asked an Air Hostess why there had been no safety drill before take off. ‘We crash, we die’ was her bleak response.)

Why were Wayne & Co so upset at Glenn’s remarks? Living as they do in a post-Christian society, though Christian belief may be foreign to them, the conclusions that come from Christianity still come naturally. If Glenn had been seen to be a bloke with funny religious beliefs, but kind to children, animals and cripples, no-one would have raised an eyebrow. What he did, though, was to cross the line from belief to practical outcome and it was the outcome that Wayne didn’t like.

May I suggest that this is the time for us to pray that the penny drops? That people learn from this that what you believe is important and has long term consequences for how we live together. Maybe the people of God have been presented with an open goal.

Hugh J. Baker is Parish Priest of Fazely, Drayton Bassett, Canwell and Hints in the diocese of Lichfield.