Did Billy Graham break the Church?

Billy Graham came to England in 1954 and again in the Eighties and had a huge impact. He offered a new deal, a contract that was simple to understand and act upon. Believe in Jesus, accept Him as your personal saviour and you will be forgiven, your life will be transformed. The old ways of faith through tradition, culture and community were no longer enough. But the trouble with offering people a new deal is that if – or in this case, when – they eventually find it wanting, or if the thrill doesn’t last, they give up and walk away, losing trust in the people who sold it to them. For a while it looked as if Billy Graham was saving the Church in this country, but maybe he should take some of the blame for its demise. Here’s an extract from my book looking at the changes in British culture and spirituality since the Eighties, ‘Is God Still An Englishman? How Britain lost its faith (but found new soul)’

Billy Graham was the most famous preacher in the world and one of the most famous Americans, a man with a face made for Mount Rushmore. As handsome as a lion and just as persuasive, he appeared to be one of the most confident men ever to walk the earth, utterly convinced that the message he was bringing to England in 1984 was right. It was the same message he had preached to at least a hundred million people in his lifetime, making more than a million converts. God loved us all, even though we were sinners who had fallen far short even of His glory. He had sent His only son to die on the cross, to take the punishment that should have been ours. We could know God and be sure of a place in heaven by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal saviour. There was someone waiting to pray with us, if we would only get up out of our seats and come on down to the front of the stage. Right now. The Lord was calling. And that was it.

Life was simple in a Billy Graham world. Believe and you would be saved. Graham preached it in stadiums and on television with the clear-eyed, eloquent charm that had once made him the best door-to-door brush salesman in North Carolina. Unlike other American evangelists, at the peak of his fame he didn’t seem like a liar or a fraud or someone who would be exposed as secretly paying women for sex. He drew only a relatively modest wage of $50,000 a year or so, never met with women when he was alone and even left the door of his office open when he was talking to his secretary.

When he wasn’t on the road, Billy Graham retreated to a farm. He had been born in 1918, the son of a dairy farmer who once made his boy drink beer until sick in order to prove the evils of alcohol. His first crusade, as he named it – with little apparent care of what that word meant outside Christian America – was in Los Angeles in 1949, when some circus tents were put up in a car park. It was supposed to last three weeks but ran for eight. The press loved him and in reference to his booming voice called him ‘God’s Machine Gun’. That didn’t seem such a loaded phrase in those days.

William Randolph Hearst, the press magnate whose life inspired the film Citizen Kane, decided that here was a potentially powerful ally in the fight against his biggest dread: Communism. Graham saw the Soviet way of life as a Satanic conspiracy. Hearst told his editors, who never disobeyed: “Puff Graham.” The preacher quickly became an American superstar, granted a personal audience with successive presidents. He tried to keep out of politics, but couldn’t really help himself: he refused to speak to segregated audiences, and invited Martin Luther King to share his platform in the Fifties when the minister was despised and feared by many of Graham’s fellow white southerners. His contact with Richard Nixon was not quite so admirable. Recordings were released of him apparently going along with the President’s forceful anti-Semitism, even though Graham was very keen on building better relations between Christians and Jews. Graham would make other dubious moves over the years, not least his assertion that Aids was God’s judgment on homosexuals, a comment for which he later apologised.

Billy Graham first preached in Britain in 1954 and his impact was huge. “Not since the Victorian period had there been such powerful evidence of a professing Christian people in Britain,” says the historian Callum Brown. The numbers of church members, baptisms and weddings soared that year. “Accompanying these was a vigorous reassertion of ‘traditional’ values: the role of women as wives and mothers, moral panic over deviancy and ‘delinquency’ and an economic and cultural austerity which applauded ‘respectability, thrift and sexual restraint’.”

Dr Graham was in London for three months and spoke to a combined audience of nearly two million people when the population of the capital was eight million. He won relatively few converts (just 36,431) but his influence was great. America was the source of all that was glamorous and modern and the visiting star preacher carried all that with him. Just his presence in the same city was enough to convince some people they really had to get their lives together. He was reminding them of something they already knew. “The mental world which drew in those worshippers was a national culture,” says Callum Brown, “widely broadcast through books, magazines and radio and deeply ingrained in the rhetoric with which people conversed about each other and about themselves. It was a world profoundly conservative in morals and outlook, and fastidious in its adherence to respectability and moral standards. Many people may have been hypocritical, but that world made them very aware of their hypocrisy.”

Billy Graham’s message of personal salvation was not alien to England. It was the faith of John Wesley; but a version of it that had sailed away America and come back changed and fortified by the smooth skills of the salesman. His visits pumped up born-again English faith like a Charles Atlas body-building course. Before his first crusade to this country, only 10 per cent of priests had been prepared to call themselves Evangelicals. These are people who stress the authority of the Bible above all, and the importance of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. The message that Billy Graham preached was effectively their manifesto.

He made several more visits over the decades, acting as an inspiration, a cheerleader and a point of focus for attempts to win converts. In 1984 he spoke to a million people, and 350,000 watched on television relays elsewhere. The number of who came forward was 135,000. Three years after the 1984 crusade, Evangelicals accounted for a third of all people in the Church of England’s pews, and a mighty 50 per cent of priests. The Baptists also benefited from the Billy Graham bounce.

The faith of England was changed by Billy Graham and his followers, becoming more direct, simpler and more personal. In the recent past, going to a service had mostly been something you did out of duty, a discipline that would improve the spirit but was essentially an ordinary part of life. Now there was an expectation that something extraordinary might happen in church. You could experience God, get a dose of His love. It was something you had to choose to do – ‘nominal’ Christians who went out of habit or tradition were seen as inferior, possibly not even saved – and your choice would be rewarded with peace, contentment and the certainty of salvation.

It was simple. All you had to do was accept Jesus, say a certain prayer and allow your life to be transformed. It was exciting, much better than all that dry old tradition. But the trouble with offering a deal like this is that if it doesn’t last – if you don’t feel transformed, if the thrill wears off, if the Church turns out to be just as full of brokenness as it was before – people just give up and walk away.

Billy Graham offered the English a deal, they bought it but found it wanting, and stopped trusting the Church they had loved and trusted before he came. The last flourish of the Graham approach was the Decade of Evangelism declared by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, at the start of the Nineties. But this time it worked in reverse. By the end of that decade, across all denominations, the number of churchgoers had not grown but fallen, by more than a million.

Thank you Sir Mo Farah. Remembering the night we bowed to urge you home

Some things never leave you. One is the sight and the sound of the crowd at the Olympic stadium performing a very British Mexican wave as Mo Farah raced in London in 2012. I’ve never seen this reported anywhere else but I wrote about it then – almost live blogging from the trackside, writing the next day’s front page lead in real time as the runners counted off the laps and the intensity grew. People were bowing with their arms ahead of them like they do in Wayne’s Word to say, “We are not worthy.” But they were doing it in a wave that was sweeping around the stadium, somehow always just in front of where Mo was on the track, as if all those people were pulling him forward, faster, faster. I remember it tonight as we say goodbye to him on the track at the World Championships. Here’s what I wrote for The Telegraph back then.

“Seven days before this race, on Super Saturday, he had shared the glory with Jessica Ennis and others in Team GB as they won six golds. After that race, a reporter dared to ask if he would rather be running in the colours of Somalia. “Not at all mate,” said Farah in his London accent. “This is my country.”

Now, he was holding the hopes of his nation in his metronomic heart, in a place where you could hardly hear yourself think, let alone speak. The running pack was tight. There were fears that the others would gang up on him, crowd him out. If any of his thousands of fans could have climbed down from the stands and formed a running guard then they would have done, gladly. They would never have kept up. Even at slow speed, for them, these men were a blur. With a mile to run, Farah was in the middle. He moved up. The screams came again, harder, faster, higher.

Now, there was a real Mexican wave, people were rising to their feet and lifting their hands in homage as Farah passed. This was a British wave – even the Jamaicans, waiting for their hero, Usain Bolt, joined in.

Farah was running second. Then, he was first. It was unbearable. After all this way, 5,000m, it had come down to a sprint. He won. He darn well won, with his arms open, blowing a kiss. I have seen rock bands play and been to political rallies with people who were fighting for their futures but I have never heard anything like the noise as he crossed the line, never felt anything like that. Continue reading “Thank you Sir Mo Farah. Remembering the night we bowed to urge you home”

Dancing the sun up at Holywell with Hunters Moon Morris

Years ago my friend Tom Pilston (one of the great news photographers) and I came down to Holywell to see Hunters Moon Morris dance up the sun on May Day. We made a cover story for the Independent on Sunday Review and that experience was also part of what got me thinking about the way spirituality was changing in Britain, which led in the end to the book Is God Still An Englishman? This morning we did it again, for old time’s sake and because I’m glad to count Hunters Moon as friends these days and because it’s May Day and because Tom wanted to! Glad we did.

Good luck and good rhythm to all dancing at Jack in the Green today, Beltane blessings to all who would receive them, happy May Day if you prefer. I’m going back to bed now. Continue reading “Dancing the sun up at Holywell with Hunters Moon Morris”

Farewell to the Orient. “Never again kid, never again.”


That’s it then. The end of 112 years of playing in the football league. Leyton Orient gone. Not many people will care. We never won anything of note. Ever. All those Spurs and particularly Arsenal fans who bleat about how tough it is for them up there in LaLaLand will barely notice. Don’t get me started on West Ham, squatting in their big fancy (free gift from the tax payer) stadium next door like the massive bloke on the train who takes up two seats and uses up all the oxygen.

We were never fashionable and in recent years there didn’t seem much point to the Os being in Leyton at all, with all the historic fans who used to turn up ten or twenty thousand at a time now living out in Essex, somewhere. Harlow Orient. That would have made sense. It still would, somehow, if the club can ever be saved by the fans, for the fans. Maybe there is a way out of the financial mess. Other clubs have been revived and returned. But let’s be honest, we were never great at comebacks. Three nil down with five minutes to go? Time to head for the pub, not dream dreams. They almost never came true.

Mine started in 1978, which was cruel. Our finest moment in living memory, as it turned out. My own memory says we won the FA Cup quarter-final against high-flying Boro in extra time with an overhead kick from outside the box, by Peter Kitchen. It’s not entirely true, but I was only 10 years old.

I’d been brought to the game by my Dad and my Grandad, Arthur and Frank, and what struck me most was the glare of the floodlights, the brilliant emerald of the pitch, the smell of sweat and beer and fags from all those big men packed so tightly together and the sound of the roar when the goal went in. I never heard the like again, there. I remember the language, too. Swear words are the poor man’s English, my father said. Then he called the referee a wanker.

We were standing, of course. This was before the tragedies that changed the game, for better or worse. Anyway we won. We bloody won. Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wemberlee … Well, Stamford Bridge for the semi-final. Against the Arsenal. The mighty Arsenal of Pat Jennings, Willie Young, Liam Brady, Malcolm McDonald. Gods. We had old John Jackson in goal, young Glenn Roeder at the back running upright like a Brisbane Road Beckenbauer, nippy John Chiedozie on the wing, the Flash. My favourite. But only because I was too young to have seen Laurie Cunningham.

Ah, Laurie. The first black player to wear an England shirt. For the under 21s, but still. Ask the lads who came after: Sir Les, Wrighty, Incey, they all looked up to Laurie. He dodged the bananas, shrugged off the monkey noises and went off to play with enormous skill and flair for Big Ron at West Brom and then – fabulously, audaciously – Real Madrid. In a European Cup Final. One of us, promoted to glory. And then came the partying, the decline, the wandering, a brief final flourish and death in a car crash in Spain in his early thirties, at an age that seemed old to me then but now seems hopelessly young.

Laurie had gone by the time of the semi-final, but he left behind the scent of glory, the taste of possibility, the importance of style. We looked good, I remember that, in the all white strip with the two red lines running down the shirt and – marvellously – the shorts too. And the badge on the chest. I thought they were dragons.

So we won and we were through to the semi and my Grandad Frank was ecstatic. He had followed them forever, including the one season they played in the top flight at the start of the Sixties. Three seasons, actually: autumn, winter and spring.

Grandad played for the Os in the Thirties too, or so it was said. I’ve never seen any proof. I haven’t looked too hard in case it isn’t there. I know it isn’t. Maybe he played for them during the war, when records were slack. I know he played exhibition matches for the Eighth Army in the desert, keeping up morale. Tanky, they called him. Built like a tank, more accurately an armoured personnel carrier, busy eating up the miles in the midfield. My youngest son now has his name. Frank, not Tanky. I loved the guy when I was 10, even when he shouted at me. “Never again,” he used to say when he came home from the football to the house that was only a few streets away. “Never again.” But he would go back again and one day, that day, he took me with him. For the first time. What a way to start.

We won. I was hooked.

We were competing with West Ham and Chelsea in the league then, above them sometimes, it was respectable. We might go up. We might win the cup. Anything was possible. It was the start of something. But no, it wasn’t. It was the high point, the golden hour, the End.

Grandad died. Suddenly, from leukaemia. Between the quarter and the semi. Gone.

My sister and I sat either side of my Mum on the sofa in the early morning when the phone had rung and she held us tight and cried and we didn’t understand.

So now we went to the semi-final, my Dad and me, because we had tickets and because it was what Frank would have wanted, it was for him. A pilgrimage. Let’s see this through, son. We can do it. We sat high in the stand and looked down at the stars in the Arsenal team, heroes of the playground, and I felt sick.

So, as it turned out, did the Orient. They were trapped in the headlights of the Arsenal limousine. Paralysed. Useless. Destroyed. Three nil. It was over, over, over. I just didn’t know that. It still felt like a beginning, for me.

I got a job as a programme seller at the league games at 13, patrolling the perimeter, swaggering even, with a bag full of change and an armful of glossies, feeling like part of the team. You got in free. You had to watch for the animals: Millwall were the worst, throwing beer bottles full of piss, pressing in on you like a mob. I jumped over a wall to escape. The other side was far, far lower than I thought. Ten feet, maybe. I was starfished on the concrete, coins scattered around me like bubbles on the beach, the Millwall peering over the wall with leery, hungry faces like pissed seagulls. It hurt. It really bloody hurt. But it was, you know, great. Like being a man, when you were really just a little boy.

So I stuck with the Os. I had no choice. Family. The story. Grandad. Oh Grandad. Why couldn’t you have played (or not played) for Spurs? Too late to change, despite a flirtation with Ossie and Hoddle and Waddle and Gazza and that gorgeous Le Coq Sportif Spurs kit with the v-neck and the silky blue shorts; and later, an affair with the Irons, watching Rio, Joe Cole, David James.

Through all that, the Eighties and the Nineties and the Noughties, I kept going back to Orient when I could. Dad and I did make it to Wembley with the Os for a play-off final. The North Circular Road was gridlocked with cars decked in Orient flags. We could beat Scunthorpe. We were doing this for Frank. We went one nil down very quickly and never came back. Never seemed to try. Never again.

I moved out of London, because that’s what we do, families like ours. I moved to the seaside, supported my local non league team and saw Brighton, wondered if they might come good, (celebrating now as they do, although we will never really belong to each other). But always, I was an O. I’ve got a replica of that 1978 shirt. It’s special to me. I stopped going though, I’m sorry to say. If the point of it all was the dignity of perseverance, the taking part, I failed. I lost heart. Lost hope, really.

The last flurry was that glorious moment when we drew with Arsene’s Arsenal against all the odds in the cup. I watched on telly, and was taken by surprise. Arsenal again. We won that game hands down, one-one. So I went to the Emirates with my Dad and both my sons, to see them again, hoping. Hoping. Arsenal sent out the kids. They scored five.

After that, my father and I didn’t say so but we sort of felt that Frank would not mind if we stopped. We’d done enough. I admire those who didn’t give up, for their steadfastness in clinging to the O’s in the face of derision, mockery and abuse from fans of the easy clubs, with their cups and dramas that don’t always end in defeat. Ours always ended in an empty shrug. Oh well.

And now this. The Orient will probably never play in the league again, after this season. They might not even survive, if the courts go against them. Idiocy has ruined everything, even the dignity of persevering and being a very, very old league club. Gone.

I hope there’s some way forward, involving fan power, the rebirth of the club as something good and true. I admire those who will make it happen, I really do. I’m done.

Truth is, I was done a long time ago. It’s all been for Frank, really, so the last word has to go to him, as he comes home sometime in the Seventies, throws off his flat cap and scarf like a nicer Alf Garnett in white and red instead of claret and blue and says to my Nan, and to anyone who will listen, “Never again, Gladys.”

I’m saying it with him today, for all those who have loved and been faithful to the Os in far more impressive ways than me, for all the good times they somehow extracted from the experience, in sorrow for them that it’s over against their will and that it was ended for no good reason at all by the foolishness of a fool.

For those fine fans there will be anger, pain, dismay and hopefully a determination to begin again. Good luck to them, and may sense prevail.

All I can offer is sympathy and the emptiness that was such a feature of life with the Orient, after that first glorious game that felt like the start of great things to a dazzled ten year old but turned out to be the best – the absolute best – it would ever get. I should have listened, Grandad. The words mean something different today.

“Never again, kid. Never again.”

The True Story of a Man by a Bench on the Seafront, Yesterday

“Hello mate, can I help you?”

He is bent over by the bench, on the seafront. An old man, of an age that is coming up fast. A skinny man, in baggy clothes, sweating under his white cap.

Bent over by the bench, almost on his knees, inspecting the wood of an evening, on the seafront, with the wind whipping at his ankles; an old man, of an age that is coming up fast, with a paintbrush in his hand.

Painting the wood with varnish. Painting the whitened, cracked, seablasted, windworn wood with varnish; painting it brown, a rich, deep brown like cake.

Like chocolate cake with a nice cup of tea on the terrace of the Wish Tower in the Eighties with the kids running about and the Missus sunning her face, to go brown. A light, glowing tan, not the rich, deep brown of the varnish on wood, on the seafront. Bent over the bench, an old man, of an age she will never be.

“I’m okay,” he says, dipping and brushing, watching the brush, face up close. Her name is engraved in the wood and so is the date, which is years ago now, more than a decade, when he was younger and so was Joy.

“My wife,” he says, dipping and brushing, watching the brush then letting it stop and turning his face, but only half away. “The council should do this but they don’t. I’ll leave some flowers. It’s her birthday tomorrow.”

Not knowing the words, I touch his arm, through the baggy clothes, this skinny man, with sweat under his white cap, and the look of the found and lost.

“I’ll think of her when I’m passing.”

The old man, of an age that is coming up fast, says something too quiet to hear and goes on, bent over the bench, on the seafront with the wind whipping his ankles. Painting the whitened, cracked, seablasted, windworn wood with varnish; painting it brown, a rich, deep brown like cake. Like chocolate cake. Like cake with a nice cup of tea on the terrace at the Wish Tower in the Eighties with the kids running about and Joy sunning her face, to go brown.

We go on. We go on. Then we’re gone.

We go on.