COVER STORY ; Traffic Jam to Damascus

Article excerpt

Alan Howarth declares for the Labour Party. Ann Widdecombe, John Gummer, the Duchess of Kent, the Princess of Wales's mother and Liz Hurley declare for Rome. Alan Clark, "looking at my luggage, wondering what to pack," contemplates the same journey to Catholicism. And Jemima Goldsmith converts to Islam to marry Imran Khan, who himself recently rediscovered the faith. Conversion is all the rage.

In times past, conversions were like earthquakes, momentous events that happened far away, to other people. Now they are like nose jobs or heart valve operations: everybody knows somebody who's had one.

It's not hard to see why. The certainties of political ideologies are fizzling out, ties that bind people to places, creeds and identities slacken, allowing them to make drastic and repeated revisions to their allegiances and beliefs. It is now possible to seek salvation in a vast and widening array of spiritual panaceas, everything from aromatherapy to Zen, vegetarianism to fundamentalism. The opportunities and temptations to convert are multiplying.

In the case of converts to Catholicism, the rich and famous sniff the way the wind is blowing, mull the optimum timing for an announcement, and send out feelers to the "prime social priest" (Clark's words), Father Michael Seed, regarding the procedure.

Out of sight of the media, unnumbered thousands do something similar, but without fanfare. The high-profile conversions to Catholicism are part of a trend that is affecting many religions: Clare Hershman of the Buddhist Society says many of those battering on the doors of the churches and temples are "just fed up en masse - terrified and hopeless and looking for answers".

The Church of England's crisis over the ordination of women provoked the most conspicuous exodus of prominent members in the church's history. At least five bishops, 300 priests, and 25,000 lay members converted to Rome in the past five years.

The evangelical sects, in Britain as elsewhere, are soaking up huge numbers of recruits, many moving from more conservative denominations. Ian Cotton, author of The Hallelujah Revolution, claims that today there are 400 million charismatic Christians worldwide, twice the number there were 10 years ago.

The Islamic revival has attracted millions of new adherents around the world, Jemima Goldsmith being the most prominent recent example. Soka Gakkai, the evangelistic Japanese Buddhist sect, has made inroads among rock and jazz musicians, while thousands are attracted to the austerity and conundrums of Zen Buddhism.

Fundamentalist Protestant sects in the United States constitute a formidable political force, while their kin in Latin America have outstripped Catholics in numbers and fervour. Christianity is much the most potent new force in countries such as China and South Korea, where vast new churches rise above the skyline of major cities.

At the heart of these developments is the experience of conversion. Whether you are coming from Anglicanism or cannibalism, from addiction to crack or belief in the coming proletarian revolution, the act of embracing a different faith, possibly one you had regarded with suspicion if not enmity, has the same psychic ingredients: one's beliefs were misguided if not downright wrong; the future will be better because one has found one's true spiritual home.

"We have done what we ought not to have done and we have not done what we ought to have done," as the prayer book puts it, "and there is no health in us. But thou O Lord have mercy upon us . . ."

Clare Hershman sees Alcoholics Anonymous's methods for weaning people off drink as the archetype of conversion. "People who have made a complete mess of their confusion and who have turned to addiction to comfort themselves get into the idea of not exploring their feelings, the idea of restraining their impulses for the sake of higher achievement. …