Why the Guardian makeover excites religious fervour
By Simon Barrow
Not long before Dr Rowan Williams became the first self-confessed ëbearded lefty' to ascend to the See of Canterbury, he appeared on a public platform with UK Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.
Rusbridger, whose classic liberal newspaper has just re-launched with colour throughout and a radical new ëBerliner' format, warmly commended Williams as the best man to head up the Church of England.
The then Archbishop of Wales joked cheerily that the endorsement of the Guardian was sure to finish his chances altogether. As it turned out, he was wrong.
But, whether he still seems like a 'typical Guardian reader' or not, Williams has largely ignored the paper's comment columns since he arrived in Lambeth. Instead he plies his opinions in the more conservative Times and Telegraph titles.
That is presumably where the Archbishop's media advisers feel he needs to improve his image - which means that no-one yet knows what the C of E supremo thinks about the Guardian's ground-breaking new appearance.
Trimmer, sharper and many-hued, the paper hit the newsstands in Britain today as the latest ëheavyweight' daily to try to stave off falling sales with a fresh look. Except that it has gone much further than the rest.
The Guardian may have an average Monday-Saturday circulation of just 358,000 (down nearly 40,000 since 1995), but they are an influential bunch - and Guardian Unlimited (the internet edition) has over 11 million devotees, making it the world's most-read internet paper.
The initial response to the makeover seems positive. The Guardian, a market leader in centre-left opinion, has invested £80,000 in state-of-the-art German presses, and has come up with a page size of 12.4 by 18.5 inches which is midway between a tabloid and a broadsheet.
Although the new format is know as a Berliner, it is not actually used by any newspapers in the German capital. But it is the choice of French paper Le Monde, Italian daily La Repubblica, and the Barcelona-based La Vanguardia.
Observers say that size, while not everything, is important in the shrinking UK newspaper market. But the Guardian is not just concerned with looks - its editorial innovations include a regular science page.
It has not, however, decided to set a trend with a dedicated section examining the role of religion in today's world. That would perhaps be a step too far in polite society.
Nonetheless, the Guardian has moved a long way from the time when it was regarded simply as a buttress to armchair sceptics.
So although it has a fair selection of columnists who dismiss religion as antiquated nonsense (like Polly Toynbee, Andrew Anthony and George Monbiot), there are others who show openness and critical appreciation to faith communities.
Ex-nun and scholar Karen Armstrong contributes regularly to the Guardian, as does former religious affairs correspondent Madeleine Bunting, and Ekklesia associates Giles Fraser and Theo Hobson, not to mention director Jonathan Bartley.
Saturday's ëFace to Faith' column will also continue, though relocated from the Obituaries page to one called Reply. God is no longer dead but under consideration, it seems.
Indeed sceptics may well feel that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. In today's relaunch edition, retired Labour politician Roy Hattersley (an atheist, but also author of the acclaimed ëJohn Wesley, A Brand from the Burning') says that people of faith are generally morally superior to non-believers.
Mind you, there is a sting in the tail, since the trade-off appears to involve consigning religious belief to the realms of the irrational.
Not that this stops the new Guardian offering John Sutherland's soft ëquestion and answer' session with Michael Behe - the controversial proponent of the anti-Darwinian ëintelligent design' theory.
In the US the ID movement is widely seen as a dangerous stalking-horse for the continued resurgence of creationism, fostered by the religious right.
Here in Britain it is less influential, but still dismissed by experts as a combination of poor science and bad faith (Behe's ëintelligent designer' is a reincarnation of god-of-the-gaps type theories long abandoned by mainstream theology).
All of which could well be grist to the Archbishop of Canterbury's intellectual mill as he peruses the headlines in tomorrow's papers.
After all, the Guardian may have chastised him for allegedly ducking the modern media challenge, but it has never miscast him as a doubter, Sunday Telegraph style.
So maybe the spiritual head of the world's 70 million Anglicans may yet find his way back into the hearts and opinion pages of the UK's liberal intelligentsia - whatever he thinks of the Berliner.