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Columnists

Final whistle

Paul Vallely

We've been clearing out our spare room, ahead of the builders arriving. Amid the endless piles of paper I kept coming across ancient copies of Third Way. One of us had kept them, presumably because they contained something we hadn't had the time to read when that edition came out. Now, years later, here they were; pieces from 2009, 2006 and the millennial year 2000. So I sat down and read them.

What was striking was how demandingly contemporary they felt all these years on. Third Way has always been topical rather than current. That was part of its strength. As was its propensity for great one-liners. 'God and Mammon have never been comfortable bedfellows, not least because Mammon keeps stealing the duvet'. 'Marxism is religion is disguise'. 'Christianity as the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen'. 'Is nature sexist?' began an article on babies and consumerism which asked whether children are a gift or a right. Alas I couldn't find my all-time favourite Third Way headline: 'Was Jesus a deontologist?' which I recall as a delightful reductio ad absurdum rather than a portentous postulation.

In much of the contents there was a contemporary universality. The late Irish mystic John O'Donohue offered this: 'Spiritual hunger is not a nostalgia for things of the past but a new form of consciousness, a new way of perceiving - and it's trying in some way to find the traces of the transcendent or the divine in the desolate flatlands of modern culture.' His thoughts were studded with fierce judgements: 'Modern politics has no vision or home for the spirit or the imagination' and with unexpected insights: 'Tradition is to the community what memory is to the individual.' No desolate flatlands there.

Other discernments were startling in their frankness, as in the interview with Rowan Williams as he made the transition from Bishop of Monmouth to Archbishop of Wales: 'It frightens me considerably to be seen as holy. All I can say is that I try to keep honest. I suppose the only answer is trying to make sure, both in human relations and before God, that there is enough space for me to begin to feel uncomfortable.'

This has been a magazine in which the scholarly could sit cheek by jowl with the playful. The idea that the Malleus Maleficarum was some kind of technical manual for torturers during the Inquisition was questioned by a piece which adjudged that 'at least 90 pc of the deaths reported by the received story of witch-hunting are fictitious' and then asserted: 'Exaggeration on this scale requires explanation.'Beside it, the Icon of the Month was Posh 'n Becks - a refreshingly unstuffy, and even affectionate, analysis of the Beckhams as the new aristocracy of Middle England.

Third Way turned its critical gaze upon the Church. As Lucy Winkett said, quoting Martin Buber, 'nothing is apt to mask the face of God so much as religion'. But the mag eschewed the contrarianism which characterises many of its secular contemporaries. At a time when it was cynically fashionable to decry foreign aid as invariably corrupt and misusedd Third Way carried a measured debunking of Dambisa Moyo by the head of Oxfam Barbara Stocking. It was more important to be sensibly right than to be modishly perverse or in tune with the paucity of postmodern culture. Third Way was counter-cultural in the best sense. A review of a Jim Wallis book noted: 'What makes God's Politics so original is that it is written from a religious perspective by someone who is breaking ranks with his fellow believers…' Third Way was complex, layered, and nuanced.

And it could be prophetic and poetic. 'I am writing this as I travel down the Amazon River. The sky is hazy and the full glory of the sun has not shone through for several days because of all the smoke. This is the dry season and everyone is burning the areas of forest they have cut for their fields…' So wrote Ghillean Prance, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, insisting that environmental sustainability should be a major concern for Christians, and proposing St Francis as the patron saint of ecology, a decade before a Pope dared take that name.

For 21 years I have been privileged to write a monthly column amid all this. I was given free range to consider anything from the evil of Dr Harold Shipman, to the relationship of libertarianism and advertising, from the false dichotomy between science and religion to the character of US presidential candidates. For most of that time my day job was with the increasingly secular Independent and it felt a liberation to address an audience which was not just intelligent but theologically literate. Here I could discuss the differences between atheism, nothingism, humanism, materialism, consumerism, hedonism and utilitarianism without explanation or apology.

On a couple of occasions I took a break while writing a book and wondered idly whether it was worth returning to write for Third Way with its paltry pay. But time after time I would meet someone somewhere who would mention something I had written here. Those readers were invariably interesting and influential in the wider Christian enterprise. Of course, the money men will say there were too few of those readers to sustain Third Way's business model. But they were - you are - important catalysts in keeping before the Church the idea that, as John Bell has put it, faith means change. You have been a group of gamechangers who always felt worth addressing. I am so sorry to have to say Goodbye to you.