Press 10 June 1997

Press 10 June 1997

Andrew Brown

All those years of going to religious book launches and I never knew what I was missing. "Our relationship moved on to another level when we drove to York one evening in February 1995 for a book launch by the Archdeacon of York, the Venerable George Austin. Afterwards we went for a meal and, as we got back to the car, I kissed her. It was a spontaneous action, but it broke the ice."

Thus the Rev Roger Holmes in the Daily Mail. Mr Holmes was the man who was videoed in bed with his mistress after her husband allowed or encouraged the News of the World to conceal a camera in his bedroom. What shocked me was the technology involved, but for the Mail it seems to have been the titles and positions that made the story juicy.. It tracked down all the participants in the story, finally getting Mr Holmes on Saturday: "You’ve read the RE teacher’s wife’s story and her church warden husband’s. Now it’s the vicar’s turn."

His remarks had been skilfully put together by Sheron [sic] Boyle. It was not particularly prurient, and all the more squirm-making as a result. Mr Holmes comes across as selfish, bewildered and arrogant, but not particularly nasty.— I don’t doubt he said "You could say I have an eye for women. I like woman, always haven although I wasn’t confident with them when I was young.", but I doubt this statement opened his conversation, as it opened her piece, which was full of gruesome detail of the tangles the three couples had got themselves into: "By this time, Adrian Roberts was embroiled with Alison Schofield. Adrian worked long hours teaching religious education at Ampleforth and when he wasn’t there, he’d be seeing Alison."

Alison’s husband, being a mere chef, doesn’t seem to have been having an affair with anyone. Mr Holmes complained: "I don’t feel I let the community down. They have, apart from a few exceptions, failed to be loving to me." How many more exceptions does he think he could have handled?

It all suggests that more religion is not what the Royal Family needs: who knows what princess Diana would get up to if she edited the parish magazine? None the less, Christopher Morgan, in the Sunday Times, managed to excavate a story which tweaked some tender nerves.

"Leading figures in the Church of England have expressed dismay that senior members of the Royal Family, including the Prince of Wales, are failing to set an example to the nation by attending Church every Sunday." The leading figures turned out to be a retired bishop of Gloucester and Philip Gore, a synod member, who has put down a private member’s question. Despite these minor flaws, the story did plug into the same vein of doubt as the recent News of the World piece about Charles receiving visitors in an Arab robe. Never mind the facts of any particular case, it is self-evidently true that the Queen’s children are not as devout as she is, and any story that draws attention to this is good.

If proof were needed, it is found in the sensitivity of the Daily Telegraph, the Prince’s paper (the Sunday sides with Diana). On Monday there was both a long piece by Victoria Combe, based on interviewing the Prince’s parish priest in Gloucester, and an op-ed piece by John Casey. Victoria’s piece was a clear and subtle analysis of the rift between the Prince and the Synod. "In synod, the unease runs deeper because the dominant group of evangelicals believe the Prince disapproves of their so-called ‘happy-clappy’ style of Worship."

Casey made a similar point with less inhibition. "There has been only one period when virtually the entire population regularly attended divine service in the Church of England — the later 16th and early 17th centuries. A chief reason was the Recusancy Act, which made non-attendance punishable by heavy fines. A revival of that and the Test Acts should do the trick.

"The Supreme governor might be a whoremonger, such as Charles II of even a Catholic, such as James II. None of this had anything to do with their fitness for the office…Grown-ups in the church have always recognised this, and have never looked to monarchs for moral or spiritual leadership. Unfortunately, grown-ups now seem thin on the ground at present — especially among the evangelicals who are now so powerful in Synod."

Whether this kind of high Tory abuse will win the Prince any friends in the long run is to be seen. Casey concludes that "The curious thing is that the Prince has shown a more serious interest in spiritual matters than any monarch since Charles I [hardly an encouraging omen]. It it true that he is something of a syncretist — as his wish to be a ‘defender of the faith’ makes plain. His misfortune is that it is his best qualities that make him an object of suspicion, even ridicule. You can be sure that this manufactured controversy about his church-going is just a convenient stick wielded by those who sense he is out of sympathy with their whole religious programme."

This may all be true. But almost everyone is out of sympathy with his religious programme; and apart from getting the Archbishop of Canterbury to praise his spirituality, the Prince and his advisers seem to have no idea what to do about it.

The Sunday Telegraph had a story which will be glorious, if true: that a number of General Synod members are planning to come out during the York debate on this issue. The whole article by Jonathan Petre was magnificently tasteless, bringing in Penthouse magazine’s detailed coverage of American Episcopal affairs and Jack Spong claiming that Dr Carey had a practising homosexual on his staff. I do not envy whoever ends up responsible for the press arrangements at the Lambeth conference.

But the best religious story of all was foreign: the Guardian reported that an Austrian court has granted a Judy Knight, an American medium, sole rights to contact Ramtha, a 30,000 year-old Atlantean spirit who had been seeing another woman, Judith Ravell of Berlin. Ms Knight was awarded £500 in damages. Now let’s see the Daily Mail interview the participants in that triangle.

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