The Press Saturday, November 15th 1997

The press over the weekend had a remarkable number of front page stories announcing the imminent death of British Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular but first, the news: "Diana was murdered!", the People announced, in screaming red and white capitals. "Diana, Princess of Wales was murdered" the story started. "… according to thousands of readers who took part in the People's exclusive poll." What makes the story even better is that the "exclusive poll" did not involve questioning anyone at all : the paper simply invited  readers who believed Diana had been murdered to ring them and say so. 5,600 did. The opinion of these deluded inadequates was then fed back as "news", thus confirming their trust in the prescience of their newspaper. No doubt it will be picked up in Arab countries and seriously reported as the opinion of a British newspaper which has conducted deep investigations into the crash.  Two things seem to me remarkable about the episode. The first is a contempt for the readers remarkable even by the standards of the Mirror group and ultimately quite dangerous even to respectable newspapers, for if there is such a thing as the public's right to know, a newspaper like the People does more to undermine it by actively telling lies than governments can by merely suppressing the truth. The second fact is that 93 readers actually rang in to say that Diana had not been murdered. This proves she has not entirely dwindled into a figure of pure fantasy even three months after her death.

It wasn't all bad news for the Church of England this week. There was bad news for the Catholics, too: hundreds of child abuse cases pending against nuns in the Guardian; and, in the Observer, bad news for everyone. The latest CRE survey shows membership of all the mainstream denominations plummeting, with some due to die out entirely in the next millennium.

But the main story of the week was undoubtedly the death of the Church of England, which seems to have started as a joint production by Ruth Gledhill and Richard Harries but rapidly became a game for everyone to play. She reported that the Bishop had told his clergy that he favoured the lowering of the age of consent to 16. He had actually told a Panorama programme last year, but, being part of the liberal elitist media establishment, they hadn't seen what the fuss was about, and left it on the cutting room floor. His position was that the criminal law is the wrong instrument to use against teenage homosexuals. He did say both then and later that he supported the House of Bishops line on homosexuality: this did not rescue him from a headline that said: "Bishop backs homosexual sex for over-16s. Harries's announcement plunges the church into crisis that will rival women priests."

Is that all? It seems a smaller crisis than the Times normally bothers with. "At least I didn't get the Reformation into the first paragraph" said Ruth when I teased her afterwards.

The bishop then stopped talking about the subject and everyone else started. First was Andrew Wilson in the Daily Mail with a piece of uncharacteristically slapdash invective: "hardly a day goes by without another Randy Rev being reported in the newspapers. The truth is that today's C of E is hopelessly divided on just about everything. One half of the Anglican clergy (the evangelicals) refuse to accept the authority of the bishops because they approve of homosexuals. The other half (the homosexual Anglo-Catholics) refuse to accept the authority of bishops who ordain women."

This was wrong in quite an interesting way, for the other development of the week was the discovery that the homosexual Anglo-Catholic clergy have been completely marginalised by their opposition to women, and the leadership of Forward in Faith is determined to keep them like that. The first indication of this came in Friday's Daily Telegraph, when Victoria Combe reported William Oddie's book on the Roman Option. Dr Oddie has been out of the news for some time (except when the Catholic Herald printed his photograph on its front page and captioned it "Cristina Odone", which was not kind to either of them). But he is uniquely placed to write a book about why the Catholic bishops did not want the Anglo-Catholics on their own terms for two reasons: he knew as much as almost anyone about what was going on; and he epitomises the rancorous factionalism which most Catholic bishops were determined to keep out of their church.

The whole difficulty for Forward in Faith is that no one wants them as an organisation. From the point of view of the Catholic bishops, the offer by several hundred parishes to stop defying the authority of the Church of England and to start ignoring theirs instead is something less than the conversion of England for which so many have prayed. Hence FiF's need for a church of their own, and plans to break theirs out of the one which currently shelters it, which Christopher Morgan parlayed into a front page story in the Sunday Times. The chief obstacle to this plan is money; and that in turn brings us back to the poor old gays. Any really large scale distribution of the Church of England's assets to Forward in Faith or its successors will require at least the assent of Parliament and the public. This will not be forthcoming to an organisation dedicated to keeping women away from the altar, so Forward in Faith's only chance is to position itself as "traditionalists" instead. If "traditionalist" means "beastly to gays", then a large section of Daily Mail led opinion will readily understand it as true Christianity and support it when the showdown comes. There need be nothing insincere in this strategy; some of the heterosexual leaders of Forward in Faith really do hate their gay brethren.

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