The Press Saturday, December 6th 1997

I would like to apologise for saying there was no news from synod last week. No sooner had I written the words than Synod began a debate on IVF which ended in complete disaster. It is difficult to understand the Daily Express could report that "The Church of England yesterday signalled its support for children to be born outside marriage and to lesbian mothers" on the strength of a resolution that says: "This synod, believing that children are a gift from God in creation and that the welfare of any child created by third party donation of eggs or sperm is of overriding importance, including the need of the child for a father, affirm marriage as the ideal context for the procreation and rearing of children": it was, as the Express would itself say, "a surprise move". But the story is perfectly understandable if it is broken into small steps.

The next step towards disaster was taken when Dr John Polkinghorne, who had moved the amendment, came into the press room after the debate to explain these ambiguities.

Steve Doughty can sniff out a liberal opinion the way a bear can sniff out honey, and he got his paws on this one with the very first question. Was it not true, he asked Dr Polkinghorne, that a loving homosexual couple could provide a better environment for children than a vicious heterosexual one. Well, yes, said the panjandrum, "a supportive same-sex relationship is clearly better for children than a destructive heterosexual relationship." and Steve had his story: "Gays can make better parents, says churchman. A senior Church of England official said last night that homosexual couples could make better parents than marred ones. Dr John Polkinghorne said 'supportive same-sex relationships' could be a better way to bring up children than destructive heterosexual relationships."

Never mind that Dr Polkinghorne had gone on to say that "We don't want to compare the best case of one with the worst case of the other": qualifiers which both the Times and the Guardian recorded. For the Mail it was enough that he had made the comparison, whether he wanted to or not.

This is hard, but mostly fair. Dr Polkinghorne is not "a senior Church of England official" in the sense that he does not work for the Church of England. But neither is he a detached observer: his is an authoritative voice of Christian opinion. He did say what Steve quoted him as saying, and I presume he meant it, since the sentiment is completely unobjectionable.

The Express bypassed all these subtleties, terrified, as usual, of the Mail. "The Church of England yesterday signalled its support for children to be born outside marriage and to lesbian mothers."

You would have thought that things could not have got worse; but you should never underestimate the capacity of spin doctors to drill themselves ever deeper down into the fertiliser. Bill Beaver, the Synod's new director of communications, sent out a "circular letter". Circular letters are destined at the best of times for the circular file, though this one might have been read before binning, though only by the specialists, had it not been addressed to "editors": bumph addressed like that gets binned by well-trained secretaries. I am told these facts have now been explained to him.

There remains one great mystery: what was the Synod doing debating IVF in the first place? The answer appears to be that it made sense to do so in 1994, when there was legislation being prepared, which has long since been passed. By 1997, matters had progressed to the point where the synod had nothing to say and no one to say it to. So of course it had to hold the debate. The tabloids inflate this sense of importance, even when they are cruel and inaccurate: the synod is peripheral to the great bulk of church life, in which nothing anyone says or does matters very much to the outside world. However, for two weeks a year, it gives them a chance  is a chance to write stories that start "The Church of England says" or The Church of England believes".

There is a further problem about sex: within the Church of England as outside it there is a real division of opinion about sexual morality, which cannot be concealed. whether or not the Daily Mail, or the Archbishop, or even Sir John Polkinghorne approve. Four days after the Synod debate, the Daily Telegraph put a beautiful mother and her baby in full colour on the front page: Alison Harrop has just been elected chairman of the governors of St John's Primary School in Totnes, but the mother of her baby is not married to her yet. So one of the other governors, John Walker, has resigned in protest. The Vicar of St John's, the Rev Nick Pigott, told the Telegraph  "When her chairmanship was called into question by Mr Walker, the rest of the board of governors rallied round her"; or, as she put it "Our view was, 'what a silly, bigoted old fool'."

You can't win.

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