The Press Saturday, March 8th 1997
Spiritual leadership is a self-contradictory quality in the modern age. By the time someone has become famous enough to be heard, they have, almost by definition, nothing to say. The price of fame is an infinite capacity to repeat yourself.
So what catches the eye and the imagination is a gesture, instead. Bishop sacks black woman priest, or Bishop to marry divorcée in a registry office. You can even combine the two, as the Express did: "Race row bishop married divorced mother of three."
The first story was the more interesting in that it was much more complex. It was the sort of case where you want to know more, because the facts on their own simply confuse us. Here is the Mail, on the Monday:
"The first black woman to become an Anglican priest is embroiled in a public row with her bishop. [He] has called for the Rev Eve Pitts's immediate resignation. She has steadfastly refused to comply, despite being offered posts in three other parishes.
"Mrs Pitts, a 46-year-old mother of three, has been a priest in the ethnically mixed parish of king's Norton, Birmingham, for three years. The row grew after she criticised a senior colleague during a church service and repeated her comments at a church council meeting. The remarks concerned the Rev Martin Leigh, rector of the parish, who has been on sick leave for a number of months."
The next day the Independent caught up with the story. "By yesterday, the parish was the scene of open rancour" wrote Kate Watson-Smyth: "Mrs Pitts, 46, who was ordained Britain's first black female vicar [lose the point gained for calling her Mrs] claimed during a church service that Mr Leigh, the senior cleric, was using her "as a doormat" and treating her more like a curate than a vicar. As a result, Mrs Pitts, who together with Mr Leigh is part of a team of five Anglican priests in a parish of 30,000 people was asked to resign by the bishop of Birmingham, the Rt. rev Mark Santer. She refused point-blank, and Mr Leigh, overcome with the stress of the situation, took to his sick-bed, where he has remained for the past two months."
These two stories at no point conflict with each other. Both are no doubt true. Yet in the one it is Mr Leigh who is ridiculous, and the other Mrs Pitts. It is not quite a question of which the reader believes, but which characters appear most plausible. It is worth noting that all the papers, and all the participants, appear to see racism as the obvious explanation for the row. It may not be the explanation which, ultimately they accept. But it does seem to have been the first hypothesis that sprang to mind. Why otherwise go for comment to Theo Samuel, in his West Drayton vicarage, rather than to neighbouring Birmingham clergy?
In any case, race is less interesting to British papers than sex, especially when it involves the Royal Family. Dr Santer’s decision to marry a woman who had been divorced made the front pages of the Times and the Telegraph. This may have been because colour photographs of the bishop and Mrs Bird were available though I preferred the black and white used in the Guardian because it gave us a full-face view of Mrs Bird’s smile. The happiness in that was a huge part of the story.
The other part, of course, was in the Times’s background information: “Careful thought was given to Bishop Santer’s plans at the highest levels of Church and State because of the sensitivity over the question of divorce. It is understood that both the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, were consulted.”
Ooooh, the thrill of writing “highest levels of Church and State”. It is a phrase that sounds as if it really ought to mean something important. But I’m afraid I can’t quite believe the implications of Ruth’s second sentence.. Did Dr Santer ask permission of anyone else before proposing? Come to think of it, the Royal family is the only institution left where the choice of a spouse is regarded as a matter of policy for the firm to decide, rather than as a private commitment. No doubt they are studying his intention closely, but with envious rather than censorious eyes.
There is in fact a lesson for the palace in this: the Telegraph managed to find four Anglican critics of the couple: Philip Hacking, Geoffrey Kirk, and a lay member of Forward in Faith from Solihull, as well as one of the Bishop’s priests, Fr John Hervé, who referred grandly to the “orthodox wing” of the Church of England. I take it from this collection of dissenters that Dr Santer’s action has the overwhelming support of the church, and that a divorce for Prince Charles has come a little closer. Either way, he is having a better time than Dr Jonathan Sacks, who has managed to offend liberals and Conservatives alike this week. The capitalisation is deliberate. It fits his stance as a supporter of New Labour. Perhaps that is why people are taking his ideas seriously enough to criticise them in a way that they never bothered with his predecessor Lord Jacobovits. Simon Jenkins in the Times on Saturday denounced him for tribalism. “His belief system is universal, historical, and above democracy, a concept barely discussed in his book. Behind him I hear Judge Danforth in The Crucible: “I tell you, Samuel, I shall not rest until every inch of this Province belongs again to God.” At the same time, the Conservative papers were weighing into him for suggesting he had something in common with Tony Blair. The Express had him and Bishop Peter Selby down as “two religious leaders who have been showering Tony Blair with praise”
“These reverend gentlemen would be well advised to put a clerical sock in it … Many devout worshipper will be voting Tory and their sincerity should not be impugned. Equally, many people - of all faiths and none - dislike Mr Blair precisely because of his slightly smarmy religiosity and his claim to possess what Dr sacks calls a moral agenda.”
Which will the voters prefer, the Express goes on to ask: “The moral agenda of a Creeping Jesus or the solid achievements of an Honest John?”
We may take it from this that Mr Blair is now a fully-fledged spiritual leader.