Press Column

Ten days in France gives one a certain perspective on the English press. The only newspaper reports I saw about England were three brief items one day in the local paper. They recorded, in order, that the Blair Government had issued an order that the English were to talk about sex at least once a day; that a form of amnesia had been diagnosed in England brought on by sexual intercourse: the sufferer would suddenly ask "What are we doing?". The last item was a non-sexual form of absent-mindedness. A woman in Wales had died after swallowing her false teeth, which perforated her colon. I had thought this was a unique case of someone biting their own bottom fatally until I came back to find Dr Carey all over the front pages for his remarks in Australia.

The Guardian even gave him a pull quote on the front page: "The fact that he is divorced is not an issue at all. But it is true that remarriage would create a crisis for the church. That is well known." At first sight this only qualifies as news because it is a rare case of a public figure admitting what everyone knows to be the truth. Had anyone else but an Anglican Archbishop said it, it would not have been news at all. On second thoughts, though the story is more complicated. What really made it was the word "crisis". This is one of that fairly select group of nouns which are largely found in newspaper headlines. Anyone who uses one in front of a microphone is either asking for trouble or accusing their opponents of skullduggery on the Today programme.

So the Times front page lead: "the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said yesterday that the Prince of Wales would plunge the Church of England into crisis if he remarried" seems utterly fair. Not all the frantic spin-doctoring of Lambeth can undo that. Richard Harries was pretty widely quoted as saying that Dr Carey was "not referring to any new crisis." But in that case why did he use the word at all? Then there was the bewilderment of Lord Blake, the constitutional panjandrum, who seems to have told PA that "Australia is a hotbed of republicanism and hostility towards royalty and I would have thought it was the last place one would want to be giving utterances on this subject. I think if the Archbishop was going to make any pronouncement about this, he’d want to do it Britain."

This quote turned up in one form or another in most of the broadsheets. But it was the Daily Telegraph which used the crucial phrase about the Archbishop "wanting" to make a public utterance. Of course he didn’t want to. He just forgot for a moment that he was talking to journalists. There is a terrible disease which comes over primates abroad, when they think they can relax and be taken at their own valuation. Dr Carey seems peculiarly vulnerable to an urge to instruct his audiences. It is noticeable that every time he makes the front pages nowadays it is for saying something stupid on a foreign trip, when he is talking to fresh journalists on his own.

There are two hidden assumptions in the coverage that may become more important as time goes on. The first is that there will in fact be something that could be called "a crisis" in the church if Prince Charles remarries. The grounds for this appear to be that Dr Carey and George Austin keep saying so. This agreement in itself should rouse suspicion. Both of them tend to assume that the church is a sufficiently organised body to have crises.

Surely a crisis depends on who marries him? If he were to demand Dr Carey, it might; but what grounds are there for thinking he would want an Archbishop of Canterbury? When his sister remarried in the Church of Scotland there were no problems. The second — and perhaps the weaker — assumption is that it would be wrong to remarry Charles: that he was responsible for the break-up of his marriage by returning to his old mistress. But we don’t know that this is true. It is, after all, vigorously denied by the Prince’s camp. If it were in fact the case that Charles was the relatively guiltless party in the divorce then Dr Carey’s position comes down around his ears. As the Guardian rather cruelly pointed out, he has approved of the remarriage of two of his own (presumably blameless) children after divorce.

What makes the whole thing so silly is that the following days’ papers were full of the Dodi Fayed story, which has done more than a decade of propaganda from the Prince’s side to demonstrate that he might have been blamelessly married to the wrong woman all along. I used to believe that Dr Carey had a plan to sort out the Church’s remarriage discipline and, incidentally, get it off the Windsor hook. His remarks in Australia suggest that he doesn’t, or that he no longer believes his plan will work. That, I think, is the real news in them.

The Times carried a full page feature on Lourdes on Tuesday, by Sue Corrigan, the parent of a handicapped child. It was a moving and sophisticated defence of the shrine."Seen and experienced in this light, Lourdes ceases to be a place of tacky shops and human misery and place of shining goodness, idealism, and joy…the sick and disabled are revered as the most precious of God’s children, treated with a kindness and a generosity of spirit that makes them feel extraordinarily valued and worthwhile…Inside the shrine is everything that really matters, and in there, people behave quite differently form the way they tend to in normal everyday life."

This brings out a thread I have noticed in other open-eyed, yet sympathetic accounts of Lourdes, from Patrick Marnham and John Cornwell amongst others: that the real value of the shrine lies not in the cures of the sick, but in the effect it has on the able-bodied. How else to explain the fact that so many of them are repeat visitors?

Front Cuts Book Back

This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.