Press column 13 May 1997
Press column 13 May 1997
The News of the World retains its eerie fascination. Perhaps it has psychic powers, which inexorably draw the attention of the hapless Church Times columnist, week after week. On Sunday it had a double page spread of the most extraordinary pictures of Prince Charles in a djellaba in the garden of Highgrove House with the actor Al Pacino and his Australian girlfriend. They were pictures, and not photographs, rather like the brisk pastel drawings of defendants in a criminal case, though the paper claimed to have seen photos of the scene.
"The djellaba is one of the two traditional middle eastern outfits the prince wears at home when he is relaxing or studying Islam’s holy book, the Koran," the paper explained.
Pacino’s girlfriend was quoted directly as saying that: "It came down to his ankles, was grey, and I think of a light cotton material, I remember it as plain, without any pattern — like the djellaba men wear in North Africa.
‘I was a bit surprised to see him in it, because it did seem like a surprising thing to wear, but who is to say you can’t wear what you like?’ "
She did not apparently ask him about the robe’s significance, but the News of the World was in no doubt: "Charles the Mullah of Highgrove" was their headline. The costume was "fuelling speculation that Charles is moving ever closer to Islam."
"The Prince’s fascination with Islam has already created a rift between him and elements of the Church of England." The account is a little confused at this point, but most readers would get the impression that the prayer book Society is the Islamic end of the Church of England. Or possibly that prince Charles has been driven into the arms of the Prophet by "Thirty years of liberal reforms" But few readers can have been in any doubt that his conversion to Islam is only a matter of time.
In this, he will have been joining a larger religion than the Church of England, at least if the Sunday Times is to be believed. They reported that "there will be 4,000 more regular worshippers of Islam than there are Christians attending Church of England services by the year 2002." This seemed odd, not least because the figure the paper cited was that the Church of England had 854,000 churchgoers in 1995. My copy of Church Statistics gives a minimum figure of 1,045,000 for that year. Their figure appears to have come Peter Brierley’s Christian research Institute. Perhaps it does not count pagans or liberals in the attendance figures. In any case, the institute estimates the number of "practising Muslims" at 536,000 and expects this to rise to 760,000 by 2002.
The other Sunday Times story is of the resistance to Lucy Winkett as a canon at St Paul’s Cathedral. "Faithful walk out in row over women priest" says the headline — but the story makes it clear that they are only Forward in Faithful. Three priests re said to have resigned — one over the decision to allow any woman to celebrate the midday communion service even though not on staff. The meat of the story., I thought, was in the development of the Church of Christ the King in Bloomsbury as a counter cathedral, presided over by John Broadhurst. The church is owned by the successors of the Irvingite Movement, who withdrew it from the chaplaincy of London University after the decision to ordain women. Now, says Christopher Morgan, "leaders of Forward in Faith expect its role as a focus for traditionalists to grow."
There was a picture of Fr Tim Bugby, who has already resigned from the cathedral, looking dumpy and defiant with his arms crossed. It made a nice contrast with the picture of a Roman Catholic priest welcoming a woman in the Mail on Sunday — but the woman in question was Cherie Blair, going to her first Sunday service at the nearest Roman church to Chequers, trailing husband and children. The story does not seem to have made the Belfast Telegraph.
Unquestionably the oddest story of the week was the one-armed vicar’s fight against eviction in Saturday’s Guardian. The Rev Charles Cowley has just been evicted from his delightful and extremely valuable vicarage outside Aldeburgh after refusing to pay rent on it for five years. This was not meanness or poverty, though he told the newspaper that he hoped the diocese would not attempt to collect the £15000 he owed it, since he has only 76p in the bank. It was a matter of wives: Mr Cowley had resigned after a parish reorganisation left him with too much on his hand in 1986, and been given, with his wife, a joint 40-year lease on the vicarage by the diocese. In 1990, this wife died; Mr Cowley remarried two years later, and tried to renegotiate the agreement so that his new wife could live in the vicarage should he die first. The diocese refused, and he started a rent strike in protest.
"I am a little bit ashamed about not paying." He said. "There is certainly no justification for this in the Bible."
The story suggests to me the great unspoken lesson of the Kit Chalcraft affair: that if the country clergy must remarry, they should ensure that the widow of their choice is rich.
The Church Commissioners’ annual report is an affair of tooth-grinding boredom for journalists. In the years when it concealed a marvellous story, we none of us noticed; and now they are solvent and properly run again, the good news is no news. The Daily Mail, therefore, has decided what the story is: extravagance in pursuit of bishops’ palaces. There was a mug-shot and caption which I presume are stored together as clip-art: "George Austin: ‘scandalous’." The colon’s important, if you’re thinking of copying it for the parish magazine.
The first story "Fury at £½m extra on bishops’ palaces" contained a perfect coinage: "the Church’s financial wing, the Church Commissioners", which followed a great intro: "The cash-strapped Church of England spent an extra £500,000 last year on running the palaces that house its bishops."
The next day there was a headline of even more vivid unfairness: "Spending on our palaces is ‘spiritual’ says bishop." It’s like Mrs Thatcher never went away — especially as the bishop thus mugged was Jim Thompson, "one of the most left-leaning of prelates."
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