Page Three of the Daily Telegraph specialises in interesting stories: crises, crimes, and agonising moral dilemmas. Last Wednesday’s had three. The son of an actor had shot himself in the family home, while on a break from university; Anne Atkins’s daughter had been found, rather against her will; and a paedophile has been driven from a friend’s vicarage after his release from prison. This last dilemma was stretched over the top of the page, with photographs of three of the parties involved, including the village. Canon Roger Williams, rector of St Laurence, Lighthorne, in Warwickshire, had taken in his old friend Terry Knight, once a priest at St Saviour’s, Portsmouth. The first time he did this, the village made no complaint, since no one knew that Canon Knight was facing trial on charges arising from his fondness for boys between the ages of eleven and fourteen. He was sentenced to three and a half years and served 21 months after pleading guilty. On his release, he went once more to stay with Canon Williams: this time the village found out who he was. The story shocked the Times into understatement. "Three members of the parochial church council have resigned in protest and the church’s nativity play is in jeopardy."
At first it is hard to see how anyone could possibly object to a priest taking into his house a man who will be an outcast for the rest of his miserable life. There are not many opportunities around for 60-year-old convicted paedophiles of eccentric demeanour, who have no money, no job, and no home to go to. One may feel that this is what he deserves: the only time I ever heard him speak in General Synod, it was to give a creepily impassioned speech in favour of the beauties of virginity. Yet a man whom even practising journalists despise is surely entitled to the compassion of a Christian community. Some of Canon Williams’s congregations take this view. One of his churchwardens, Sir Adam Butler, told the Daily Telegraph that the situation was "a tragedy" and that "I would like to think that my fellow residents are Christian enough to let this man spend Christmas with our rector who is his friend."
But the affair also brought out a great deal of anti-clericalism. All the reports pointed out that Canon Knight is still in holy orders; and the Times claimed the Church authorities had been criticised at his trial for knowing what he was up to and not stopping him. The villagers felt they should have been consulted before a sex offender was invited into their midst. Samantha Lloyd, one of the PCC members who has resigned, was quoted in the Times as being particularly angry because Canon Williams had asked the parish to forgive his friend, yet refused her a church wedding because her husband is divorced. "It is one rule for the church and the church’s people and another rule for us."
In one sense, the papers gave all the facts we needed to make a judgement: in another, they didn’t give us any. I would love to see a proper magazine study of the story. It will continue: the villagers now want their rector removed, which should lead to one of the usual stalemates.
The difference between this dilemma and those which are answered in public by an agony aunt is that there may be no right answer at all. By the natural progression of publicity, Virginia Ironside, the Independent’s agony aunt, was asked to give advice to Anne Atkins: "most media people regard Anne as a slightly barmy, but thoroughly welcome addition to the scene, with her crackers, illiberal, right-wing, religious views. She is a personally nice woman, highly articulate, and often nuggets of good sense pop through the cant." This is not, I suppose, quite the valuation that Mrs Atkins puts on her own opinions.
Which raises naturally the question of what Dr Carey thinks he will achieve by preaching to the queues in Asda on Sunday. Alexander Chancellor’s column in the Guardian was largely given over to warning his readers to shop elsewhere. "It is not the commercialisation of Christmas that demeans it and drains it of joy, but the mingling of the commercial and the spiritual…true Christianity surely requires at least a modest sacrifice from believers, such as attending their church from time to time, and the Anglican authorities should make this clear, rather than pretending that pubs and supermarkets are a satisfactory substitute. And the same authorities should show greater charity towards shoppers…" It is of course possible that Dr Carey intends his efforts to draw people into church, rather than rival supermarkets, but I have not seen this interpretation put forward anywhere.
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