Press Column

The last word on the Liverpool story came from Andrew Wilson in his satirical column in the Daily Telegraph, which is meant to express the message of the day from Downing Street: "We all hear the criticisms — that the Church is fuddy-duddy, our of date, out of touch with its feelings. When the old Guard submitted two names to Our Leader and said he must choose one of them to become the new bishop of Liverpool, he said: ‘No, I’m sorry. They might have dine thins like this in the past but now things are gonna be different’. This country deserves something better. A modern bishop for a modern Liverpool in a modern Church. Everyone agreed didn’t they, that there were only two voices that truly spoke to them during the sad funeral service 10 days ago? One was Our Leader. Reading Corinthians. The other was Elton John. Our Leader thought: ‘this is what the Church needs — a bishop who can take the C of E to Number One in the charts.’ Elton is thinking about it"…

Christopher Morgan’s scoop in the Sunday Times was extremely difficult to follow up, as all stories based on one private leak must be. Something has clearly happened. According to Downing Street, in the following day’s Daily Telegraph, it was only that Blair asked to see all the names considered by the commission, before accepting either of the two proposed by it. This is not the same as a flat rejection: Morgan’s story said outright that "Tony Blair has taken the unprecedented step of rejecting both of the Church of England's candidates for one of its most prestigious bishoprics." It does not make any practical difference which is true: whoever is chosen will clearly be a Blair appointee, and the Church of England will have been publicly whipped into line, whether or not the final candidate is the one the Crown Appointments Commission had settled on. Those are grounds for supposing the leak came from Downing Street. But they are not decisive. The story may have been leaked by someone on the Liverpool side, outraged that the Prime Minister should exercise his powers, and unable to work out the consequences of the story’s publication.

In the meantime, all there was for the press to go on were the hints in Morgan’s story about the two rejected candidates. One was "a suffragan bishop in the South-East and a friend of Dr Carey’s": for some reason, everyone thought "Gavin Reid". Gavin himself made the reasonable point to people who rang him that at 63 he was really too old for Liverpool; which leaves Graham Dow. No one seems to have had the imagination to ring him. The other candidate was described simply as an Archdeacon. That seems worth a fiver on Pete Broadbent to me. But it is extraordinary to watch how quickly these throwaway lines solidified into fact. By Tuesday’s Times, Gavin Reid was confidently described as one of the rejected candidates.

The secrecy surrounding the CAC makes this stories enormously hard to dislodge. I believe I know the truth about one story of Prime Ministerial interference in its workings, but that is only because the man who claimed to have nobbled Mrs Thatcher told me, years later, what he had done,. I believe the story about Jim Thompson being turned down for Birmingham, because it sounds right. But a reporter for Radio Four rang me under the impression that it was an established truth that John Habgood and George Carey were the two names sent up for Canterbury to Mrs Thatcher — with Carey as the impossible candidate who would ensure Habgood was chosen. So far as I know, this is a piece of beautifully assembled malicious gossip, that has every merit but truth. It didn’t happen. Habgood’s name never went forward. But the story has acquired a life of its own, and cannot in the nature of things be properly checked. The minutes, according to Lambeth Palace, are closed absolutely for fifty years. This may not be enough. In an ideally secretive world, they would be used to light enormous spliffs at the conclusion of each meeting, so none of the participants could afterwards remember anything they had discussed.

Gossip will continue so long as priests and journalists can talk. You couldn’t stop it by cutting off their hands. Perhaps it would make them think twice, though, in the wonderful phrase of Robert McConachie, who gave two "very good reasons" for introducing Islamic justice to Madeleine Bunting: "Firstly, the thief wouldn’t be able to do it again; and secondly, as a church, we must be concerned with turning people away form evil to the path of good." It is wonderful to think of such passions throbbing within the breast of a quantity surveyor for the GLC, as Mr McConachie was before

The diocese of Rochester, whose bishop’s family were persecuted for converting from Islam, is about the least suitable place in England to develop such a theology. In the United Arab Emirates, they have developed this syncretistic line a little further: a report in Friday’s Guardian described how a public crucifixion there had been postponed to the weekend so that larger crowds could watch. "The crucifixion has been confirmed by the UAE president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan, Local commentators said is was not known whether the prisoner would be given water. ‘The intention is not to torture them but to humiliate them for what they have done … the execution by firing squad the next day will take place inside the prison."

Kathy Evans, who wrote that, had a further report in Sunday’s Observer, about the legal system (I almost wrote "justice") in Saudi Arabia, where it turns out the police are paid by results, and get bonusses for every confession they can torture out of prisoners. Sorry. There doesn’t seem to be a joke that can follow that.

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