Press column 18 March 1997

Press column 18 March 1997

Andrew Brown

First, the good news. "Today, the church is likely to be more packed than usual," wrote Juliet Fitzgerald in the Independent on Sunday, "as it is the first Sunday after the publication of the primary school league tables.

"Despite appearances, we are not part of the evangelical revival of the Church of England. We have not been lured here to clap along to guitars and sing hymns in Swahili. In fact nearly every hymn book conceals a Penguin 60s classic to prevent us wailing with boredom at the sermons of the dreariest vicar in London."

It was a very funny and thought-provoking piece, and the thought it provoked in me was to hope that the author, Juliet Stevenson, was using a pseudonym. Otherwise, she’s going to have a pair of very battered knees for no benefit she can recognise, like the latest arrivals in her congregation:

"One very sad couple have only started coming in the last few weeks. ‘Welcome’, we all said through gritted teeth . ‘Have you just moved into the area?’ ‘Um, no,’ came the reply. ‘We’ve been going to St Christopher’s for years. We thought it was the feeder church for All Saints’ primary, but it turns out it’s the wrong side of the parish boundary.’

Sometimes I think the Lambeth Press office hides a smoothly Machiavellian organisation. What could have been better calculated to drive Dr Carey off the front pages than the sudden appearance of an elderly liberal exhorting his parishioners to steal from supermarkets? The eruption of the Rev John Fanshawe onto the national scene on Friday was so wonderfully timed that I felt sure that the Palace had put him up, having run out of supplies Dr Purkis to fire at incoming stories.

Dr Purkis’s first mission this week was flown against the Times who had interpreted the Archbishop’s worthy sermon in Jerusalem as a sensational call for a Palestinian state. Dr Carey did use the words alleged; but no religious specialist would have thought them sensational. But foreign correspondents do not have experience in sifting the deliberate from the accidental platitudes in Dr Carey’s thought, and every now and then they take something that is meant to be boring and uncontroversial as if it were newly minted. It seems to have upset President Weizman of Israel. What was out of order was the Times leader: "Many possible moves might provide additional support for the Church of England. The adoption of an Anglican foreign policy is not one of them."

Then came the row over the Meridian TV programme, when it became known that Dr Carey had responded to Robert Runcie’s chats with Humphrey Carpenter’s tape recorder by telling a television camera: "Remarks that we might call rather indiscreet may suggest that people might now ask whether they can trust anybody, any priest, ever again." — and just as a great cloud of Fanshawe was obscuring that came the discovery that a Lambeth Palace staffer had passed on to the Guardian an indiscreet letter which the Home Office minister David MacLean, had written denouncing "evil scum of the IRA."

Perhaps it is not such a smoothly Machiavellian organisation after all. The one sentence statement, delivered through pursed lips, that Lambeth Palace would never transmit the contents of any letter marked ‘private’ or ‘confidential’ made a distinction without a difference to those people who would never dream of telling a priest anything serious anyway. Peter McKay in the Daily Mail said "Those who serve the Established Church [the capitals are the equivalent of pulling a man towards you with one hand, the more easily to punch him in the face] up to and including Archbishop George Carey appear to be conducting a private feud with the Government….Archbishop Carey waxed indignant about his predecessor … talking indiscreetly. Will he respond similarly if he discovers Lambeth Palace has become a clearing house for IRA propaganda?"

I write this before seeing whether Purkis has flown a mission against it. In the mean time, we must be content with this statement to the Times: "Dr Carey is not an attention seeker, but he is a direct, uncomplicated man who is not naturally tremendously diplomatic or guarded."

This is not in fact faint praise when you consider the troubles of the Chief Rabbi. He had a really bad week, when the Jewish Chronicle finally published the letter he had written to a conservative rabbi defending his decision to attend the memorial meeting for Hugo Gryn. The letter itself was damning enough. What made it truly extraordinary was Dr Sacks’s explanation of his actions.

"With hindsight, I now know that I tried too hard. I made regrettable mistakes. And my attempts to bring peace failed. But I would rather let it be said of me that he tried and failed than that he lacked the courage to try." He said at the meeting. The courage he was praising himself for had led him to explain his presence at the meeting privately in these terms. "only your Honour can know what conflict I experience in praising a person who was amongst those who destroy the faith, even for the good human deeds which he did."

But if he did not, he explained, then Reform would break with the Chief rabbinate publicly, and "then in the eyes of the whole community time after time the impression would emerge that there are two kinds of Torah, two kinds of faith, two kinds of rabbi, that they are equal in their standing in the eyes of non-Jews and the community, and there is no greater shame and falsehood, than that. My sacred task is to prevent this absolutely, and thankfully we have succeeded thus far."

I think I prefer Dr Carey’s form of courage.

I’ve been worrying about Anne Atkins again. Private Eye has already pointed out that one of the letters she published was a straight lift from the Telegraph’s daily comic strip; and last week she published a cri de coeur from a Suffolk vicar’s wife whose daughter, married to another priest, had set up house with a lesbian friend. A reporter from the Daily Mail rang the Church Times to find if the story was true. Still, she is the cause of very good jokes in others. An impeccably (I think that’s the word) liberal Thought for the Day contributor was recently introduced to her by a BBC producer as the most tremendous fan, especially of that broadcast, and spent the next ten minutes in an excruciating conversation because she was far too polite to correct this misunderstanding.

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