Press Column

The Scottish Daily Mail is not a paper that I see unless I write for it. So it was unusual on Friday to find they had given a whole page to the disgrace of Michael Bunce, provost of St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Dundee. Dr Bunce shunned the usual temptations of the clergy. Instead he stole money from a company he set up to help the unemployed. Their article was illustrated with an extraordinary picture of the priest dressed in Raybans, flourescent shorts and an MC Hammer T shirt, waving a fedora at the camera. It is unusual clerical garb, though easily a note in the Daily Express gossip column describing the appearance of the Rev David Johnson at an Oxford Union debate last week, where he stripped off his gown and dog collar to reveal a T shirt emblazoned with the slogan "so many men, so little time" Is this quite what is usually meant by the great commission, one wonders?

The Scottish Daily Mail really threw the book at Dr Bunce. Not only was he "The champagne cleric who conned friends, parishioners and even his bishop" and "a second-rate conman with a taste for the high life… who knew how to woin his way into people’s confidence" He was "a suave Englishman", too.

It was an interesting example of the protection afforded by the libel laws: now that Bunce has been disgraced, and that protection in effect withdrawn, everything known to his discredit can be printed. Thus we have a fellow director of the charity he set u saying: "He was a bit flash, but I thought he was a likeable rogue…He socialised a hell of a lot more than any other vicar I know and he certainly liked a drink. He fancied himself as a bit of a ladies’ man as well/ One night in my flat we drank a bottle of Bacardi between us and then he started on another bottle. Then he drove home, saying "They wouldn’t stop anyone in a dog collar."

The article mentions only in passing that the company from which he was stealing after he had set it up had been a runaway success, employing more than 50 trainees. It seems to me that there are priests who have done far more harm than this suave Englishman. But there is obviously something in the middle market imagination which finds deeply shocking the idea of priests enjoying the things of this world.

Christopher Morgan, in the Sunday Times, has joined in the Daily Mail’s attack on bishops’ palaces with one of the worst pus I have ever seen in a newspaper "It has been dubbed fat catechism."

"Figures from the Church Commissioners, who control the church’s assets, show that at a time of falling congregations the costs of bishops’ housing, salaries and administration have risen from £4.9m in 1987 to £10.3m in 1996, an increase of 110%. Prices rose generally by 50% over the same period last year. Despite moves to prune the bill, only one bishop’s palace is for sale.

"The biggest expense is Lambeth Palace, where an additional four staff have been recruited in the past 10 years. It is understood the increase has taken place in the areas of secretarial and research work.

"The average cost of a diocesan bishop, who is normally provided with a house, chaplain, secretary and chauffeur, is now £160,000."

This is quite brilliant accounting: if you add on to any salary the salaries of the people they employ, you can reach some really exaggerated figures. The only one of these who seems unnecessary is the chauffeur, and it was the chauffeur who was used by Morgan to put the boot into the bishop of Salisbury:

"David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury, who co-owns a house in Italy, ordered his car to be driven to London so he could leave a banquet at the Royal Academy at midnight and be driven home in comfort to Salisbury.

His secretary rejected suggestions of grandeur. ‘What’s so grand about that? When the Archbishop of Canterbury came in April, he travelled in a helicopter’."

This is funny, but it is unfair, too. if you have a chauffeur at all, then driving back from banquets is one of the things you have him for. It’s not even as if it would have saved money compared to the cost of a hotel room in London to leave the chauffeur to his own devices. None the less, the story has clearly grown wings, for the next day’s Times carried a couple of paragraphs in its coverage of the Bridge report: "The review comes as concern grows at the cost of chauffeur-driven lifestyles and large staff enjoyed by some bishops. Critics among the clergy, whose annual stipends range from £12,800 to £14,500, are concerned that the disparities between their lifestyles and those of their bosses are divisive."

The Times story on the Bridge report appeared on the morning that a press conference was held to launch it. Ruth seems to have been stung by the suggestion that her story broke the embargo on the report, so she published another story about it, saying pretty much the same thing, the following day. Still, having the story done twice in the Times might make up for the fact that none of the other papers covered the story at all.

Ruth, in fact, wrote all the broadsheets’ religious coverage this week, not in the sense that I once wrote a story for a colleague on another paper so that we could get out of the hotel, but because no one else had anything. She even had the unenviable task of trying to find something in the report on the Toronto Blessing, which appeared to have been struck dumb by the Spirit, never a safe posture to adopt in front of Ms Gledhill." Toronto Blessing ‘feared to be the work of Satan’" said the Times headline.

But the most significant religious news of the week was concealed in a picture caption of Mother Teresa rising form her wheelchair to kiss the Pope during a Mass for Christian Unity on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. Only in passing did the paper mention that the Orthodox had formally boycotted the ceremony in protest against Catholic missionary activity. That is not a joke.

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