Press Column

The Archbishop of Canterbury "joined a polyglot army of Labour critics Tories, Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists" who were criticising Tony Blair’s welfare cuts in the Guardian. I’m not sure what polyglot means in this context: perhaps that the others spoke English, for the Telegraph reported on the same day on its front page "Carey’s blessing for Labour’s welfare reform". "The Archbishop of Canterbury provided the government with some cheer yesterday by giving his blessing to the principle of its controversial welfare reforms" wrote its chief political correspondent, "But he said that the Church would oppose any changes that penalised the needy and disadvantaged." Since those appear to be the only changes on offer, the headline writers’ confusion is easy to understand.

The only thing everyone was agreed on was that the Epistle to the Shoppers had been returned to sender marked "unknown at this address". Some of this may be put down to the understandable pique of the journalists involved. I don’t know all the reasons why people go into journalism, but I have never met anyone who did so for the chance to spend the Sunday before Christmas listening for a sermon in the aisles of an Asda hypermarket. "Listening for" is not a misprint for "listening to", for the one thing all reports agreed on was that the management turned the sound down as soon as the seasonal spend-encouraging carols stopped and Dr Carey’s sermon started. According the Guardian you could hear quite well by the tropical fruits at the Owlcotes branch outside Leeds. There are no reports of good reception anywhere else in the country, which may explain the lead on Ruth Gledhill’s front page story in the Times: though other explanations do come to mind when you study the alleged joke: "No one laughed on the Isle of Dogs when the Archbishop of Canterbury told his joke about the Christmas banner which should have read "Glory to God in the Highest." The letter "e" had been dropped out of "highest", making it: "Glory to God in the High St."

Ruth was reduced to quoting "the text released to journalists in advance" for her story. It was quite the most savage news story I remember her ever writing.

Dr Carey still did well compared to the Bishop-elect of Newcastle, Martin Wharton. He was interviewed by Victoria Combe about his stand on gays. He had told someone else in the summer that homosexual relationships might not always be sinful; but that was when he was still the area bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames, apparently the most senior post in the Church of England which still carries a degree of intellectual freedom. Now that he is to be Bishop of Newcastle, he has to walk the narrow episcopal line between truth and falsehood, resolved to let neither escape him in the presence of a journalist. It is not the fault of the press if he then looks a fool.

If you wanted to discredit "the liberal establishment" as a bunch of gutless placemen you could not improve on the following sentences from Victoria’s story — yet they are completely straight reportage:

"The Church’s official line remains the General Synod motion of 1987 which declared that ‘homosexual genital acts’ should be met with a call for repentance and that heterosexual marriage was the Christian ideal. Bishop Wharton said yesterday that he stood by the 1987 motion. When asked why he had said homosexual relationships were not always sinful, he replied that it was too complicated to explain. ‘It would need pages’ he said."

One can’t help feeling that old-style liberals with studs on their boots like that notorious wimp Robert Runcie MC would have handled things differently. What Bishop Wharton should have said was that he worries greatly lest people who have never met Dr Holloway, and been exposed to the sweetness of his personality, might mistake him for a bigoted fanatic. The other thing he actually said was that he was optimistic that friendly fireside chat would clear things up, and I suppose it might, providing one of them is chained to a stake in the flames.

Foreign news was more cheerful, or at least funnier. In Wales the Rev Geraint ap Iorweth got himself 15 paragraphs and a photograph in the Independent by holding a dance in his church hall. Twenty five people showed up. So why was he famous? They were not Christians, or not much, and the circle dance was to celebrate "the Yuletide full moon". If 25 Christians had met in a church hall in the middle of nowhere to waffle about truth and spirituality or even to dance, no one would take any notice. But when they are led by a priest who says the conventional Anglican Church is not dying, but already dead, the newspapers are interested. This is not just a symptom of the search for novelty or prejudice against Christianity. Consider again the first two stories in this column, and ask why anyone should take seriously such an organisation as a vehicle of truth or charity.

Mr ap Iorweth’s argument may not be orthodox: "Somewhere in the Universe," he says, "is a source which transmutes suffering and pain, and the mystery of what it is to be human can never be adequately explained by reason alone. We need a symbolic way of perceiving ourselves and our world. The soul needs images to breathe and grow and it is that need which drives all the faiths." But what he says is clear, and, to a journalist, not palpably false. No wonder he gets more space than bishops.

Still, the ultimate story of dislocated Christianity came from Japan where the Guardian reported on the craze for Christian weddings. "Less than 1% of Japan’s population are church-goers but it is estimated that almost half the country’s weddings are conducted by Christian clergymen — albeit fake ones." The paper interviewed Dave Hollandi, an American teacher in Hiroshima, who earns £600 a weekend for performing as a priest. He dresses up and says the words, though he admits he is neither ordained nor confident of their meaning. "My goal is, make the lady cry… The only thing that is really important is to get the couple’s name right; that, and positioning them so that wne they kiss it is all lined up for the cameras."

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