Press Column

Say what you like about Anne Atkins, the subs at the Telegraph are giving her some fast bowling: "Dear Anne, my wife is six months pregnant and will not sleep with me, Recently, I have become close friends with a female colleague. At a Christmas party a few weeks ago, she revealed that she was extremely attracted to me, and I spent the night with her."

It seems to me that there are two possible replies that the fictional Anne Atkins might give here. One is that the writer has done Wrong and must repent; another — if wives are to submit to their husbands, as she preaches — is that the wife in the story has no business refusing her husband what he wants. Of course, these could be combined. But in fact she chose a third alternative: practical advice.

"It’s not necessarily right to tell your wife what happened.

"But you must tell her how you feel. Ask for her help.

"If she does not want intercourse at the moment — which is understandable and likely to be the case for a while after the baby is born — there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and plenty of ways of giving a man sexual satisfaction … which I leave to your imagination. I suggest the two of you give it a free rein, and have fun!" I thought such practices were thoroughly unevangelical. I must ring someone from Reform and ask whether their members would allow their wives to advocate such behaviour.

There is, however, one fragment of her advice which might be misinterpreted. "Out of courtesy, and to prevent a recurrence, explain your regrets to your colleague. An old-fashioned apology might not go amiss." Try as I might, I can’t imagine the consequences. "Well", murmurs the diffident swain, "Remember that time you said you really fancied me, and I, er, well, we, um … I just, er, wanted to say er, that I was really really sorry —" At this point his head is rocked off its hinges by a slap that comes straight from the heart.

There has been some serious news, too. Much of it was made by the Church Times. Richard Holloway’s great blast against the Tory party made the splash in the Guardian and was given further treatment inside. The Bishop, we learnt, was an intermittent atheist from the Gorbals — which is pretty much what the Tory press would tell you, too. But the joy of an election campaign is that everybody gets to be as rude as they like. It is a wonderful saturnalia, into which all the rest of the week’s news was drawn.

Take the leader in the Sunday Telegraph, a paper whose editor, Dominic Lawson, left his first wife for a society Catholic, whom he married with a special papal dispensation, described by one Catholic commentator as "a scandal". For some reason he seems to have been especially infuriated by Bishop Holloway’s remark that "Conservatives throw a cloak of virtue over their self-interest".

Comparing the Scottish Episcopal Church to the Socialist Workers’ Party, the leader went on: "Doubtless Tony Blair is relieved that, as a member of the Church of England, he cannot be accused of being a member of the same religious groupuscule as Dr Holloway. But he should remember that the SWP always depended upon infiltration to achieve its ends. Beware the bishops around you, Mr Blair."

The interview that Dr David Hope gave to the Times was another case in point. There he is, granting his first press interview for fourteen months: the sort of thing that really is meant to make history; and what happens? Most of his wise thoughts are junked, in favour of a news story which says, in essence, "Archbishop says, vote Tory". This was such a good and newsworthy story that he had to come straight out and deny it the next day.

It’s hard to tell whether the denial was justified or not. So much of politics is a matter of feel and mood. There is obviously some hard spin on this paragraph: "In remarks that could be seen to be supporting the Government, Dr David Hope said: ‘I am not saying we have never had it so good. I would not want to say that. But the overriding pessimism has to be tempered and balanced by a recognition of some positive factors about where Britain is and some of this country's successes.’"

These remarks might indeed be "seen as supporting the Government" — but only in the middle of an election campaign. There was, however, one very strange passage in the interview: "Britain was the envy of the world in some important areas, and this was not acknowledged often enough by bishops. ‘If you look at Britain in the context of Europe or the wider world community, people outside these shores are rather more envious of us than we realise. For example, the anti-Europeans are allowed a much stronger and more obvious voice here than elsewhere in Europe.’"

Is Dr Hope really suggesting that the rest of the continent envies us Mr Portillo and Sir James Goldsmith? And, if he is, does that make him a supporter of the government?

Meanwhile, down in the gutter, the relaunched Mirror has been carrying a huge series on "Sex in the Church", pegged, so far as one can discover, on a book about the Eamon Casey affair by a ex-priest who married his mistress, and so feels vastly superior to the Bishop. Every really juicy Catholic sex scandal of the last decade is there, done incongruously in the brash oleograph colours of peasant Catholic piety turned against their maker.

Finally, there was the Mysterious Affair of the Archbishops’ Denial. This started in the Yorkshire Post, where an un-named Bishop criticised Philip Mawer for running the whole Church of England by stealth. "Some bishops and some lay people feel the [Turnbull] Commission’s recommendations have been steam-rollered through by Philip."

But the Bishop, unlike so many of his peers, would not come out. As an anonymous denunciation, none of the other papers would pick it up. None the less, the Archbishops promptly issued an indignant joint statement of support for their secretary general. This was a mistake — the story would have died without it — but then Philip probably made them do it.

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