The Press Saturday, January 31st 1998
One of the nicest things about being a columnist, if you do it for long enough, is that you will find time and time again that you are right. Each time the world revolves, it brings into light fresh evidence of the superiority of Catholic social teaching — at least, it does to Clifford Longley. The Pope's visit to Cuba was to him a wonderful illustration of the superiority of Catholic thinking to both communism — as everyone thought — but also capitalism. In his column on Friday, he quoted great chunks of the encyclicals in which the Pope elaborated his view of human rights and their relation to the workers. The point of all this was to disprove the theory, popular in America, that the Pope and President Reagan had made a secret pact to undermine Communism on two fronts at once, inside Poland and through the exertion of American economic and political pressure form the outside. The theory is difficult to credit for neutral observers: there are far fewer organised conspiracies in the world that seems possible; but it is especially repugnant to the British Catholic intelligentsia, to whom Reagan will always be associated with Mrs Thatcher. Since only one Catholic bishop in this country is suspected by even his bitterest enemies of voting Conservative, there is something peculiarly insulting in the idea that the Pope was allied with Reagan; and it cannot be too often said that it was the Vatican and not the White House which knew al along what was happening.
This is not said in an entirely mocking spirit. Columnists need large ideas with which to make sense of the blur and rush of life in front of them; if they have nothing themselves to say they cannot enter into a dialogue with the news and will simply be swept off their feet, and perhaps "thrown into a contracheck in the tango beneath the crystal chandeliers on a sprung Canadian maple floor."
This was the exciting fate that befell Ruth Gledhill when she was sent to meet the sports minister, Tony Banks, whom she described as "a natural born mover." It has been a long time since the Times gave us much prominence to any religious story as it did to Ruth's account of how "Mr Banks flexed his knees, straightened his back and put me into a same-foot lunge in the waltz and throwaway oversway in the foxtrot." Readers of a nervous disposition will be reassured to learn that the couple "stopped short at the Spanish drag and standing spin — through lack of time rather than inclination."
All this was illustrated, on the front page of Saturday's Times with a full-length photograph of the minister with a nervous smirk, holding Ruth, who has struck a pose of dramatic abandonment in his arms. Her hair is scraped back in what she assures me is the championship style on the dance floor, and she is wearing a dress so pink, so fluffy and so sequinned that even Dr Graham Leonard would have thought twice before squeezing into it.
I am not at all sure how the competition can retaliate for this. Victoria Combe has already got married, but in a much less dramatic outfit, and without making it onto the front page. They will have to take up skydiving, or something, and persuade a Cardinal to jump with them, in full regalia.
Ruth's twirlings with the minister so invigorated her that she was able to make even the House of Laity sound like a a shipyard meeting in Gdansk, determining to strike no matter that the consequences. "Rebel members of the Church of England have successfully petitioned for a rare meeting of more than 200 lay members of the General Synod to debate changes to church services and structures." It even gave her the strength to write, lower down in the same story, "The special meeting has no power to resist the reforms on its own, [but] its discussions will give church leaders a feeling for which way the crucial vote will go" without opening her veins with a penknife immediately afterwards.
For a meeting that will decide nothing at all, the House of Laity's gathering has kept a lot of journalists in work. Michael Brown in the Yorkshire Post got "Synod stands by to sideline the Queen" out of it, complete with a graphic showing the "old" and "new" versions of the Lord's Prayer. The consensus among priests I know is that the old, hallowed version has not been used seriously in most places since about 1968: but to the Yorkshire Post its disappearance is still news.
People to whom the disappearance of the old prayer is still news will doubtless take serious the lead of the Yorkshire Post story, that "the Church of England — which the Queen heads — may be about to turn her and her family into optional extras" and such things do matter, because they all tend to make disestablishment seem more likely, which in turn makes it become more likely. The idea that the Church of England does not deserve its privileges is slowly seeping into the groundwater of public debate, even as the nature of these privileges becomes less clear. Christopher Morgan, in the Sunday Times, had another go at St Paul's with a curiously imprecise story saying that the cathedral's clergy were topping up their own stipends with "secret bonuses." One longed to know which clergy were involved, and how large the bonuses were, but this gritty detail was absent from the story, at least as it affects St Paul's.
This imprecision was not, apparently, enough to stop the story from being denounced from the pulpit at St Paul's by Canon Michael Saward, who called it "gossip and innuendo." It is all very puzzling, but not nearly as puzzling as the Christian socialist movement calling for disestablishment. They seem to have published a pamphlet to this effect on Monday; and, considering that the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are all members of the Movement, one might have expected it to be harder than it in fact was for Stuart Bell, the Second Church Estates Commissioner to kill the story by simply denying disestablishment would happen.