The Press Saturday, June 6th 1998
Many of you will have missed the news that "A Secret sect of Transsexual priests" is "shaking the Church of England." It comes from the Sunday Times. What's interesting is that it went no further. The next day's Times carried a brief squashing: "Church of England officials last night denied any knowledge of two women priests reported to have started their ministry as men. A church spokesman said he know of one male pries who had a sex change, but the operation was performed after his retirement." It did not carry the memorable comment of the spokesman, which was that all priests were cross dressers, weren't they, swishing around in their cassocks.
The Sunday Times story claimed that "At least 21 clergy in the Church of England consider themselves 'trans-gendered' .. fourteen are transvestites. Three are considering a sex change and are said by friends to be in a psychological 'grey area'."
There was even an interview with one of them, described as "a vicar in a large Church of England parish", though he was a cross-dresser. Absolutely no detail was offered to stand up the assertion that two of the Church's women priests were once male priests. There were vague references to "church sources." But the only man named in the story was George Carey. "The disclosures come as George Carey Archbishop of Canterbury, tries to hold the church together in the face of damaging internal divisions over homosexuality."
Some of you may find this a rather distressing example of the willingness of the newspapers to print anything at all. And it did come in the Sunday Times, the paper that brought you the news that HIV does not cause Aids. But what is really interesting are the reasons it was not followed up by the mid-market papers, the Mail, Times, Telegraph, Express, Brute and the Beast. These cast a light on the rules that even hostile journalists try to play by.
"You know that I am the last person to avoid a story that embarrasses the C of E," said the Religious Affairs Correspondent of the Beast when he rang up his old sparring partner in the Church House press office. "But even I would like to find some small fact that pegs this story to planet earth."
"Usually, even in a Sunday Times story there is some fact you can try to check out," he elaborated when I called him. "But this one is circling the globe, just winking up there. If there had been even a diocese named I could have done something. Of course it's always difficult to tell the newsdesk something like that. But we just couldn't have used the story without a fact."
The Brute's correspondent was more charitable. "I could have written that story so that everything in it was true, and everything it implied wasn't. There's real skill to that." "There's a job for you on Jonathan Aitken's legal team," I said. But, she admitted, this wasn't the way that story had been written. One interview with an anonymous transvestite doesn't stand up the claim that two women priests were once male priests.
The headline of course is completely indefensible. Even if there were a secret sect of transsexual priests, it would not shake the church. But no journalist reads headlines, and the more squeamish ones don't read their own copy, either.
I wonder if this disillusionment has filtered through to Rabbi Shmuley Boateach yet? His dismissal from Willesden Synagogue, first reported in the Times diary, became a steadily bigger story all week until finally he was done over by Boris Johnson who interviewed him for his Monday slot in the Daily Telegraph. "Shmuley is a breeder. You could say he put the 't' into rabbi. He has six children."
"Shmuley certainly lets it all hang out. IN fact, he seems to have pieces of string hanging out of his pants. It turns out ths is a piece of rabbi kit called a Tzistzis.
"'The Book of Deuteronomy says you should have string s on the corner of your garment to remind you of God's commandments at all times. It's also a great sex tool. All these ritual objects are sex tools.' Is he unable to stop thinking of sex?"
After such treatment, even a faith as firm as Shmuley's must be shaking. Does he still believe there is really no such thing as bad publicity?
Considerably less space was given to the dismissal of some of the charges against Padre Richard Landall, who is being court-martialled on charges of groping some of his soldier's wives. The regimental adjutant told the court martial that one of the complaining soldiers had told him he had made up the story, which convinced the court martial, despite the soldier's evidence. Not the sort of thing one can imagine happening in a civilian court. Another complainant, this one anonymous, turns out to have sold her story to the News of the World on the usual sliding scale: she will get between three and fifteen thousand pounds, depending on how prominently the story is used. However, the deal was not done until after she had given evidence.
The most interesting obituary of the week was that of the perfectly named Erika Cheetham, who made a fortune from translating Nostradamus. She was expelled from her convent school for writing an article about why God could not exist, but retained an interest in the psychic and purportedly prophetic. She was extremely rich and fashionable, and used to go racing with the Aga Khan. Her three translations of the prophecies have not been out of print since 1974, though successive predictions are removed as they are falsified with each new edition. She even managed to get Vogue to print the old fraud's recipes for quince jelly and marzipan one Christmas. There is no record of how they tasted.
But the most stirring news of the eek came form the Independent, which discovered that the Church Commissioners have a large holding in the manufacturers of Viagra, the impotence pill. The price has done nothing but rise since the drug went on sale, making a million pounds for the Church. The copy was a little laboured, but the adjoining cartoon was perfect: "How much longer?" the actress is saying to the bishop. Of course, she was really an actor.