The Press Saturday, April 11th 1998
Thanks for your call and for the remarkably temperate language with which you reproached me for being so nasty about you. A couple of points: I think there is a necessary and instinctive hostility between press officers and journalists, no matter how much mutual respect and liking there may be and often is in individual cases. There will always be cases where the interests of the press and of the employers of press officers diverge. So I am naturally suspicious of anything and anyone in PR Week, even though I don't believe that all journalism ought to be adversarial. Phrases like "Communication strategy" have always in my experience meant controlling and diminishing the access of journalists to important or interesting things. The strategy functions to strangle the communication. In the last analysis this is a simple power struggle, in which neither side is necessarily right. But I know which side I'm on.
To give a simple example of this, we know from Pete Broadbent's memo, even if from nowhere else, that there are lots of people in the present CH structure who have doubts about the Turnbull/Bridge reforms, and who think that a civil service model of bureaucracy suits the Church better than a corporate one. If I were to ring the press department and ask to speak to these malcontents, I doubt I would get very far.
These strains are likely to become greater as the Church moves more deeply into a GodCo future. There will be for some years to come a painful and intermittently embarrassing gap between the Church's present structure as a federation of decentralised autocracies and its shining future as One Body with One Committee to run it. The obvious beneficiaries of this gap are Stephen Trott and MSF, who can put out an endless stream of press releases showing that the Church is not the kind of employer that educated middle class people would wish. It pays little in salary (so they can get headlines by demanding a £4,000 rise in stipend). Tied housing removes the opportunity for one of the main forms of middle class saving. And it is beastly to women. Hence Martin Wroe's splash in the Observer on Sunday: "Women priests accuse clergy of harassment."
"A survey conducted among several hundred women priests in six dioceses by the clergy section of MSF also uncovered evidence of women priests being physically injured in disputes with male colleagues and, in a small number of cases, sexually assaulted.
"While bullying of women be senior clergy is widespread, it also comes from parishioners and sometimes form clergy wives, apparently jealous of the new authority of priested women. It ranges from physical abuse, intimidation, and physical or sexual harassment to ostracism and routine discourtesy. The victims claim they are powerless to complain because the culprits are in authority over them."
This was a serious report. It didn't mention Dibley once. And the only mention of the Church's central authorities was to say that ABM had persuaded MSF to delay publication to avoid detracting from Easter — the little dollop of sour cream to finish a perfect dish.
Not much better news in the Sunday Times. The row at Westminster Abbey involves any number of journalistic hot buttons, from Cherie Blair to Princess Diana, and offered Christopher Morgan a wonderful chance to portray everyone involved as unpleasant as well as incompetent. I still wonder about the origin of his lead, though, in which Frank Field approaches Wesley Carr after the Eucharist and says, "I feared you were a bully. Now I know you are a bully." — to which the Dean presumably responded "And also with you." It seems unlike Field to have said that, but impossible for the story to have originated in the Abbey.
Morgan gets his best stories from playing with serious spin doctors; and he is scrupulous in the sense that, however much he likes stirring, he only brings a spoon to the party. His sources must supply the matter to be stirred. He may affect ignorance about the doctrine and manners of the Church of England, but what he says about the government should be taken seriously and his coverage of the Abbey row was full of details that had to come from Labour sources. So his account of Tony Blair's attitude towards the church, consonant as it is with other evidence, cannot be regarded entirely as wishful thinking:
"Blair is known to be alarmed at the low calibre of many senior clergy and attributes the church's present difficulties and low attendances to this. He is believed to have rejected both Liverpool candidates because they were 'Carey clones' - men cast in the grey image of George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury."
At this point I feel a tremor of disbelief. Surely it is the other Archbishop who is famous for being grey.
"Carey himself has been left in no doubt about Blair's view that the church should rethink the way it finds new bishops and end the practice of selecting 'bland committee men'. Carey's response, however, was to call in members of the Crown Appointments Commission for individual grillings about the Liverpool fiasco."
"As long as Carey remains at Lambeth Palace, tension over senior church appointments is certain."
Does any of this matter? The Church of England seemed to survive a great deal of bullying and contempt from Mrs Thatcher in pretty good shape. But at least it did not try to respond to them by claiming to be up to date, corporate, and efficient. That way lies nothing but endless humiliation: it is the Nineties equivalent of the trendy vicar on his motor bike. The real relationship of Christianity with fashion is shown by a panel in Monday's Times's fashion page, where "ten desirable frivolities include "a fuschia lipstick, very dangly earrings, cowboy boots and a religious T-shirt: Ann Demeulemeester, Gaultier, Dolce and Gabbana."
Still, things could be a lot worse: at least no Blairite has yet accused the Church of England of Socialism.
Blair sees little evidence of a willingness to change, and the row over Carr's maladroit management at the abbey is making matters worse. Blair's circle believe Carr's unsuitability to hold such a high-profile position should have been obvious.