Press Column

I have written some pretty vicious things in my time about the Church of England, but none, I fancy, will have had quite the snap of Monday’s Daily Telegraph report that the Archbishop of York had called it "committee-bound, irrelevant, dull and pedestrian." When David Hope says you’re dull and pedestrian, it is time to face the wall and pull the sheets over your head.

This was not quite the spin that the Sunday Times put on the story. "Archbishop in veiled attack on Carey" was a much stronger news line; and if there was nothing in the sermon to stand it up, well, that’s show business. There is particular pleasure, for connoisseurs, in the use of "potential" in the second paragraph. "The opening of such a potential rift between the two most senior figures in the Church of England will place a question mark over the leadership of the church by George Carey."

"Potential" means "interesting if true" — and that is of course an important journalistic category. But it should be reserved for stories, not for interpretations. In one sense this is all poetic justice. Dr Hope has an assiduous spin doctor who is always trying to get him into the papers, even when he says things as mind-bogglingly obvious as that the church "is hardly likely ever to inspire or convert anyone."; and Dr Carey wants to be thought of as a leader. If you pretend to be a leader, we’re allowed to pretend you’re responsible.

Hence the Independent, following the Sunday Times almost word for word, said Dr Hop "used his all Saints Day sermon .. to launch a strong attack on the bland uninspiring approach many associate with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

No one else followed the "rift" angle in Monday’s papers. How could they, when Dr Carey appears in the Sunday Times as "A bland committee man more interested in managerial structures than leadership", while Dr Hope appears in the following day’s Telegraph as a man who "has initiated an overhaul of managerial structures with a view to making the church more streamlined and effective."

It is of course entirely possible that Dr Hope has been blowing off steam in private about his fellow primate: when he was bishop of London we were all regularly briefed that he found the man a frustrating prat. But there really was nothing in the sermon to stand the story up. There is also some evidence that the congregation misunderstood it: Victoria Combe was sent to the service by her newsdesk. She arrived late and found there was standing room only at the back, so after the sermon, she slipped out to write it up sitting on a bench outside. One of the congregation, emerging a few minutes later, saw her at work and commented to his companion "She’s got her story, the swine." Clearly, he had taken to heart the Archbishop’s exhortation that Catholics should come out of their ghetto and engage with the outside world.

Even Christopher Morgan has some way to go before he is ready for a job on the Daily Star, which on Monday ran a full page religious story which I reproduce in full: "Sexy Sam Coles has caused a Holy row — by getting her kit off on a RELIGIOUS show. The Page Three favourite rears a strip off critics of glamour girls in ITV’s Seven Deadly Sins which begins on November 15. Stunning Sam, 23, features in a tale about LUST and insists there’s nothing wrong with fellas ogling her gorgeous body. The beauty tells presenter Canon Martin Shaw: ‘I’m proud of my body, enjoy posing topless and can’t stand prudes slagging off Page Three girls’. A spokesman for makers Anglia TV said: ‘This has got to be one of the hottest religious shows ever — you don’t get many topless models in such programs’."

Oh dear. It’s just not the same without the picture.

That kind of real tabloid journalism, though, makes the Tabloid Bible, written by Nick page and published by HarperCollins, look terribly restrained. The Guardian gave it most of a page, including the wonderful line "Mr Page said he had no intention of writing a Tabloid Koran." It also reproduced what was probably the best gag in the book: a picture of Diana of the Ephesians, "Despite claims that she is nothing more than a cheap idol created by men with a rather weird mother fixation, this multi-breated fertility symbol is all woman! The Pert Pagan (23-33-34-35-36-32-37-39-32) still inspires silver statuettes."

In a week like that it is hard to know what to make of the Times headline "Bishop tells of his encounter with God." This appeared to be entirely straightfaced, though. It was the bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, describing his pulmonary embolism. He got three paragraphs to describe his crisis in hospital, waiting between shifts in an X-ray ward. Next to him, the Rev Tom Thubron got 15 paragraphs for "Botched DIY" on St Giles, a grade 1 listed mediaeval church in Durham.

He is applying for a retrospective faculty after what has clearly been a tremendous row on the PCC — perhaps the only church committee that everyone can understand, since it serves no Christian purpose whatever. Mr Thubron’s crime was illustrated in lurid colour in the Times, which showed a formerly 16th century carving touched up with red gloss Airfix paint. It can’t have looked so garish since 1700. Years ago, he spoke honestly and intelligently about his finances for a story the Independent was doing on priests’ poverty. It’s not clear from my notes of that story how his church could afford to pay for more glamorous restorations, whoever initiates an overhaul of its management structures.

It would be wrong to end on a gloomy note. Clear evidence of biblical literacy even among Guardian readers appeared in a letter published while I was on holiday, but far too good to miss, Jason Brown, of London, wrote: "The Archbishop of Canterbury is clearly confusing reality with biblical precedent. If we set Pinochet free, do we get to crucify Thatcher?"

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