Press Column

The last time I wrote that nothing was happening at the General Synod, this was the cue for a really spectacular PR fiasco: on a clear day you can still hear the echoes. But I write this on the first day of the synodís meeting and the papers have covered in far more depth an unorthodox ecumenical project in Manchester, where the Rev John Hargreaves has resigned as a curate after falling in love with Judith Pajak, a Baptist minister on work experience. The source for all these stories is Mrs Hargreaves, who is herself being divorced for unreasonable behaviour. It all sounds a frightful mess, but gave the broadsheets the opportunity to print a photograph of Mrs Pajak answering her door. Even in blurry black and white she seems to be what Raymond Chandler called the sort of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window; and remarkably composed for a woman who must have been under siege.

The Times next to it had a nice headline: "Innocent clergy are told to trust in God" along with the mysterious remarks of the Rev John Banner, of Tunbridge Wells, who had told a Synod debate on the Hawker proposals about "a curate who decided who he would get all the unmarried women together in the parish hall and give them a field day. I found myself visiting them one by one afterwards and facing all kinds of accusations." This, too, is a story that cries out for illustration, but only St Gargoyles could do it justice.

But the most extraordinary insight into the married lives of the clergy came from Thursdayís Daily Mail, which sent a reporter, a photographer, and an interpreter to interview a retired priest and his wife in Cornwall. The interpreter was necessary because Mrs Guest-Blofeld, 46, speaks only Russian ó at least thatís what the Mail calls it: I have a suspicion it may be Ukrainian. The distinction is in any case lost on her new husband, who speaks neither language. So she has had to resort to drastic measures to communicate. She is sleeping on the sofa, and giving interviews to vent her frustration. "He promised he would buy me a cashmere coat when I came here. But all he has brought me are stockings black suspenders.

"I knew quite a few women who had married Western men and when they returned to visit relatives in the Ukraine, they wore mink coats and had lots of money. I envied them."

Cornwall came as a shock to her. "It was midnight [when she arrived at Gatwick] but there was no taxi, as he promised. We had to catch two buses to Cornwall. Then, when I saw the bungalow, I couldnít believe it.

"When we go to the shop he buys me one apple. One apple! There is no sugar, nothing. At home my fridge was always full."

It is at this point that the teensiest fragment of doubt as to her complete veracity entered my mind. I donít quite understand why any woman from Chernigov would wish to marry a foreign holy man if she had in her own home a fridge that was always full, something which would surely have become an object of pilgrimage from all over the Ukraine if its existence became widely known.

Poor old Guest-Blofeld. He found her through a marriage agency based in North Wales, which specialises in Russian women. "I wanted fun with a younger woman, and the first thins I was looking for was a sexual relationship. Obviously, with an attractive woman in her 40s, I thought that would have pride of place. Most women of that age want bonking and plenty of it, to use a crude expression, and although Iím getting on a bit thereís plenty of life in me yet."

His ardour survived even a first meeting at Kiev airport, which is ó outside of some prisons ó the most depressing building I have ever passed through. "She gave me a red rose; and, although we couldnít speak, the body language was there immediately." It is true that the couple slept together from the very first night, but it was high summer, and he explained that apart form the heat, he was too badly sunburnt to do anything improper.

Remember, he said all these things to a reporter, a photographer, an interpreter, and even to his wife, who responded to the same audience "We sit side by side all day like two sparrows. Either that or he plays his classical music in the lounge and I play my Demis Roussos and Chris Rea in the bedroom Ö Sexually I am still active. But Thomas does not measure up to Chernigov standards."

When people will do that sort of thing to each other for free, one wonders whether the world actually needs journalists to add to its stock of nastiness and cruelty. But still we in the trade must persevere; and Cole Moreton, late of the Church Times had a good go at the established status of the Church of England in the Independent on Sunday. It seems impossible to write on this subject without hypocrisy. Obviously the Church of England will be disestablished and disendowed as soon as the Church Commissioners assets are large enough to make it worth the trouble: £5bn seems a handy benchmark here. What is distressing about this prospect is that it will be done in the name of Christianity, as if robbing the church of all its influence and wealth would make it more effectively Christian. The only possible defence of establishment is thoroughly elitist. The House of Lords, or the legislature generally, needs people who donít read tabloids or listen to Radio One. It needs people who have better things to do with their lives than watch television. But the church no longer has the self-confidence to mount a properly elitist defence of its own position; it may no longer have the capacity. Many of the men who could have mounted such a defence left over women priests, and this thought is almost enough to make one regretful ó until one remembers that the church which did not ordain women was also the one which nourished Mr Guest-Blofeld and his simple faith that they can always be tamed with flowers and silk stockings.

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