Press Column

Think tanks and policy wonks have long known to release their reports over a weekend, so that they will get a good show in Monday’s newspaper, when there is little hard news to compete for space. Now it seems that the churches have realised that the long weekend of Christmas and the New Year offers them the same sort of chance. There has been an extraordinary number of front page stories on the thoughts of religious leaders, and Dr Carey even got Page 28 of the Mail on Sunday’s financial section to expound his thoughts on money. The questions were grindingly dull. "Is there anything you regret not having spent money on at the time?" and his responses pitched at the same level: "I have sometimes in the past bought cheap things and found that they haven’t lasted. The lesson is that the so-called more expensive purchase is possibly the wiser in the long run. It will last, look better and give greater value for money."

This is, as Cardinal Newman would have said, an argument that commands assent.

But of course the assent of the saloon bar — or the mid-market tabloids — is what Dr Carey is after at the moment. There’s clearly a strategy involved, possibly a sensible one; but it is difficult to carry out with dignity. Once you have started at the top, with a Hello interview, there’s nowhere to go but down. So just before Christmas he opened his fridge to the Express colour magazine. The photograph reveals a bottle of English wine — a curiously puritan extravagance — Vitalite margarine, diet coke, skimmed milk, and a large pot of double cream ("left over from Eileen’s birthday"). In favour of this not being too posed is the fact that it contains, like most fridges of my acquaintance, hardly anything with which you could actually fix yourself a meal: redcurrant jelly, mint sauce, marmalade, mustard and honey — there’s nothing you could make with these ingredients except a hangover violent cure.

Some such decoction would no doubt revivify the Daily Telegraph’s front page subs, who have used up all the traditional clichés of the season: we had both "Carey: Praise be to brief sermons" and "Clerics call for holiday rebellion". Coming soon: "Praise be clerics in unholy row."

The brief sermons story was sufficiently interesting that a friend on another paper rang me to ask whether I thought it was black propaganda, but it appears the Archbishop really did exhort clergy to get out and knock doors on their way round the parish — but simultaneously demand that they be "less overtly religious." Perhaps they should do their doorstepping in plain clothes. Still, it all got onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph, Dr Carey’s view that refugees are not scroungers in search of free housing and schooling even if this was relegated to the very end of the story. The problem for any churchman saying civilised things about refugees is that they’re expected to do so. So it’s not news. It’s a sort of necessary background noise. To make the message news again would require some tremendous publicity stunt: like being caught in the archiepiscopal limousine at Dover smuggling a bootload of refugees back from a visit to Kossovo? It’s just a thought. I’m sure Lesley can work up something more convincing.

Victoria Combe’s other splash looked like a co-ordinated demand by the churches, but seems to have been the result of an initiative by GMTV, which got both Cardinal Hume and Bishop James Jones to condemn working over Christmas. The Cardinal, who got lead billing, went much further than he normally does in attacking the idea that there are "unstoppable forces of capitalism"..

"It is quite wrong that people should have to work over Christmas simply because the financial arrangements of the world require it . I do not believe we are ever driven by forces that we cannot control. There are always people who can say ‘stop’ or ‘let’s do it differently’. But you have got to have the will to do it; and the will must not be to make more money: the will has got to be that we want a better society."

One can see these sorts of attack growing more frequent as the hideous dome swells and glistens in Greenwich and the Churches feel more and more that they must protest that there is more to life than shopping. I am not sure that it is a battle that can be won, though; and this for two reasons. The first, suggested by a long and elegant essay in the New Statesman by Damian Thompson, is that shopping has become for many people an activity which fulfils many of the functions that churchgoing once did, among them the reduction of spiritual anxiety. The great difficulty for Sabbatarians is not that there is an exploited minority of people do not want to work on Sundays or over Christmas — it seems fair to bet that most of those who do work then are genuine volunteers — but the existence of a giant exploiting majority who want to be able to shop.

It may be that these kind of protests against capitalism will come to be ranked with the defence of asylum seekers, as well-meant but eminently ignorable bleating. That does not mean they are unjustified. The way we treat asylum seekers and prisoners remains abominable however often it is pointed out; and the vision of a society of battery consumers living off their credit cards is not very noble either.

The one escape route no longer open is a belief in socialism. The Guardian had a report on the devious tactics of the Chinese Communist party, which, according to the Vatican, is torturing a 31 year-old priest with male and female "special units". We’re not told what the males do, but the females "are sent into the cells, apparently to do daily chores, but in fact to tempt the priests into sexual relations." This is a martyrdom it must be painful to refuse. Perhaps the Scottish Communist party has been practising similar ruses against its local church

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