Press Column

"Religion and sex go together like bacon and eggs. But thatís not what most people think!" It would be cruel to pretend that this quote came from the Times when it is obviously from the News of the World: The italics give it away. "Good sex in a relationship of love is like finding Heaven on earth". Those were the opening and closing paragraphs of the "TV Bishopís Easter message" to the readers of the News of the World . The Bishop of Liverpool had managed to produce most widely read sermon of the day. There were in fact two paragraphs at the end about Easter: all the rest was about sex, television, James Jones, or all three. The message appeared to be that sex without love makes you miserable, and that Christians are not miserable killjoys. They are at it like monogamous rabbits in committed, loving relationships. The oddest thing about the bishopís sermon was that he never once used the catchphrases about marriage which are the stock in trade of his performances for upmarket papers. Indeed, the word nowhere appeared. Was it cut, or did he think that it was necessary first to establish that bishops are human beings before attempting further communication?

Elsewhere the News of the World continued to explore ways in which its readers were having miserable, loveless, uncommitted, but above all profitable sex with celebrities. On the front page was the most important news of the week "Millionaire Manchester United idols Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole used a besotted teenage fan as their sex toy for a wild three-in-a-bed orgy" By the side of that was all the war news fit to print: "Daring NATO pilots destroyed a second major bridge over the River Danube yesterday. In yet another clinical strike, the Sloboda (Freedom) bridge in the Serbian city of Novi Sad was neatly severed.Ö.Last night the Serb military looked set for another pasting as eight giant B52 bombers laden with cruise missiles lifted off from RAF Fairford". No mention of any of the squalid Albanians messing up this lovely clean war until page 6, after another two pages on the sex lives of footballers.

Iím normally sceptical of claims that Christianity is making a comeback in this country but itís certainly true that it has made a comeback among the broadsheet newspapers. I donít think I have ever had so many religious cuttings in one week, and all of them pegged to Easter one way or another. Perhaps I was unduly traumatised by the Independent features editor who asked me, one Good Friday "to explain the Resurrection high up, so our readers will know what it is". Things have changed there. Saturdayís Independent had an essay by Richard Chartres on the revival of faith around the world. You have to admire his grand tone: "Occasionally attempts are made to suggest that religious leaders speak for a dwindling constituency" But admiration should not dumbfound the critic: by a rough calculation, the Church of England has, in nine years of the decade of evangelism, lost about a quarter of its membership, whether this is measured in attendance figures (now concealed because they are too awful to publish) or by electoral roll. About another five or ten percent of its members, many in the diocese of London, have passed into a kind of inner schism, and consider themselves and their bishops out of communion with the rest of the Church. That is why the newspapers occasionally suggest that mainstream Christian leaders speak for a dwindling constituency in this country.

But the piece also contained a very clear and sophisticated defence of the role that an established church can play even in a country as post-Christian as Britain. "The Establishment of the Church of England is part of a mosaic that connects religion and society n various ways./ The aim in the continuing process of change in the relation of religion and society should be to pluralise the religious presence in public life further while resisting its privatisation." This is not a slogan thatís going to fill the barricades, but it does suggest where barricades might be planted in the coming struggles over the House of Lords.

But the burning question of the week, for those of us in the business, is "why are people so beastly about George Carey." Damian Thompsonís profile in Saturdayís Daily Telegraph was breathtakingly rude. I speak as the source of one of the cruellest quotes in it, but even I gasped a little as I read. There were a few pro-Carey quotes but their background was observations like this: "What isnít clear is why a cardigan-wearing clergyman with thick specs, boring opinions and a halting manner should provoke such a viciously polarised debate in the first place." Or "What was disturbing about this sort of pronouncement was Ö the suspicion that Dr Careyís inability to think on his feet reflected an inability to think."

There was some praise. "He has been successful in imposing discipline on the Church of England. The crises over women priests and money are effectively over." This will certainly come as welcome news to anyone who read the stuff the Daily Telegraphís then religious affairs correspondent, Damian Thompson, wrote during the run-up to the Synod vote in 1992, predicting the exodus of thousands of priests if they ever lost the vote and the consequent end of the Church of England. But in general the piece ran a straight course from its headline: "Archbishop, for how long?" to its conclusion: "In his enthronement sermon, Dr Carey called for a revival of the spirit of St Thomas Beckett: is it now time for him to accept the bloodless martyrdom of an honourable early retirement.? We are presumably stuck with him for the Millennium celebrations but the Queenís Golden Jubilee in 2002 surely calls for someone who looks and sounds like an Archbishop of Canterbury."

Of course, some of this can be written off as snobbery. Madeleine Bunting, in her defensive profile of Carey last year, made much of the idea that he was rejected by sneering metropolitan sophisticates because he is none of these things himself. But perhaps the most telling defence is one that would not have been available while the profile has been researched: whatever his other faults, Dr Carey has never written a newspaper article that concludes, in italics, that "Good sex in a relationship of love is like finding Heaven on earth".

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