Press Column

Several kind readers have sent me an early Christmas present: a questionnaire which the Sunday Times has addressed to 500 priests. It’s a bit like a driving test: there are 25 questions which are to be answered by ticking in a box, usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and a teeny box for comments at the end. This is wasting a tremendous opportunity. Most of these questions demand long and detailed answers to do them justice, so here are some suggestions.

The first three questions are "Should Voluntary Euthanasia be legalised?" "Have you in the last five years been present when a life has been ended by voluntary euthanasia?" "Do you have close knowledge of any other case of voluntary euthanasia." These are best answered as a group. I suggest something like this: "No. Oh, God, my conscience is torturing me. I used to believe it was so obvious and simple. You’ve never seen such a candidate for euthanasia as Mrs Stebbins and when she said at the last meeting that she yearned to meet God face to face and tell him, really tell him, how hard it was to make us understand His will — well the whole PCC rose as one and helped her. You couldn’t get more voluntary than that. But now I have come to believe that it was all too hurried. We still don’t have a music director.

"In answer to question three, I have no close knowledge of the circumstances which led to the curate’s departure."

Do you believe that abortion should remain legal? It should be available to the parents of any journalist at any time.

Do you believe genetic modification should be banned? Don’t know: incidentally, this is another forbidden answer: for the purposes of this questionnaire at least, the Sunday Times supposes that priests of the Church of England are firm and clear in all their beliefs.

Do you think hunting with hounds should be banned? Depends on the quarry. See abortion above.

Do you think Britain is more or less divided under Blair? This has boxes for More Divided and Less Divided as well as Yes and No. I suggest you divide your vote accordingly: tick either More Divided and No or Less Divided and Yes. That way the collators of the replies get data which will support whichever story they want to write, which is the kind way to treat them.

If a general election was held tomorrow, would you vote Labour? Would you?

How did you vote at the last election? (I’m not making this one up)

Have you remarried divorcees? Never to each other.

Have you ever ‘blessed’ gay relationships? Never in inverted commas. I always play it straight.

Do you think the Prince of Wales should marry Camilla Parker Bowles? I would be very disappointed. Her primary relationship has always been with me.

And so on. It really is a privilege to fill out a questionnaire like this. The man who has to collate the replies, a reporter named Jack Grimston, has a much less interesting job: all he can do is fill out the blanks in stories which start "The Church was rocked yesterday by a Sunday Times investigation which showed that 30% of all priests have murdered a member of their PCC. In a further blow to the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 57% of the clergy think he is not offering spiritual leadership. 43% claim they are struggling on their income, and 80% think there should be women bishops. Leading traditionalists were yesterday outraged … " and so on and so forth, concluding with a cross reference to Melanie Phillips. All you have to do with a story like that is to plug the numbers in, and it really doesn’t matter what they are. They will always be shocking revelations of something or other and they will always rock the Church.

So it seems to me that a conscientious recipient of this questionnaire has two choices. He or she can either refuse to answer the questionnaire at all, thus sparing Mr Grimston a lot of thankless drudgery and freeing him to do his Christmas shopping, or join in the spirit of the thing and tell some really interesting stories. I don’t want to take all the fun away from the people who have been sent this questionnaire and if I am sent any specially creative answers I will give the authors due credit. But anyone who simply answers yes or no rather deserves the subsequent news stories.

Leading traditionalists were yesterday outraged all over the place by heavily armed pre-pubescent angels. It was a story so good that it was almost true: a church in Canterbury had decided to spiff up the Nativity play by arming the angels and dressing them in dark suits, Reservoir Dogs style. The director, a Mrs Vile, explained that giving the little boys guns simply updated the burning fiery words that angels are meant to carry. This much I am pretty certain is true, even if it stems form the Ferrari agency in Kent, a well-known training ground for tabloid journalists. What gave the story wings, however, was the reported intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the Mail "Dr George Carey has asked officials to investigate the storyline in which ten to 14-yearolds shoot at anyone who stops God’s message being spread." In the the Telegraph he "expressed his concern". In the Times, "a spokesman" said "It is without doubt the most unusual nativity play I think has ever been staged anywhere. I can confirm that the archbishop has expressed his concern." The identity of this spokesman, though, remains as elusive as that of an angel. For Lesley Perry, who is the Archbishop’s representative in those infernal realms where journalists ply their trade, had not being asked about this silly play by anyone until the reports of "a spokesman’s" remarks were bounced off her. It would also appear that the idea of arming the angels had in fact been dropped in the wake of Naked Nut in Sword Terror, before the story got its wings.

It just goes to show how powerfully mythical longings work. If a Mrs Vile is producing a nativity play in which heavily armed angels gun down all who stand between the world and its saviour, it stand to reason the Archbishop must have condemned it. Perhaps his intervention will pass into the legend, like the Three Kings, and in the nativity plays of future years his heavily armed press secretary will be lowered from the ceiling, guns blazing in all directions, as she keeps the journalists away from the crib.

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