Press Column

The News of the World has finally busted someone for his theological opinions. It’s a pity that he’s not a priest but a football manager. One priest does make this week’s paper, but it is for baptising a baby; the snag is that it his own child, by a member of the congregation married to someone else; the paper was not inclined to praise him for the performance of his duties. The victim of its sudden rage for ecumenism is Craig Brown, the Scottish football manager, who was two-timing his mistress with another mistress. Not much public interest there, you’d have thought, since he isn’t married or even living with either of them but this would be to underestimate the ingenuity of the News of the World, which has discovered his reprehensible religious opinions: late at night he rang one of them up and sang her various Protestant football songs, about wading up to his knees in Fenian blood and so on — the kind of pleasantries bellowed every Saturday afternoon by thousands of drunken Glaswegians. Brown sang them to the answerphone of one of his mistresses after attending a Rangers-Celtic match. You’d have thought that this was behaviour sufficient to get him dumped, but in fact she forgave it and retribution waited until the other mistress phoned her on his mobile and the two woman discovered what he had been up to. I’m not sure whether Glen Hoddle’s views were coherent enough to be called theological, but is extraordinary that we should leave the century with the place of theology secured in the curriculum: anyone with ambitions to be a national football manager had better make sure his Christology is completely orthodox.

Nor will sacked football managers be able to take refuge in the episcopate, unless their offence were merely incompetence. The prospect of heresy trials made the front page of the Daily Telegraph, and got large play in the Times and the Guardian. The Daily Mail, which might have been expected to sympathise, preferred to carry on as if nothing had happened, with one story reporting the Church of England being pink "Nato bungled Kosovo conflict, say Churchmen" and one reporting the focus groups: "Bishops ‘are obsessed with homosexuality’." This second story was a particular delight, since all focus groups always demand immediate action in incompatible directions. These ones believed that the church should stop worrying about sexual behaviour and instead be "spreading Jesus’ message" and "giving a clear moral lead". Since the latter activity is understood by everyone to consist of denouncing other people’s sex lives (and why not, since the press now denounces their theological opinions) it will be interesting to see how the bishops are meant to pull this off.

I suppose one should expect infantile results from a survey in which middle-aged women are solemnly asked what sort of animal the Church reminds them of. The correct answer, of course, is "hippopotamus". But it is still rather shocking to realise that this is the sort of thing the new whizzo Archbishops’ Council is up to. The whole point about a PR apparatus is not that it can successfully lie to the outside world, for it very seldom can; they are hired to lie to their employers. Still, anyone has to admire the favourable publicity about the recruitment campaign for priests. The claim that the number of ordinands are rising is prominent in all these stories. You have to read several paragraphs in to discover that this means the number of stipendiary priests is shrinking more slowly than it would otherwise do.

But this should be read in conjunction with two Sunday paper stories, one of which shows what real marketing people think of the Church of England. The PR company hired by the Millennium Dome had approached Lambeth, the Sunday Telegraph reported, and demanded £50,000 to become "the preferred religious partner" in the Dome’s souvenir brochure The threat, suggested, but perhaps never made, was that the advertisements would be offered to the Scientologists instead if the Church did not cough up. The PR firm in question has since been sacked but it is a nice illustration of what is really happening to the church in the market place, though I suppose you could read it as an example of how much better value the church can get for £20,000 by holding a press conference when there is nothing else happening at the Synod.

The second illuminating stoty was a huge payoff for the Morgan method of simply ringing every diocese in the country with an embarrassing question. The Sunday Times had got hold of the attendance figures for three rural diocese, despite the best efforts of Dr Beaver, 31% drop in two years in Exeter, 18% in Ely and about 10% in Salisbury were reported, along with a 3.7% drop in Manchester. "But there are indications that the diocese could face a bigger fall in figures for the past year" Morgan added optimistically.

For once, my sympathies are entirely with him. Concealing the attendance figures is a scandalous policy. The official excuse is that falling numbers every Sunday conceal much greater numbers of people coming less often. In an extreme case this would allow an attendance of a thousand every Sunday actually to represent four thousand people each attending one Sunday a month. But there’s no evidence whatever that this is actually happening; and in two years of concealing the figures it would have been easy enough to do the research that would prove the official view. Morgan’s lead was that "the Church of England’s attendance figures have fallen so sharply that less than 2% of the population now worships at church every Sunday and only 1% regularly take communion". Elsewhere he cites a statistician’s guesstimate of 480,000 regular communicants. The press department can choose between producing some hard evidence to suggest him wrong and finding some new spin. Perhaps they should explain that the new Church of England is so intimate an organisation that the Archbishop of Canterbury will soon know what every single member believes is the animal which most resembles it.

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