Press Column

Disestablishment is the perfect Sunday paper story, in as much as there is never any news in it. All that you can get is a "scoop of interpretation" which dramatises facts already well-known — and there will be an unending supply of these so long as the gap remains so wide between what the grown-ups say in private and what the children are permitted to hear.

The essential facts of the story are simple: hardly anyone either in synod or parliament any longer believes in the two most important parts of establishment any more: the essential Protestantism of the English monarchy, and the connection between the bishops and the House of Lords, and so between the Synod and parliament. Both of these are going to be forcibly revised in the next decades; but in both cases inadvertently, so to say, as a result of the reform of the House of Lords, or of the necessity to come up with a new coronation oath. In neither case is establishment the main target of these efforts.

As I say, these facts are known to everybody who has thought about the subject for more than five seconds — which means everyone with an interest in it except the General Synod, which, when last asked to discuss the matter, acted with rare decisiveness and virtual unanimity by plunging its head into the nearest bucket of sand. This is a reasonable defence against the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a beast so stupid that it believes if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. But the synod is up against enemies even more formidable than anything found in the hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy..

The Independent on Sunday had a huge spread on disestablishment this week which was notable for concluding that it wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t what it was meant to say. The whole thing had obviously been set up to provide a dramatic assertion that disestablishment was inevitable and imminent: there was a two-page spread, a leader, and an essay from David Jenkins. But what the news piece actually said was no more than "Both courtiers and clergy now agree that a loosening of ties between church and state is now ‘inevitable’ in the medium to long term. Insiders talk in New Labour language of a ‘third way’ between establishment and disestablishment, with the link weakened but still intact.". Well, hold the front page!

The Daily Telegraph had a leader the next day, and a news piece which quoted a statement for Lambeth Palace: "The Queen is in excellent health. There will come a time to consider the future coronation arrangements but that time has not yet arrived." Perfectly standard Bugblatter beast evasion tactics — but still a little surprising when you remember that the meat of the Sindie story was that Dr Hope had been chairing discussions on this subject for a year now.

It was notable that the Sindie piece was written by Rachel Sylvester, the political correspondent, who presumably talks to the people who might be in the driving seat of the process. The key view here, is presumably that of Baroness Jay, who has "made clear that she would like to see Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Roman Catholic leaders sitting alongside Anglican bishops in the new upper chamber." As far as I know, this has also been the position of the Church of England at least since the Chadwick Committee reported in 1969. But it was scuppered then and since by the refusal of the Catholic bishops to have anything to do with such a scheme. The really interesting story would be to find if there has been any weakening of that line. But no one has got it yet. Clifford Longley, though, reported on Friday a rumour that the Anglicans are being offered twelve bishops in the House of Lords.

There was a lot more fun in the interview that Lord Runcie gave to Sabine Durrant in the Guardian. Why her? Because they met at a Private Eye lunch is one answer. Her article suggested another "He is in a mischievous mood. He has declined appearances on Have I got News for You and other profiles, but agreed to this interview, seeming to like the fact that it might irritate religious correspondents whom he has recently turned down."

Most of the mischief was under control, though the choice of an outsider to interview him meant that she missed what seemed quite barbed to me: "He was tact itself on the current incumbent at Canterbury … ‘People who haven’t got a sense of humour shouldn’t ever be put in charge’." I imagine that the producers of Have I got News for You can hardly wait their chance to get Dr Carey on the show.

Some of it would have made a tremendous story a year or two ago: he told Sabine Durrant that everything he had said to Humphrey Carpenter abut Diana was true (that she was "an actress and a schemer" amongst other things). The fact that there were no whoops and squeals of outrage suggests that the cult is guttering fast. If an Archbishop had blasphemed against Diana last autumn it would have been a really tremendous story.

But it was a nicely done interview, concluding with a perfect anecdote: " I was on the tube recently, and one of those characters got on with a guitar. And he said ‘It is not I who sings, it is the voice of God through me.’ And the man sitting opposite me said. ‘Dr Runcie, you are the only man capable of saving this character.’ I don’t know what he thought I was gong to do, whether I should denounce him, or something. But I’m afraid I said, ‘I’m getting out at the next station’."

There was, however, a horrible throwaway line that he has prostrate cancer. I hope he can stay on our train for a few stations longer.

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