Press Column

There can’t be anyone alive who has read so many of his own obituaries as Cardinal Hume. That makes it no pleasure to write them. I don’t suppose there is a single journalist who did not feel a disappointment sharp as a snake’s tooth at the news that the Cardinal was dying. The reasons for this are distressingly unprofessional. We like him, we admire him, and we look forward to time spent in his company. These are not qualities which translate well into news writing. It’s extraordinarily hard to write an obituary that praises justly someone who is dead; but when your subject is still alive it’s impossible; and the only sort that comes off the keyboard easily is designed to bury the victim.

The Cardinal is a specially difficult case, because he inspires private feelings in his public capacity, and these are notoriously inexpressible. It is especially difficult with a man whose private or at least personal virtues have had such a huge effect on the way his performance is judged. In a way, Hume’s performance has been a test of what one might call the Widdecombe theory of church decline: that if only the traditional, orthodox position were clearly put, people would flock into church. Well, traditional, authoritarian Christianity could not be more attractively embodied or presented than by the Cardinal, yet the Church he leads has lost members at least as fast as the supposedly liberal and wimpish Church of England. Of course no one holds this against him. One might say that he has gained in stature with every Catholic who lapsed; this perhaps tells us more about the English attitude to spiritual leaders than it does about the truths of Christianity: as far as the newspapers are concerned, the ultimate spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, whose immense authority arises from the fact that he has only a couple of thousand followers in the whole of Europe.

Of course, things could have been very much worse for the Catholic church in this country. A man with less charm, subtlety, and transparent holiness might well have found his church embroiled in the sort of civil wars that wage elsewhere. But these are difficult qualities to convey in an anecdote so it was tempting for premature obituarists to take the cheap way out and simply compare him with George Carey. Only the Sunday Times carried this to the point of asserting that Carey was dying too ("The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, who is himself suffering from cancer," …).

On Sunday morning I rang Lambeth Palace to ask if anyone else had been ringing them about this throwaway line and the switchboard thought it was hysterically funny. Of course, with all the Sunday papers in front of me, and six of them reproducing the PA copy that mentioned that Robert Runcie has had cancer for the last five years, while only one got the wrong Archbishop of Canterbury, it was easy to see what had happened. But for Sunday Times readers who don’t see other papers, and who, perhaps, don’t know that press agencies exist, there is always a temptation to believe what they read in the paper, and sure enough 20 or so rang the central Church of England press office to discover if it was true.

Of the tributes that actually were published the most touching, I thought, was Clifford Longley’s, in the Daily Telegraph. He had the perfect anecdote, about Basil asking a dying patient in hospital to pray for him, rather than offering to pray for her, because, he told her, "the prayers of the dying are especially precious to God, because they will soon be in His presence."

Longley pointed out that only someone who transparently believes that from the bottom of his heart could have got away with it…. The Cardinal was raising to inestimable value someone whose life, in all honesty, had become no longer important to the world or to the health service." But he couldn’t resist either drawing the obvious comparison: "How much more effective the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement on Saturday would have been if, instead of promising to pray for the Cardinal, he had asked the Cardinal to pray for him."

Michael Brown, in the Yorkshire Post managed to lead with a local angle on the news: "It was in Leeds 20 long years ago that Michael Marshall then Bishop of Woolwich astonished Anglicans by publicly declaring that the spiritual leadership of the country had passed over the Thames from Lambeth Palace .. to Archbishop’s House., Westminster" though he was sadly unable to locate either of these buildings in Yorkshire. But there was lots about Ampleforth. . Only Hugo Young, in the Observer, managed to praise the Cardinal without mentioning any Archbishop of Canterbury at all or even, so far as I could tell, Yorkshire.

On trivial matters, the News of the World had another go at the Jesus Army. I liked this because not only did "News of the World investigators uncover a sickening catalogue of depravity that will rock the devout organisation to its core" but they seem to have done so without leaving the White Elephant in Northampton.. Almost the whole story consisted of drunken confessions made in a local bar: "’I tried it on with her in a the potato field first,’ he leered …’she’s the first virgin I have ever done and she was amazing’."

There was also a transvestite "I have been to church meetings wearing women’s clothes. Once I wore a pair of tight grey bell-bottom pants, a boob tube and a fluffy white coat" and a rather pathetic drunk. these last two were photographed hugging each other though whether from affection, lust, or simply to prop each other up was not clear. At least it makes a change from all the stories alleging that the whole thing is a brutally authoritarian concentration camp where no one is allowed to have sex, drink, or think for themselves. But the moral is clear. The next time you are approached by a woman in tight grey bell-bottom pants, a boob tube and a fluffy white coat who wants to tell you about Jesus, tell her straight off that you know she’s a man.

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