Press Column Saturday 26 June 1999

There was only one religious story this week: the miraculous healing of Ruth Gledhill. In Saturday’s Times was an account of a healing service she had attended in Methodist Central Hall, where she answered the altar call: "The opening words of this service, about the damaging effects of deep-seated grudges, had called to mind a resentment that I have nurtured lovingly in my breast for many months.

"My heart was pounding but I went up, knelt down and asked for the laying on of hands to enable me to forgive the organisers of the press relations for last year's Lambeth Conference …" Apparently it almost worked: "The woman healer looked a little nonplussed but still she obliged … I had to ask for a tissue to dry my eyes and I have stopped planning my revenge for nine years' time." Quite. Why wait nine years, when you can put the story in next week’s paper? This is a story that tells us a great deal about everyone involved: I have never heard of political journalists requiring supernatural intervention to be healed from the ministrations of Alistair Campbell.

Otherwise, there was the harmless game of trying to identify the authors of the various obituaries of Cardinal Hume by the flaws they mentioned, like sunspots, in the midst of their praise. I dare no longer mention the name of Longley in the column, but I don’t think he wrote the Daily Telegraph’s. This mentioned that his "tightrope balancing act succeeded so well that it irritated some conservative Catholics, who felt that Hume occasionally managed to charm his way out of some quite serious errors of judgement — for example when he failed to act against school textbooks of dubious orthodoxy." The assault on these textbooks, and especially their author, a former nun named Clare Richards, was the especial care of William Oddie, who was quite fiercely slapped down by the Cardinal for his pains. So there’s one suspect. It’s certainly true that Dr Longley could never have referred to some of the bishops as "humourless and unprepossessing liberals"; so there is another eliminated. Yet I still don’t believe it was Oddie. The touch was too light, and the discussion of women priests quite without rancour and written by someone who did not know better than the Cardinal himself what he should have done.

On these grounds, my vote goes to Damian Thompson, especially as he is the only Catholic writer I know who could denounce the Pope for "rather histrionic anti-war statements"; and the Daily Telegraph is the only broadsheet paper which would print the judgement and regard an anti-war statement as a lapse of taste.

We know who wrote the Guardian’s obituaries, for they are signed. Both Hebblethwaites chipped in here, in a two part obituary, the first written by Peter before his own death, and the second half by his widow Margaret and up to date. It was odd to hear Peter being trenchant from beyond the grave. "He resembled very much Pope Paul VI, who had plucked him form the relative obscurity of Ampleforth Abbey The Pope liked Benedictines and told Hume, when he demurred at the appointment, that he was asking him to accept ‘the call of the Lord. That settled it." One had forgotten Peter’s strong sense of the Catholic church as a band of regiments, each with their own tradition and rather military style. Margaret is not a very regimented person. She did quote though one of the most wonderful archiepiscopal squelches I have ever seen: "Hume was able to make the unpromising positions emanating from Rome sound mildly plausible. Presenting the Pope’s controversial encyclical on moral questions, Veritatis Splendor, in 1993, he demolished the challenge of a young reporter on contraception by counter-challenging ‘Have you actually read Humanae Vitae?"

What made this silencer so effective was that it was directed at a television reporter who didn’t look as if she’d read any book that year, let alone a papal encyclical. She was simply assuming, in the manner of her kind, that everyone she speaks to must make obeisance to the prejudices of her audience. All that the Cardinal did was to show, for a moment, a flash of the schoolmaster, and to pretend that she was interested in the truth.

Still, the most telling anecdote came from Peter McKay’s gossip column in the Daily Mail, where a well-born Anglican asked the Cardinal if she could convert without all that tedious process of instruction and just be recognised as a Catholic. Certainly, he replied, but only if she was prepared to be martyred.

What makes a joke like that so brutally funny is that the Cardinal knew and cared about real suffering and the grinding poverty into which most people in the world. Sunday’s Independent carried a savage and moving piece from Paul Vallely about Third World debt, explaining why he had gone to demonstrate in Cologne outside the G8 meeting. He had been to Zambia where he had met a nurse called Alice, whose children are starving. "One of Alice’s neighbours, David, had a daughter who was sick. He could not take her to the clinic because he was, like most people in the shanty, unemployed, and he couldn’t afford the recently introduced hospital fees. What was his greatest worry? ‘That I won’t have the money to buy a coffin’ he said finally."

Opf all the thousands of words I must have read on this issue, these were the ones that really show what it is like to live in a world where young children may starve. It lies oddly on my desk next to a Daily Telegraph story about tithing the Church of England. "Robert Leach of Guildford diocese slaims that the Church pays more than £200,000 tax a year on bread and wine for Holy Communion. He said ‘ [tax changes] are costing the Church about £21m more each hear. This is enough to employ another 2,000 full-time clergy." Just what the world needs.

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