Press Column Saturday 27 November 1999

The great thing about language is that it is so easy and rewarding to misunderstand. The Synod may have had substantial matters to discuss, but what the newspapers wanted was words in ancient languages: Greek if necessary, but Anglo-Saxon best of all. So far as I can see, the only thing that registered on the national consciousness about the Synodís view of homelessness was whether it was admissible to describe their lives as "shitty". The Church Times apparently missed the offending speech because it contained nothing else of interest. But to judge from the debate there is nothing else notable about the discussion.

At least it gave George Austin the opportunity for a letter to the Times "Some years ago, when I requested that the chairman rule a certain bishop out of order for using ĎGodí as an expletive, I was told that this was acceptable. Perhaps the synod is more put out by bad taste than blasphemy. Ms Langstaff must be careful not to quote Chaucerís exhortation to the clergy: "If a preest be foul, on whom we truste, No wonder is a lewed man to ruste; And shame it is, if a priest take keep, A shiten sheperde and a clene sheep."

It is possible to forgive George an awful lot for that, though I doubt somehow that the forgiveness will be mutual. Above him was a letter from the Chaplain of St Peterís College, Oxford: "To obscure the expression of concern about the proportion of black people in prison and the treatment of the mentally ill and socially deprived by fussing about Ďunsynodical languageí smacks of Ďstraining at a gnat and swallowing a camelí .. significantly this follows Jesusí denunciation of those who Ďhave neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faithí."

Ah, but which translation was he using? Most of the rest of the week was apparently devoted to demonstrating the simple rules of bible translation: if you can remember it, itís unfaithful; if itís faithful, you wish no one had ever told you. First there was the business about Ďtemptationí, an occasion to which the Independent duly sank. "Church of England in favour of temptation" read their headline, and the report concluded. "Traditionalists cited contemporary advertising campaigns such as the poster for Abbot Ale, which refers to Ďtemptationí as evidence that temptation is a far more familiar concept than trial."

Then Fridayís Times reports, written by an understudy, since the Synod clashed with an extremely important dancing competition, dealt first with eucharistic language "Church approves new prayer to God the mother" and then with "Praise for psalms with double entendres". As far as I know, the Times was the only paper that really spelt out all the unfortunate bits about "Those who go down to the sea in ships and down their business in great waters" or "Every night I drench my bedding and flood my bedclothes". It rather missed the back story, which is that all these unfortunate translations are American; and Americans are much better at polaying their parts whole-heartedly than the English, so would not notice any meanings out of character.

You may say all this is trivial, and unworthy of the deliberations of the Synod. Itís what got reported, though, along with the literally incomprehensible disputes about which English preposition should translate the Greek ek. That may have been neither trivial nor unworthy, but since it was impossible to attach a celar meaning to etiehr of the prepositions so bitterly disputed it didnít really do much for the Synodís image. The only non-linguistic stories where the photo-opportunity of Dr Carey laughing with Vasantha Gnananadoss and the debate on monks and nuns. This is guaranteed to be colourful if only because newspapers know that monks and nuns are all about sex. The only thing that matters about them is that they donít get it.

The Daily Telegraph had a fine photograph of two elderly nuns arranged in front of the crossed, bare legs of a synod member wearing a very short skirt. Considering how closely the photographers are penned at the General Synod, and how much they must struggle to get anything even remotely original, this must have given Eddie Mulholland, who took it, a great deal of satisfaction.

It is a terrible thing to doubt Authority. None the less, I sometimes wonder whether all the letters to the Daily Telegraph come from people who could be said, by a scrupulous realist philosopher, actually to exist. Consider this one. "Sir, You may be interested to know that at my villagesí parochial church councilís annual general meeting in March, I proposed, and it was passed unanimously, a motion that the Coronation Service should not be changed to allow other faiths or religions to take part on the next occasion it takes place. I have, from time to time, discussed this with clients of my country veterinary practice, all of whom wish to status quo to remain." Iíll bet. Look what he does to them if they argue. In North Essex too, if we get one of they constitutional reformers in the village, we just take him to the vet. But this letter is supposed to have come from Dorset. Can it be that it was written be someone too shy to put his problems before Anne Atkins, as hoaxers traditionally do?

The Sunday Times gossip column had a story saying that Viscountess Brentford is to be given a grace and favour cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace, from which a gardener has been evicted to make room for her. The facts are as reported: the story is apparently rather different. The gardener has been promoted, and has bought a flat outside the palace. There is a seething abyss of distrust between the Sunday Times and the official Church at the moment. I dare not try to navigate these waters. What remains as the indisputable truth is that nothing that happened in Synod last week seems to have caused anyone to exclaim "There is a God". People were in fact saying "There is a god!" all over the country, as they read their newspapers. But that was because of Jeffrey Archer.

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