Press Column Saturday 01 May 1999

About twelve years ago, when Derek Watson was running St Luke’s Chelsea, and I was engaged to the editor of his parish magazine, we all went out, with his wife, for one of the most uncomfortable meals of my life. Embarrassment was so thick around the table that you could have picked it up with chopsticks like a slug of beancurd. Yet as far as I know, we were all innocent of anything and trying to like each other. It was simply that he found it excruciatingly unpleasant to talk to a practising journalist and his anguish communicated itself to all of us. I wasn’t then trying to find out anything except what his job was like and why he did it. Instead, I discovered for the first time the way in which many priests look on journalists as ferrets, and themselves as rabbits. There’s plenty of evidence for both views. But few journalists enjoy being treated as a feral mustelid; if you must approach them like a rabbit shuddering towards a ferret, you will find their teeth on your throat in an eyeblink. It’s the only trick a we know.

Now that Derek Watson is Dean of Salisbury, he seems to have realised this; and Friday’s Times showed him dealing very competently with a potentially nasty story. The potential nastiness has nothing to do with the wrongs or rights of sacking 200 women catering volunteers, and asking them, instead, to do other things for the cathedral. It is simply that the press, after Lincoln and Westminster Abbey, is sensitised to any row in which a cathedral dean is involved, and assumes that he must be a Birtist tyrant. This was very much the assumption behind the main treatment of the story in the Times, by Tim Reid, in which "a loyal army of unpaid women workers" were "kicked out of the cloisters". Since this cathedral, too, is fighting a case for unfair dismissal after sacking the head of visitor services for gross misconduct, the pattern is clear enough.

What made the difference was Ruth Gledhill’s sidebar, putting the case for the defence. "Dean Watson is an imposing character who is popular with staff at the cathedral and has developed a reputation as a good listener. ‘He’s a Christian and loving sort of person’, one staff member said…. The difficulties he is facing in Salisbury derive less from his personality than from the need to equip an ancient institution for the new millennium." It was this sidebar, too, which claimed that the catering department, as run by volunteers, was making a loss whereas the paid professionals expect to make a profit. That may not be the primary purpose of a cathedral. But it is certainly germane when another complaint against the Dean is that he has sacked nine craftsmen because the cathedral can’t afford to pay them.

What happens when a Dean goes undefended was nicely illustrated by this week’s quote from Westminster Abbey, where an 81-year-old volunteer worker, Bertha Bernardiston, told the Sunday Telegraph "The Dean is a very evil influence. I think he would be an evil influence whatever he was doing. I would like him to be sent where he will be harmless because he is dangerous." There’s someone like that in every congregation. But only in Westminster does it get solemnly reported; and it has a cunulative effect even on people disposed to be sympathetic to Dr Carr. My wife said the other day that the chief general of NATO was in favour of ground troops in Kossovo, but what I heard was "Wesley Carr wants to invade" not "Wesley Clark"

Perhaps Dr Carr should imitate the action of the Pope, who was reported by both the Times and the Daily Telegraph to be hiring specially trained secret agents to protect him during the millennium celebrations. But of course the Pope’s trouble is that the lunatics are not all his enemies. Some have announced they are devout supporters. Sinead O’Connor, and Irish singer famous for tearing up his photograph live on American TV has now decided that she is, or wants to be, a Catholic priest named Sister Bernadette Marie. Michael Cox, the "bishop" who consecrated her is famous in Ireland for the 0898 lines on which the faithful can ring in for advice and absolution (Do the faithful have to recite their penances at 50p a minute, too? "That’ll be Fifteen Hail Marys, said very slowly indeed"). Both he and she deny that her gift of £150,000 to one of his projects in any way affected his discernment of her vocation.

The ceremony took place in a hotel in Lourdes: afterwards, she celebrated by dancing round the room to a reggae song called "Vampire Slayer" for twenty minutes. Powerful stuff, incense.

The oddest story of the week came in the Guardian , which had noticed that crowds of Muslims had been gathering in Maida Vale to hear a seven-year-old Iranian boy who last year memorised the entire text of the Koran. Mohammed Husayn Tabatabai seems quite unspoiled by this knowledge. He’s quoted as saying that he likes the attention it brings him; and there is a wonderfully charming photograph of him trying not to smile at the camera. As far as one can tell, he just loves the book and will lecture on it for forty minutes.

What I found odd, though, was that at the age of six he had been awarded a doctorate by the Hijaz Islamic College in Coventry for his mnemonic feat. "When presented with a moral problem, says his father, Sayyed Tabatabai, he can sift through thousands of verses in his head to select the exact one that answers it." The implication seems to be that there is no moral problem which is beyond the reach of this technique, and nothing in human life that is beyond the grasp of a really intelligent seven year old who has read the book with all the answers. I suppose that’s what fundamentalism means.

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