Press Column Saturday 08 July 2000

The Times doesnít really do dirty vicar stories; but a dirty top vicar story is something else altogether. Or should that be dirty TOP VICAR? When the unfortunate Neil Follett was forced to leave his parish in Knightsbridge the paper not only put him on the front page, with a huge photograph but published inside a map of his parish, helpfully identified as "top peopleís parish". Ruth Gledhill simply carpet-bombed the story: there was even an account of the vicarage: "four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a dining room that can comfortably seat ten Ö has two sitting rooms, one with French windows opening to the garden." Another reporter had been sent to do a vox pop at the garden party, which produced two beautiful glimpses of London parish life: the first from a former churchwarden: "People here are not prejudiced; we are not bothered about his sexual preferences; it was not an issue" and the second from "a retired fashion agent" ó that means sheís no longer licensed to frill ó who said "We turned down some very nice bachelors from him to get the job. I think we all felt a bit deceived."

Like Ruth, I knew Neil Follett faintly from a mailing list and wish him well wherever he now is. The only really enjoyable part of the story was that it appeared the same day as Clifford Longley devoted his weekly Telegraph column to the idea that the blackmail of prominent homosexuals was a liberal myth.

The other truly notable Gledhill story of the week was buried deep in Mondayís paper: Sunday attendance in the Church of England has fallen to its lowest levels wince records began .. on average, barely 800,000 people now attend services in the established Church on Sundays." No one else seems to have thought this was news at all, which is a pity, for it missed the magnificent response of "a spokesman" to the figures: "We do not believe them". So thatís all right, then.

Further evidence of unbelief from Portugal, where the Times had a nice report on the fallout from the Third Secret of Fatima being revealed in all its mysterious banality. "Dismayed, cheated and betrayed, that is how many people feel" said one newspaper; but the most savage remarks came from Catholic priests. Bishop Januario Torgal asked "If the Vatican knew that it was not apocalyptic, why on earth did it only make it public now?" This shows a certain lack of imagination. Isnít the text of the vision exactly the kind of thing that any press officer or even Pope would feel was better revealed by his successor? But there is once more a slightly ambiguous element to all this: the photograph that accompanied the piece, of two pilgrims to the shrine, their faces battered and full of hope and suffering, was wonderful, and far more revealing of the human spirit than all the stereotyped pictures of people swamped by their emotion that fill the papers.

If the Times does top vicars, the Sun prefers the topless ones. This week they had one with a fifty inch chest, wearing only a dog collar; from a picture editorís point of view, there is only one thing wrong with the caption they were able to put on it "Vicar Keith Bruton peeled off his clerical robes yesterday ó and showed off his heavenly body." But until they find a woman priest who is into body building, the Revíd Keith "Heaven can weight" Bruton will have to do. "Uplifting .. Keith in his robes" was also rather fun, though I was puzzled by the information that "he found God during a church trip to Israel with wife Mary, 49." What was he doing on a church trip to Israel if he hadnít found God, or vice versa? It is not, so far as I know, the normal resort of recreational weightlifters.

The Guardianís contribution to dodgy membership figures was a survey from the University of Newcastle suggesting that there are 50,000 witches in the UK. Anita Chaudhuri had a brave stab at usual story about witchcraft, and certainly got sme very funny quotes out of some unusual suspects. "Iím not sure if Harry Potter is a good thing, says Sally Taylor, a third generation witch who has read the books: it makes magic seem too simplicistic." She also found the author of the Good Spell Book, which contains "spells for avoiding divorce, dieting, finding a job, and winning the lottery": logically enough, she asked why she had not won the lottery herself and retired. The witch replied "A spell is like a driving test. They donít always work first time around. You need perseverance." So thatís all right, too.

Contrasting financial stories, from Moscow and Paris. Something called "The Centre for Research on Extralegal Economic Systems" has been looking at the Orthodox Church; according to the Daily Telegraph, "The Church has developed huge business interests with an annual turnover of millions and possibly billions of pounds, but priests in rural areas are languishing in poverty. " Curiously enough, Chris Morgan had a very similar piece in the Sunday Times , about the Church of England. But he did not go on to describe the Church Commissioners as "a grandiose offshore zone with its own independent financial and manufacturing activity and huge potential for money-laundering." Apparently one popular scam is for the mafia to make a large donation to a monastery, which then takes a cut and returns the rest.

So it made a pleasant change to read in the Guardian of some French nuns who had decided to overcome the shortage of vocations not by nun-running from the third world but by playing the stock market so they could afford to look after their elderly sisters. The whole thing was started by Sister Nicole, a trained accountant who had joined the Order of Notre Dame; and then set up the first ethical investment fund in France. With £15m to invest, they are able to ask all sorts of embarrassing questions and have them answered. Nor are their ethics entirely predictable: you have to admire anyone who will drop a pet food company from their portfolio on the grounds that feeding humans is more important.

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