Press Column Saturday 09 September 2000

Quite the nastiest news of the week is that Clifford Longley has been sacked by the Daily Telegraph. His column this Friday will be the last. Itís a real loss to the paper, and by implication, to the business; though I disagree with him about practically everything, arguing with him has been a pleasure for as long as I have written about religion. It was more fun when he was a real journalist and made the lives of his rivals like me a misery. But as a columnist he has exemplified the idea that religion is something to argue about: it is a matter of ideas and verifiable assertions and not of feelings; and that is an understanding which is more and more replaced by horoscopes and feelings. When I started writing about the Church of England I was afraid that people would ask me if I knew God. No one was so tasteless. Instead, everyone asked me if I knew Clifford; even my editor would reproach me that the Pope read Longley instead of the Independent. Nowadays, of course, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury reads my columns, but if he did, he should at once take my advice and give Clifford an honorary doctorate as a gesture of practical ecumenism.

As usual, David Austin, the Guardianís pocket cartoonist, saves you the trouble of reading all the other papers: he has a priest and a nun, dressed in black. The priest is pointing at a distant spire: "turn left at the thing that looks like a church" he says. I donít think anything could better comment on the Catholic Media Officeís explanation to Ruth Gledhill of what exactly they mean by a church. "In common usage, of course, the Church of England is a proper church. But if you ask me whether the Church of England is a Church in the specific, theological sense, then we have to say Ďnoí and that is nothing new. But we are not going to stop calling the Church of England the Church of England." And then people wonder thy "theological" should come to be a term of abuse.

None the less, this was probably the best way to play a bad hand. The only alternative would have been to point out that thanks to the two integrities, large parts of the Church of England donít believe the others are a real church either, so the Holy Father is really agreeing with them in a deeply ecumenical way. But ó whatever its other advantages ó this approach wouldnít help with non-Anglicans, who also matter. This includes the people who arenít Christians at all; and that angle on the story was a genuine Gledhill scoop, after someone in Rome passed her a copy of Declaration Dominus Iesus, at about the same time as the Ratzinger letter denouncing the Church of England was released. The Times made it a splash; the Daily Telegraph, which had the "sister churches" story at length on an inside page contained a wonderful catch-up I later editions of the story: "A report in the Times newspaper said that the declaration Ö would state that followers of all non-Christian religions were gravely deficient Ö Should this prove correct the statements could cause grave offence."

Nothing, however, could rival the pompous contortions the paperís leader writer got himself into when trying to defend the document: "yet the effect of the Blessed Angelo Roncalliís aggiornamento has not been wholly positive Ö opening to others has carried with it the danger of relativism, the willingness to sacrifice the truth as revealed to the Church of Rome for the sake of good relations with those outside it Ö But the Church cannot be expected to deny the unique salvific mission of its founder, even if it finds rays of truth in the teaching of other faith." Further on, things get even weirder. The leader has used without explanation words like aggiornamento and "salvific", comprehensible only to those immersed in the jargon; yet when it uses a word most people more or less understand, "ecumenism", this gets a gloss which actually makes it harder to understand: "that striving to end ecclesial division." Either this was written by someone fished at random from an Opus Dei seminary, or it was the product of an experienced writer doing his impressive best to obfuscate.

I was wrong to assume that the case of the Siamese twins would not supply religious dissent. No sooner had my confident prediction appeared than Dr Longley devoted a Daily Telegraph to arguing that the parents were right to want both their twins to die, and their initial moral intuition should be respected. It was the more powerful because it started with an anecdote about a devout Catholic obstetrician killing at birth a hideously malformed baby, and feeling no guilt about his act. I suspect it had some influence on Cormacís curious performance on the Today programme, when he enunciated Catholic moral teaching without suggesting which way he thought the judges should jump. In the Daily Mail John Casey had a piece claiming that respect for life meant that the parentsí wish for their twins to die should be respected; the Daily Express had a rather cheaper jobbing intellectual arguing the other case. The Daily Telegraph had Theodore Dalrymple coming down narrowly in favour of the judgeís decision; but Deborah Orr, the Independent Ďs best columnist, was on the side of the parents. But this is still not really a religious divide. Itís just moral mazery, though of a very high order.

In all these huge stories, there was little coverage of the traditional dirty vicar stuff. The Yorkshire Post did nearly a page on the troubles of St Jamesís Wetherby, which merited five pars in the Daily Telegraph and nothing anywhere else. Ruth, fresh from telling off the Pope, managed to get the resignation of poor Neil Follett, too. But that story will only really come alive if the charges against his churchwardens come to court.

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