Press Column Saturday 10 June 2000

It is touching and almost tragic to watch a spider which has dropped into a void in the hope that somewhere down there will be something to which it can anchor its web. It whizzes down its thread as usual until suddenly it realises that there is nothing to spin on; and hangs, spinning wildly in the void, all its arms and legs folded defensively. The sight can melt the most arachnophobic heart; and for those of us who actually feel affection both for spiders and even some spin doctors, it was grim to watch the travails of the communications department when the story emerged that the Archbishop of Canterbury had been privately seeing Camilla Parker Bowles.

Their difficulties were two-fold. Firstly, I don’t think the press officers knew what had been happening. This is pure speculation, as they say; but I can think of at least one other thing done by Dr Carey recently that the spin doctorate cannot have known about and approved in advance: the speech in Texas where he mentioned his son Mark’s difficulties adopting children. Dr Beaver then had the job of explaining that even though this was in a speech the Archbishop had undoubtedly written and delivered, it was a private story which the newspapers should not touch. Not all believed him. Why should they?

The second difficulty is that the story undoubtedly came from the royal camp and the church spinners were on the defensive all the time. That is not to say that Camilla was the initiator of these contacts. On the contrary: everything suggests that it was not her idea "Dr Carey .. is keen to keep himself informed of the Prince’s friendship with Mrs Parker Bowles" according to Robert Hardman in the Daily Telegraph who is usually a reliable mouthpiece for what Charles’ party wants known. This version of the story had six meetings, some taking place at Lambeth Palace: Lambeth said afterwards there had been fewer, and none at Lambeth. The Daily Mail went rather further in distancing Camilla from the idea: "according to friends, Camilla was ‘astonished’ when she was contacted by a local parish priest who was acting as intermediary for the Archbishop … It is understood that the first encounter was ‘perfectly friendly’ but Camilla was surprised when Dr Carey suggested meeting again. ‘She has regarded the Archbishop ever since with a degree of bewilderment’ a friend revealed."

This would ring true even if one of the bylines on the story were not Richard Kay’s, who was extraordinarily close to Diana when she was alive, and who wrote lower down the story "During the final turbulent months of the Prince’s marriage, he had sought to counsel both Charles and Diana. The Princess, however, had no wish to discuss what she viewed as a personal tragedy with Dr Carey, whom she barely knew."

None of this explains what he thinks he is doing with Camilla: it might be argued that the Archbishop of Canterbury has a pastoral responsibility to the Princess of Wales ex officio but there’s nothing in the constitution about his relationship to the royal mistress. One explanation is that he is just curious about his woman, and in a better position than most to gratify his curiosity. But such frivolity would be out of character. The only other explanation, though, is that he is determined to marry the couple if the opportunity arises. This would make sense. This is far more consistent with his character.

The difficulty with this is that everyone lies all the time about royal marriages. The present PR offensive is clearly understood by all concerned as a way of sounding out public opinion: at Lambeth they have already drafted the form letter which will go out if people write in to complain. But there is no point in sounding out public opinion if the couple do not intend to marry at the end of it. Indeed, by the standards of all the earlier lies about the Prince’s matrimonial affairs, the denial quoted in the Daily Mail: "There are no plans to marry" could be made more transparent only by the words "At the present moment". So we ought to praise the Archbishop for his foresight in trying to position himself so that he could at least bless the inevitable; but few people will do so because it is so much more fun to observe the comic effect when he and his staff pretend that he has a choice in the matter. The central fact —that Dr Carey has grasped and tried to act on — is that the couple can legally and practically get married without worrying about anyone’s blessing but the mother-in-law’s. They could go to Scotland, or they could simply find another bishop. The most interesting detail in all these stories was the revelation that an un-named bishop had given communion to both Charles and Camilla at Highgrove. Could this have anything to do with Richard Chartres’ denial that he has ever spent the night there?

Of course it is entirely possible that the couple, now entering their Fifties, have taken up church going for its health benefits. The Sunday Times went to town on a report form America showing that religious practice was a good predictor of health. This is a pretty well-established effect; but the study reported this week was the largest and most comprehensive yet. But what makes them really interesting is that no one knows why it works. The results are equally disconcerting for the atheist as for the thoughtful believer, because the beneficial effects of belief and religious practice seem entirely independent of the content of these beliefs or practices. The American studies included not only Christians but Muslims and Buddhists too. The best secular explanations had to do with religion as promoting temperance and low blood pressure. This works until you look at the really popular religions of the world. As Kieran Conry, of the Catholic Media Office, told the Observer, "I’m sceptical of the idea that this phenomenon may be down to a puritanical lifestyle. Anyone who has been to an Irish Catholic wedding, or to a clergy conference for that matter, will know that there’s no hesitation in the Church towards seeing alcohol as one of God’s gifts."

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