Press Column Saturday 15 July 2000

"One of the countryís most exclusive parishes" was what the Times called St Paulís, Knightsbridge. No jokes about membership figures here, thank you, although I have a friend in a city church who boasts heís so exclusive that he has only two parishioners left: one is the governor of the Bank of England and the other, his deputy. The raving snobbery that surrounds the Timesís treatment has done much to raise the gay top vicar blackmail story to a pitch of delicious farce. What could be more perfect than the arrest of one of the churchwardens who served his country as commander of HMS Yarmouth in the Cod War? It feels less like Agatha Christie than some demented version of Cluedo: you expect at any moment Ruth Gledhill to produce from her handbag a piece of paper on which has been scribbled the explanation of the whole confusing mess. It will be something like "The Revíd Poshtart, in the Vicarage, with professor Kung, watched by Wing Commander ĎRockí Cake". No other paper has gone after the story nearly as hard as the Times , and I doubt any will succeed who start now, since the parish canít be enjoying the publicity and can easily dry it up be refusing to talk to the press. Iím probably doing myself out of some work here with this advice, but people are entitled to a private life even in top London parishes.

At least no one had published love letters written by, to, or about Fr Follett: the Sun found a dirty topless vicar and was so excited by the story that it resurrected its religious affairs correspondent, a post which languishes unfilled like Draculaís coffin for generations. This time the victim was a 42-year-old married woman ordinand who fell in love with one of the prisoners she was ministering to. Sorry, Iíll read that again: it was "Cheating girl vicar had sex in pew while she listened to the sermon." Her love letters to him, as indiscreet and unpublishable as anybodyís could be, were excerpted all around a picture of her smiling, and partially wrapped in a sheet. The Sunday People, repeating the story, reprinted the photograph, only in their version the sheet had been photoshopped to cover the breast which the Sun had exposed. What makes the whole thing so gratuitously cruel and unpleasant is that the only news in the story was the discovery of these letters. The affair had been discovered a month ago. It was, then, a legitimate story. She was in a public position; her husband is a JP. She did wrong. But since then, everyone had been punished, guilty and innocent alike. The woman had been sacked, the marriage broken up, and the prisoner, a drug smuggler, refused parole. So there was no possible justification for publishing these letters but prurience. The People claimed "The letters highlight lax security". They donít. The man was on day release from an open prison when the affair was conducted. They highlight only the prurience and cruelty of the tabloid press and its readers who are reduced to the moral level of the criminals who sold the story: I suppose you might regard that as holding a mirror to society, but this is a mirror which its users believe is a window.

The Synodís communications department is considering how best to complain to the PCC. I hope they do so, not just for the sake of the victims this time, but to establish a general rule about opening old wounds to rub filth in them.

Female bishops got a huge amount of space in the paper, considering that all the stories made plain that nothing will happen about them for at least ten years. I suppose this is because the synodís vote at least looked like a decision. The rest of the agenda lacked any kind of newsy focus. You might have done something with the general haemorrhaging of money from the institution. The Times ignored it; the Guardian had a perfectly straight piece: "Parishioners urged to put 5% of take-home pay on plate" and the Telegraph had by far the best headline: "No flowers by request, says hard-up C of E." but over a very brief story. The Telegraph also had the most comprehensive coverage of the decline of the Church Urban Fund ó seven paragraphs. It also invented gave a unique spin to the clergy tribunals story. "Clergy would not face disciplinary action over any extreme political views they held. This was because criminal law already adequately covered offences such as incitement to racial hatred."

Itís pleasant to think of all those Nazi vicars breathing a sigh of relief as the Synod once more ignores them. Of course, they cannot compare as a persecuted minority with the transsexual women priests. A reader sends me a cutting from the Leicester Mercury where a columnist is fulminating about the Revíd Peter/Carol Stone. "There is, says, the Church, no legal, ethical, or moral objection to the clerical sex-swap. But what does it say about God? Doesnít it suggest that the Almighty has made rather a basic error here?

"If God has managed to get Peter Stoneís sex wrong, what else has he cocked up? Apparently, the Church prefers not to address the issue."

Obviously the columnist, George Tyndale, has failed to notice the Sunday Times exposing two women priests as transsexuals two years ago, and then repeating the story last year. The Independent had a long piece in its media section asking why nobody follows up Sunday Times exclusives any more (hereís a hint: theyíre not true). The paper had gone to Bill Beaver for a quote and got plenty. There is something so exquisite about Chris Morgan and Bill Beaver accusing each other of spinning that itís easy to overlook the important difference between them: when Dr Beaver finds some piece of evidence that doesnít fit his story, he announces "I donít believe it", whereas the Sunday Times can simply ignore its existence altogether, and does so.

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