Press Column

I read the Pope’s apology coverage in Northern Ireland, where the local editions of all the British papers seemed to have his photograph on the front page, sometimes with odd results. Coming back to England, only the Daily Telegraph had the Pope on the front but the oddity remained: he was kneeling beneath a huge cross, bang next to a much larger headline about "Dobson faces attack over NHS ‘cronies’" so that I thought for a moment it was an illustration of Frank Dobson being crucified. It was a wonderful photograph, both as art and theatre, so you can see why people wanted it prominently displayed. But the story was too complicated and in its simplistic outline too well-known for the words to get as much space as they needed on the front.

The Telegraph’s inside coverage, too, was excellent. There was a nice mixture of quotations from what was actually said, explication, with examples, of each sin, from John Casey and a think piece, also by Casey, which really tried to address the question of what such a gesture might mean. This was one of the rare occasions in which the Telegraph’s theological coverage used language to make a nun blench: "St Bernard of Cluny wrote that female adornments ‘are but blood, mucus, and bile. If we refuse to touch dung and phlegm, even with a fingertip, how can we desire to embrace a sack of shit?’ " This is a quote difficult to resist, both because it is so offensive, but also because it is ridiculous: is refraining from picking your nose really the first step towards celibacy?

But Casey saw that the underlying problem it raised was why anyone should want to apologise for anything so stupid said a thousand years before. This is partly because the Pope really does see his church as one body, extending unbroken through the centuries, so that he is in some sense complicit in all the mistakes of the saints, just as he can partake of their perfection. But to outsiders, to whom this metaphysical continuity reflects nothing that exists outside the human mind, there is a difficulty that, as Casey said "The truth is that all men in the culture of their own time, and interpret Christianity accordingly. Similarly, religion in every age modifies itself (in the words of T.S. Eliot) into something which it is possible for the rational person to believe. The Pope is trying to separate the essential message of his Church from the cultural baggage with which it has so often been encrusted. Whether this turns out to be getting rid of a ball and chain, or more like stripping an onion, only time will tell. But it is a valiant attempt."

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum lies in the fact that the theatre is its own reward. The Church will not exactly make a new start as a result of this — Rupert Shortt, formerly of the Tablet had an op-ed piece in the Guardian pointing out with some asperity that a Pope who really repented of the sins of the past would not be beatifying Pius IX, whose Syllabus of Errors does more than either malt or Milton could to justify the rantings of the Rev’d Ian Paisley. But the spectacle, and the theatre, of the Pope begging forgiveness is an inspired sign of contradiction.

The confession of errors is not Dr Carey’s way. Only the Times and the Daily Telegraph reported his plans to reform the office of Archbishop of Canterbury, and both read them as attempts to become "An Anglican Pope" (the Telegraph) or "a mini-Pope in a mini-Vatican" (the Times). That is to say that both papers reported "fears" to this effect towards the top of the story, and denials right at the end. There is something funny going on, though. A couple of months ago, the Church Commissioners were saying that the cost to them of running Lambeth was about £1m a year. But in yesterday’s stories, they were refusing to put any figure on this except the deeply misleading one that Dr Carey is paid £53,570 a year. Of course it’s true, but it represents a fraction of the cost of his office. The journalists briefed for this story were bombarded with statistics about how far and how often he travels: sixty countries since 1991, 30 in 1998 alone. Since all this activity does not seem to have averted the various schism threatening the Church, it is obvious that the mistake is that he has not travelled enough.

The Times story was written as if GodCo was a proper company, and not a figment of a satirist’s imagination: "Dr Carey, who heads a worldwide Anglican Comunion of 70 million people with 800 bishops and archbishops and many thousands of priests, has a fraction of the resources available to a chairman or director of a company of comparable size." , but in Ruth’s defence, it should be said that the Archbishop presented the new committee exactly like a Chief Executive asking for more stock options: "The opportunity is to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury is immensely rewarding and challenging. One of my priorities is to seek that the Church and communion I lead are as effective and responsive as they can be on behalf of those they seek to serve" was the quote she had from him.

Chutzpah may not be quite the right word for Jonathan Aitken, but if there were an Arab equivalent it would surely apply to his defence of fundamentalist Islam in the Sunday Times. "To understand the commitment to Islam you have to go back to Tudor England. The Gulf is full of characters like Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More discussing obscure points in the prayer book, and people taking commissions to pass on to the poor, which the West might see as corrupt." It’s extraordinary how few people have understood that men like Adnan Kashoggi have amassed their incredible fortunes solely in order to pass them on to the poor.

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