Press Column Saturday 21 October 2000

New Era, the magazine for divorced women, has had to change its name even before being launched, after the discovery that there is already a magazine with that title: it is aimed at Mormon teenagers. There’s not much that could follow that story, but the Sunday People made a valiant effort with the discovery of yet another of Diana’s confidants, this one a former curate of St Mary Abbots, who told them she had asked him to marry her and Dodi. Fr Frank Gelli. "a confidant of MPs and top businessmen during his eight years in Kensington … broke his three-year silence yesterday to reveal how Princess Diana confessed her love for Dodi Fayed — and was going to marry him."

Well, actually the quote didn’t quite stand that up. "She p[opped into my house on the way from the gym. She wanted to know if it was possible for two people from different religions to marry. I told her it was As we spoke, her mobile rang. It was obviously Dodi — her eyes lit up. As she was leaving, she asked if I would be willing to perform the service when she got married. She laughed and I thought she was joking."

Of such things are legends made. The People also had a story about Ann Widdecombe’s nephew, Sean, the son of Canon Malcolm Widdecombe, the stern Bristol evangelical. He has had a fairly miserable life, smoking dope from the age of fourteen despite a pretty biblical upbringing: "When I was really bad, my dad gave me the slipper; and even though he barely tapped me he’d hate that so much that he’d end up giving me a hug. He was not at fault. He just loved me, like most parents. Mum was stricter and when I was naughty she would whack me with a wooden spoon if she could catch me." He finally served six months in jail for a mixture of street fighting and driving offences, where his cellmate boasted of what a soft touch the vicars in Bristol were, including "the soft old ****" at St Pip’s. "I didn’t say a thing. I got off my bunk and I punched him as hard as I could. Then I told him it was my dad. He was good enough to tell the prison officer that he had fallen and banged his head." In that context "good enough" is a remarkable guarantee that the quotes are real: the perfect touch of Buchanesqe behaviour expected of a gentleman fallen among thieves. At least he got out a few days before his aunt, as prison minister, was due to visit the place. For a man who had just been ambushed by a tabloid newspaper, he behaved with remarkable dignity and self-possession.

The story even had a quote from "a close friend of Ann" who explained that she never talked about her family publicly but she’s seen close up how her brother and his wife have suffered through Sean’s problems."

Stephen Bates got a splash in the Guardian with a story dimly related to this: that the Queen had wanted to pray with the Pope when she visited Rome, but this had been ruled out by Protestant, rather than Catholic objections. "It is understood from senior sources involved in the organising the visit that the plan for private prayers was supported by both Buckingham Palace and the Vatican, but was dropped following fears that it would annoy extreme Protestants and Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England and re-open sensitivities concerning the Queen’s role as head of the established church." I must say I find the given reasons odd. I don’t doubt the broad truth story, because I trust Bates. But why on earth should the Queen, or anyone else, worry about offending the sensibilities of the English Churchman. I suspect this is another example of the curious invisibility of Northern Irish religion in the English mind. If there’s one place where the Queen kneeling to pray with the Pope would be understood as profoundly symbolic, rather than as a piece of superficial diplomacy, it is Belfast. Of course it would madden the Paisleyites but that’s not the only reason it would be a magnificent gesture.

Christopher Morgan got a shared byline on a rather fun story in the Scottish editions of the Sunday Times which claimed that Richard Holloway would follow his retirement — on Halloween — with an appointment as a regular preacher at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. Well, what it actualy said was that he has been invited to join the staff there, but this turns out to amounting to preaching and conducting the odd service ("occasional" can’t be the right word). This contained one of the nicest journalistic uses of "famous", in its technical meaning of "completely unknown", that I have seen for a while. The cathedral, they said, is "Famous for an incident in 1637 when Jenny Geddes threw a stool at a minister who tused an Anglican prayer book, screeching ‘Deil colic the wame o’ye!’," complete with a translation of the last phrase.

Still, at least it was news, unlike the Sunday Telegraph’s report on the Meadows review of episcopal expenses, which contained everything you might want to know about the committeee except the fact that it was et up two years ago, and that it specifically said it would not look at the sale of Bishops’ palaces, which it is supposed to be recommending. It did, however, contain right at the cbottom what I hope is a notable and promising scoop: that starting next year the bishops will publish "full details" of the their working costs. At the very least this will allow us to see who is spending more than £3000 a year on their mobile phones and who it is who is only spending £40 a year on entertainment. Guessing the most expensive bishop is a rather tedious prize, but I will reward with undying fame any reader who correctly identifies in advance of the report Britain’s least entertaining bishop.

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