Press Column

They called her Attila the Nun, according to the headline on the Guardianís long feature on Miriam Byrne; but the passage that really caught my eye was this: "Over the past 18 months the row surrounding Britainís most senior woman priest has escalated into a drama of boycotts. Sackings accusations of bribery, anonymous benefactors and court proceedings. Now it teeters on the verge of an unholy apex." At first sight the last sentence looks like a transposition. "Verges on the apex of an unholy teeter" doesnít sound right either. Perhaps he meant "teeters on the apex of an unholy verger"? No: wrong cathedral scandal.

Of course most of the nunnery stuff this week was about Lavinia Byrne. She hasnít spoken to me since I checked out a story I had heard about her and William Oddie, the editor of the Catholic Herald. She said it was very sad that people should tell such stories about him ó he was supposed to have refused a phone call from her with a notable lack of ambiguity ó and very sad that I should believe them. In any case, she had never rung the Catholic Herald, and so could not possibly have been the recipient of the remark I was enquiring about. Still, she talked to everyone else in the business. In the forty eight hours after her resignation, she had talked to "every televisions station, on the radio and every national newspaper" according to Victoria Combe, in the Daily Telegraph, who added "When I telephoned she had two television crews waiting in her flat in Cambridge." She herself managed to snatch a quick word in the lobby of Broadcasting House. All this is understandable, since the life of a freelance religious writer and broadcaster is conducive to poverty and chastity if not obedience. Fame or at least publicity is the only way to pay the bills.

She is a very accomplished performer, too: a much better than poor old Dr Carey, whose performance at the millennium dome got uniformly bad reviews. A friend of mine who was present in a professional capacity said "He was so nervous youíd have thought Jesus was sitting three seats behind." Clifford Longley, who had for some years been observing a self-denying ordinance about criticising the Archbishop seems to have been released from it by the new century: "It was a gamble. Inappropriately timed religious solemnity can easily turn into the bathos of casting pearls before swine. That in my view is what happened. I and many others found it distressing to watch."

Of course most people did not watch at all. I was in the Dome about a fortnight later, and found it deliciously empty and calm. The huge, yet curiously delicate space, dwarfing and silencing the very few visitors, was strangely reminiscent of a Cathedral: the only thing to detract from the atmosphere of reflective tranquillity was the Faith Zone. I know that in theory Hell is worse than all possible earthly suffering and infinitely prolonged as well, but it cannot be much more banal than the Faith Zone is already.

Perhaps this is why a report in the Independent on Sunday claiming that there was a revival in cathedral attendance figures (surely nothing to do with the appearance of a television programme on Winchester Cathedral presented by Janet Street Porter) quoted someone from Wells Cathedral as saying there were so many visitors over Christmas that they feared for the prayerful atmosphere there. Presumably the answer is to turn the Dome over entirely to the Church of England, and move the Zones, or at least the Faith Zone, to a cathedral which already functions as a tourist attraction.

The new cathedral zone should definitely have, as its collection of sacred art, all of the objects in which the face of Jesus, or the name of God, have been found over the years. Last weekís was the tinfoil round a steak and kidney pudding, found by a dinner lady who told the Sun: "It must be a sign from above. Two weeks ago I saw a friend I hadnít seen for years who is a born-again Christian so perhaps that has something to do with it." The paper reproduced the kerygmatic foil wrapper under the headline "Jesus Crust".

Rome is a wonderful city. There is hardly anything more agreeable in the life of a journalist than a posting there. This fact should be borne in mind when reading about the Pope. He is ill. He has been for years. But no journalist really knows how ill, and no journalist really knows whether he is considering retirement. Above all no one at all ó whether journalist or Cardinal ó has any clear idea who his successor will be. So the volume of stories on this topic has no particular relationship to the news and more to the feeling that it is necessary to have experts on the subject around. Rory Carrollís piece in the Observer was a particularly fine illustration of this, using as its peg a rumour exotic even by Vatican standards: that the Pope is using his acting skills to exaggerate his sickness so as to wrongfoot possible opponents.

I liked the quote from "a senior Vatican official" with which he knocked the rumour down: "Itís total nonsense: the man is clearly very very ill, but nothing in this place is ever said without a reason. Even if it is just to kick up dust, it benefits the one who does it by confusing those who donít know where it comes from." Italian politics is full of this sort of justification for gossip, as any book about the Mafia will tell you; yet itís all obviously nonsense. Grown ups tell these whopping fibs ó sorry, pass on informed speculation ó for the same reason as children do: because they are more interesting than the truth, and because it is fun for its own sake.

The first gay row of the century came form Scotland, where Cardinal Winning has been joined in his campaign to preserve Section 28 by Brian Souter, the founder of Stagecoach, the bus company. It must put Richard Kirker in a difficult position. The traditional progressive response to an obnoxious businessman is a boycott. But itís no use calling for a boycott of Stagecoach since nobody who has any choice in the matter would use their busses in the first place, and the people who must use them are unlikely to be receptive to LGCMís propaganda. Yet how else to put pressure on the company? I suggest that he reverse these tactics, and call on all his most flamboyant members to use the buses every chance they get until Souter repents. Boycotts are so twentieth century.

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