Press Column Saturday 24 June 2000

When the Times agreed to serialise Lord Longfordís prison diaries, they were presumably hoping that heíd look a fool. But did he have to help them quite so much? Take this entry, for 1996: "Visited Frederick Linale, Archbishop in the Old Catholic Church who is serving ten yeas for two offences against a young man, including attempted buggery. Whether he erred through an excess of affection I do not wish to say. No one can question the strength of his religious belief. It seems incredible that he can have been given a ten-year prison sentence. We have had stimulating disagreements about women priests (I in favour, he against) and forgiveness. I have sent him my little book on the subject." Soon the Archbishop has become "my now-admired friend Father Fred": "Father Fred told me the sex-education psychologists were in effect accusing him of not repenting his crimes. Father Fred is full of fun and I am sure teased them to the point where they have sought their revenge."

Then there is "Des Nilsen", who killed and ate young men, "full of life and his own form of fun." Myra Hindley, "much happier than I ever remember her", and Ian Brady "wearing dark glasses and speaking with a Scottish accent, but he was still the same old Ian." One has the impression from these clippings that there is nothing a criminal could do which would in Longfordís eyes outweigh a willingness to talk to him. They do not even have to be famous: there is a Jamaican rapist, "I am ready to agree that he is probably innocent Ö [his victim] went to the police covered with scratches and torn drawers, which he insists were self-inflicted." Itís a real pleasure to find Longford thinks as well of Jonathan Aitken as he does of all the rest:: "He wakes at five every morning and spends the next two hours on prayer and Bible reading. So we all had a good religious confabulation. At the end, Jonathan delivered a wonderful prayer."

You could not improve, there, on "confabulation".

By the end of these diaries, there is only one person for whom it is possible to feel the least bit sorry. Normally I find her ridiculous and sinister by turns but surely she has done nothing to deserve appearing in these diaries alongside Father Fred, Des Nilsen, the same old Ian Brady and all, as "my new Catholic friend Ann Widdecombe".

Astonishingly, none of the people reporting on the Reverend Peter Stoneís decision to become a woman priest mentioned that there are already two women priests who started off as men, even though the Sunday Times has reported this twice. Ruth Gledhill, in the Times, mentioned rumours that one retired priest had gone through the same operation. By holding a press conference and doing the whole thing as openly as possible, the diocese seems to have averted much of the trouble that might have been expected. Even Margaret Brown seemed lost for words: "I think itís bad enough that a priest should be divorced once ó but to be divorced twice and then a sex change! Oh dear" she said to the Daily Mail.

The Evening Standard had a hagiographic profile of Nicky Gumbel, written in the voice of Deborah Ross: you know, the one that keeps interrupting the story to giggle in your ear "Iím just a ditsy Jewish girl ó Iím much too amusing to know anything anyone else." Even the voicemail at HTB appears miraculous to her: "An extraordinary thing is occurring just off the Brompton Road. I telephone the Holy Trinity Church five times in three days, and on four of these five occasions a computerised lady comes onto the line and says: 'I'm sorry. You're being held in a queue. If you know the extension number you require'."

When she gets on to the main course, her enthusiasm knows no bounds: "It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that Nicky Gumbel is single-handedly reviving the fortunes of the C of E. The Holy Trinity Brompton, a lovely-looking, large church just seconds down the road from Harrods, is full to brimming, so much so that a hundred of their parishioners have volunteered to pray in Hammersmith instead. Nicky Gumbel is turning the tide. Besides being Harrods' in-house chaplain, he has pioneered the Alpha Course. Ö. Privately, some of Nicky's admirers say that, within church circles, he is now more influential than the Archbishop of Canterbury. 'I'm not sure about that,' says Mark Ellsdon-Dew, Nicky's press man. 'But he certainly has more staff.'"

Neither she nor her photographer find themselves incredibly transformed but you canít have everything.

Still, the March for Jesus continued to grow. On the day, the organisers claimed 18,000 had gathered in Blackheath: at least one experienced journalist thought it was about half that. Four days later, David Curtis of the Ichthus Christian fellowship, wrote to the Times claiming that 30,000 had turned up; and on Friday another organiser was in the Church Times claiming 40,000. At this rate the whole country will have been converted by Christmas.

In High Wycombe even stranger things are happening. The Daily Express reported that Robert Chraniuk, 25, was feeling depressed in the flat he shares with his 19-year-old girlfreind Lindsey and their two-year-old daughter Kayley. So he bought four cans of lager and sat at the kitchen table, drinking when suddenly the face of the Messiah appeared to him in the grain of the wooden kitchen door. "Researcher Robert, who insists the pattern WASNíT there before, said yesterday "Itís a miracle. Iím thinking of charging five pounds a look."

Lindsey said: "It feels odd, with Jesusís eyes following me everywhere."

The other odd thing to happen this week is that Lesley Perry is leaving Lambeth Palace to work for the Vice Chancellorsí Association instead. This was not, she says, the result of any visit from Lord Longford. But she has been looking after George Careyís image for nine years; I really donít think anyone could have done better, and most people would have done a great deal worse. Perhaps Mark Elsdon Dew will apply.

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