Press Column Saturday 25 November 2000

Tragically, I appear to have spent Synod week in northern California, where Alfred Arthur Sandoval has had his death sentence reversed by a Federal appeals court because of the prosecutor’s enthusiasm for the Bible. Sandoval killed four other men as part of a gang war in 1984; but the prosecutor did not confine himself to the nature of these crimes when pleading for the death penalty. He went on to say: "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God and those which are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God, and they who have opposed will receive condemnations upon themselves for rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviour, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise for the same for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid for it does not bear the sword for nothing for it is a minister of God an avenger who brings wrath upon one who practices evil.

"You are not playing God. You are doing what God says. This might be the only opportunity to wake him up. God will destroy the body to save the soul. Make him get himself right." Two things are noteworthy about this invitation: the first is that the jury swallowed it: the second is that the death sentence thus obtained stood for sixteen years before being overturned on appeal. All this happened in a country which has a constitutional separation of church and state. Here, by contrast, when the established Church meets in legislative session, it produces the following headlines in the Telegraph, which is , after all the most pro-establishment newspaper in the country: "Dressing-down move splits Anglican clergy", "Justice to be done at village church", "Queen says new liturgy adds to a long tradition", "Church is urged to challenge modish opinions", and "Queen to pray the Common way". Earth-shattering stuff, all right, though one has to admire the stately timelessness of "Church is urged to challenge modish opinions". Jonathan Petre’s story about the clergy dressing down was only two years old: the modish opinions headline could have been written every year since about 34.

There was also a story which mentioned God and the death penalty,— Victoria Combe’s interview with the swindling vicar of Stowmarket, the Rev’d Trevor Jones, who told her that waiting for sentence at Ipswich Crown Curt was "like being on Death row" — a remark about as accurate as his expenses claims. After getting two car loans from the Church Commissioners, which he spent on things without any wheels, mostly himself, and conning the treasurer and the handyman out of nearly £5,000 between them, he told Victoria, "I blame myself" — except that his mistake, he thought, was not being clever enough — "There never was any purposeful criminal activity, just stupidity. If they are handling out life sentences for stupidity, I should get it." Fortunately for him, he was only tried for the more common offences of fraud and obtaining services by deception, so he only got nine months instead of life. I thing the moral is that dog-collar crime counts as white-collar for sentencing purposes: as a young man, when charged with conspiracy to burgle, he got four years; though for subsequent offences of fraud, when working as a builder, he only got six years.

Th epursuit of jet lag stopped me from noticing something fun last week: The Sunday Times had something that was news and true — not, of course, a news story: it was an actual written apology one of Christopher Morgan’s stories. This was the one claiming that both Graham Dow, in Carlisle, and Anthony Russell, in Ely, had been imposed on a reluctant Crown Appointments Commission by Tony Blair: it also claimed that Dr Carey was attempting to settle Pete Broadbent on Chichester. His agent in this was supposed to be Gill Brentford, who has been a target of Christopher Morgan’s before, and is clearly an an enemy of someone with whom he lunches. The apology was short but unequivocal: the report was "inaccurate" — in fact everything of substance in it was withdrawn, and the paper apologised to Christopher Hill and Pete Broadbent for claiming that they had been turned down by anyone.

Three days later, Private Eye carried a short notice of another Sunday Times apology for a Morgan story (though I have been unable to track down the original online), though this one was more Royal than religious: it had claimed that Charles and Camilla were to marry in Scotland. The Eye story was garnished with as much inside detail as if it had been written by the man himself: "when the Morgan piece landed on the breakfast table at Windsor there was an explosion. Brenda demanded to know what Charles was up to; Charles recommended that he ‘see a shrink’ and the wretched Charles sent his private secretary off to investigate. Lamport soon established that no one had had contact with the Church of Scotland other than to arrange Charles’s visit to its general assembly as the Queen’s representative. It was the fact of this contact that gave Morgan the slender peg on which to hang his ‘story’."

So they did find a fact in it, after all. At this point, I am beginning to feel a little sorry for Chris Morgan. It is simply impossible to produce on a regular basis stories that will satisfy the Sunday Times’s demand for sensation and yet stay more or less believable to the outside world. If people are going to pick on everything he writes and demand apologies when they cannot be proved, someone is going to end up very miserable. So he had better hurry up and produce those two trans-sexual women priests whom he swears were male priests before re-ordination, or one might doubt even that wonderful scoop.

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