Press Column Saturday 26 February 2000

Family values are a difficult and complicated thing. Most of the broadsheets reported this week from the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the murder rate in the USA has gone down partly as the result of the decline in marriage rates. Since most murders are domestic, one reliable way to reduce the murder rate is to reduce the number of married women. Itís not clear from the research as reported whether marriage brings a higher risk of murder than cohabitation; but I suppose it should, since it is harder to talk away from.

All this is by way of a throat-clearing preliminary to the whole question of morality in public life: the Archbishop of Canterbury is in favour of it, as most of the papers reported over the weekend. By this, almost all of them meant that he is against extramarital sex; and he certainly did mention the subject. "Expose MPs, says Archbishop" was the Observerís take on the matter; in the Daily Telegraph "Carey launches new attack on politicians who sin in private".

The second story is certainly justified. The first is harder to judge. It gave the Observer (which broke an embargo on the story) the opportunity for some heavy-handed leadering: "Right on Arch-Bish! Whatís the point of a spiritual leader if he doesnít occasionally poke his nose through the bedroom door and crack the disciplinary whip?" The fact that this question can be asked, even as a joke, in a traditionally intellectual paper, gives me some sympathy for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

What Dr Carey actually said in this context doesnít suggest to me that he was urging the media on in their investigations ó a singularly otiose task anyway. Nor does it offer specifically Christian standards of sexual morality. "The question has been asked often enough whether in the Churchís view sexual sins have any relevance to standards in public life. I do not believe they can be disregarded." So far bad news for Peter Mandelson, Nick Brown, Chris Smith, Robin Cook, the fornicating Gordon Brown, and numerous other politicians. But wait! He went on to be specific about his objection: "issues of deceit and betrayal are often involved and they are infectious. The question reasonably arises in the public mind, why should we have confidence in someone in public life who cannot be trusted not to cheat in their private life. The point is not just that bad private behaviour leaves the individual vulnerable (for instance to media intrusion), but that it undermines the respect that we need to have for politicians if theyíre to enjoy our confidence."

But if the only issue is deceit and betrayal, a male politician can clear it up by marrying his mistress or living with his boyfriend. That is what you might call the Ecusa solution, which in other contexts is not the morality Dr Carey is anxious to promote as Christian. Should he then be accused of inconsistency himself? I donít think so. On the contrary, he was speaking at the weekend like a politician, and using ambiguity to build the widest possible coalition behind his central point, which is that public policy cannot be totally amoral.

Most of his speech was devoted to this wider aspect of morality but only Libby Purves in the Times picked it up and ran with it. She had one of her more splendid rants about sex "Type out this miserable little word just once in a long speech and there is an explosion of interest, a swirl of scented fog, and all the non-genital complexities of life are forgotten. Itís enough to make you want to be an amoeba." She quoted most of his better points in extenso, too.

This was the first coverage of his speech in the Times, which had on Monday preferred a front page story staying that the Archbishop had decided to delay his retirement until at least 2003 at the request of the Queen. The story carried no sources at all, except for one unnamed "insider" who says that the Archbishop of Canterbury "moves in [the establishment world] as if born to it." But Iím inclined to believe it because Ruth Gledhill wouldnít write a story like that without a good, if quite unquotable source and I donít think the Times would print it without one either . The reaction from Lambeth was curious. They did not deny the story at first ó why on earth deny something that claims that the Archbishop "meets the Queen regularly for long chats over tea at Buckingham Palace Ö [she] is said to admire his honesty, faith, and steadfastness under attack."

They did say, when I asked, that the story had not come from them, and that the archbishop never commented on his own retirement date. Ruth said also that it hadnít and agreed to a description of the source as "semi-official". The careful reader will note that this says nothing about which, if any, palace was the origin of the story. However, when the Guardian ran a piece in which I said that "he has let it be known semi-officially that he will go on until 2003" Lambeth was quick to issue a rebuttal. This may be merely because what I write is so much more obnoxious than what Ruth writes. Or it may be that they donít want it thought that the Archbishop would ever betray a royal confidence. Both seem to me perfectly legitimate reasons for action. In any case, we now know that the Archbishop has never discussed the date of his retirement with the Queen. I think this still leaves us free to believe that Ruthís story was quite true.

I canít close without a return to family values, from the News of the World problem page. This has nothing I can tell to do with religion, and quite a lot to do with the kind of moral mess that the archbishop might have been talking about. Unfortunately, itís also very funny. "Dear Jane, When I ask my boyfriend if he loves me he changes the subject. When he was in prison he sent me letters saying he loves me but heíll never say it to my face. He is 15 years older than me and has six kids. Heís been married three times. Am I with the wrong person?"

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