Press Column Saturday 27 May 2000

The news that Jack Spong is to become a columnist on an upmarket sex site was broken by the Sunday Telegraph and is quite impossible to better. I don’t mean you couldn’t make it up. There is no limit to the things that people have made up about Spong. But I rather wished this one had stayed in the realm of fantasy. According to Jonathan Peter, the site "will include erotic writing, [and] nude pictures … but its founder, Jack Heidenry, said it would treat sex seriously and would not display pornography." This need not be a contradiction in terms. There are a couple of sites on the web which don’t go in for pornography even though they write about sex a lot. But that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing which would attract columnists with names like Candida Royale and Annie Sprinkle, who are to be the bishop’s colleagues. I suppose the most charitable explanation is that he wanted to know what it felt like to be attacked for encouraging heterosexuals to flaunt themselves. All that a friend can say is — well, I hope he gets better paid than the Vicar of Stiffkey.

Petre scored with his other headline, too: to match "Bishop joins porn stars on Internet" with "Alarm over church talks with druids" is a pleasure given to few people in this business. I read it waiting for the name of Martin Palmer to appear, though it took five paragraphs to get there, and was preceded by that of Rosemary Hartill. Since the other speaker listed is Roland Hutton, the history professor whose exquisite demolition of the founding myths of witchcraft formed the spine of a recent magazine article, the whole thing might actually be quite interesting. But the best quote came from the Pagan Federation, "We celebrate our connectedness to nature, and I will sometimes dance naked round a fire. They aren’t doing much dancing around a fire naked at matins or evensong but perhaps they should. Perhaps they will like it."

The other great Sunday story came from Christopher Morgan, who had got hold of a leaked report from Michael Turnbull: "Senior bishop tells Carey to abolish parish priests". This is one of those stories which has the ring of truth even without documentary evidence. It is at least six years since a recently appointed evangelism bureaucrat (not Turnbull) told me that the Church of England would have to abandon the countryside, as all the other Christian denominations have done. It is entirely characteristic of Godco to expect the parishioners to drive to a distant church because that’s much more efficient than making the vicar drive to a distant parish. It is also, I’d guess, a popular reform among the people who presently have to drive, and certainly among the bishops who must deploy them.

The only spin available on a story like that is historical, and the Sunday Times cranked it hard. "One of the five most senior bishops in the Church of England is lobbying for the abolition of the 1300-year-old parish system in a radical attempt to halt the decline in churchgoing.

"The traditional structure of a church with its vicar, two churchwardens and a congregation would disappear. Many churches with smaller congregations would be abandoned in favour of fewer, larger, centres of worship." Peter Mullen is wheeled out too: "It seems Bishop Turnbull is aiming to administer the coup de grace and kill off the parish — the historica bedrock of English society." But it’s the quotes from Turnbull’s paper that that seem to me to do the real damage. "Small, elderly, poor congregations make … lively worship difficult or impossible and young people are alienated. Pensioner and unemployed congregations are not viable even when there is sacrificial giving." Cut away the nonsense about young people being alienated: that’s what they’re young for. What is left is a simple, bald assumption that parishes which cannot pay their own way are finished. It’s a little unfair to blame that on GodCo.

The death of Donald Coggan was little marked outside the obituaries pages. This is not entirely surprising when the — genuinely — helpful material put out by the Lambeth Palace press office consisted of an elegantly written and very informative extract from Cantuar which called his "probably the lest stormy or memorable archieposcopate of the twentieth century." Grim work, building bricks with that straw.

Those whose interest in sex on the Internet extends beyond the doings of Bishop Spong might enjoy a long article from Salon about the "ex-gay" movement, which seemed to me unusually balanced, though clearly pro gay. The author, Barry Yeoman, shows at least one couple better for having gone through the movement: "Given his tortured background, I believe Westcott when he says that he’s happier than he has ever been, in his family’s suburban home with the minivan and the backyard pool and the two cute sons. Ion the same way, many ex-gays are better off than before they entered the ministries or therapy programs. They’re confronting shildhood sexual abuse or abandonment; they’re living without drugs and alcohol; they have people in their lives who nurture them. As a result, their compulsion to have ‘unrewarding’ sex lessens — and it feels like they’re being cured of their homosexuality."

But of all the stories this week, the one that future historians will really treasure was in the Times diary, which had found a black Porsche parked near Church House with the Number plate S1NOD. The diary claims that someone in the press department confirmed it was a "church bod’s". The press department say they didn’t. No one has yet hired a corrupt detective to look up the owner on the police national computer. I wonder how much you could get for V1CAR?

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