Press Column Saturday 30 December 2000

In press terms, this has been the best Christmas for the Church of England that I can remember in years. Practically everyone who wants to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury got thoughtful and respectful space in the papers, and the man who actually is the present one managed to deliver a sermon which tied the Daily Mail in knots. Watching the paperís leader writer trying to explain that Mary and Joseph had nothing to do with asylum seekers in Dover would have brightened the sourest Boxing Day hangover. "It is, putting it mildly, disingenuous to suggest that the plight of Mary and Joseph, as they sought shelter in Bethlehem, has anything but the most superficial resemblance to the position of asylum seekers here.

"For a start, Joseph and Mary were not refugees as St Luke tells the story, they were there to be registered in a census.

"Nor did they lie about their reason for wanting shelter ó unlike the 80% who, according to the Home Office, claim refugee status here yet are not fleeing persecution at home.

"[Mary and Joseph] were not given handouts from the pockets of over-taxed citizens. Not, come to that, were they able to benefit from legislation forcing councils to house them ó again at the taxpayerís expense.

"Such thinking at the top is, alas, typical of the political correctness that prevails in todayís church. This helps to explain why church attendances are falling, while the Queen Ė whose basic values and faith are unwavering ó continues to command and the nationís admiration and respect."

And in 4BC the Alexandria Daily Hieroglyph printed a leader denouncing the reception of families arriving from Palestine. The Pharaonic Home Office has pointed out that stories of a massacre conducted by our ally Herod in Bethlehem were absurd. Only one family claimed to have witnessed them, and their papers were not in order. Meanwhile, the Pharaoh, whose basic values and faith are unwavering, continues to command the nationís respect. When, later, the Daily Heiroglyph reported the controversial parable of the Good Samaritan, its reporters were quick to find eyewitness who swore the Samaritan had asked the man wounded by robbers for his papers before he did anything else. And a leader praised Jesus, as it praised Dr Carey, for being "a good and humane man" before going on to give thanks that he had not told the story, as a liberal might so easily have done, in a way that suggested Samaritans bleeding by the roadside should be helped by passing Hieroglyph readers. The successful spiritual leader must never forget that the wretched are our neighbours: we are not theirs and if they get the idea that we might be, they must be put in detention centres.

As a further sign of its respect for traditional Christian values, Boxing Dayís Mail, put together by people working on Christmas Day, had four pages of astrology as the centre spread. Apparently I am going to sparkle and shine in late January: disappointed readers are urged to write to the Mailís astrologer, Peter Watson, if I fail to do so.

Mind you, the most remarkable bit of pseudo-astrological nonsense came from the Times , where Richard Owen, the paperís man in Rome, who is far too clever and experienced to believe a word of it, wrote up the "Malachi prophecy" which lists 112 future popes in Latin doggerel. Owen solemnly explains that John Paul I is "De Medietate Lunae (Of the half moon), because he was born in Belluno, and John Paul II is De Labore Solis, which "could refer to Copernicus, who believed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and like the Pope came from Cracow." The next pope, apparently is to be Gloriae Olivae, or The Glory of the Olive. This clearly fingers Cardinal Martini.

Richard Chartres has charmed the Guardian completely. He had lunch there recently, and one consequence was a Saturday profile on Christmas Eve that failed to quote anyone saying anything in the least bit hostile. I find thins interesting ó though Iím a fan myself ó because I know some people who arenít, and a couple of them were quoted in pretty anodyne terms. However, it had dug out a great deal of interesting background which only made his rise in the church more inexplicable: there really is nothing to account for it except ability, hard work, and a knack of being two and a half questions ahead of almost everyone who tries to interrogate him. I would have loved to hear his thoughts on women bishops, or the real status of women priest. Whatís interesting in this context is that the Guardian didnít feel the need to prod. Perhaps these distinctions have become theological in the vulgar sense of "meaningless".

Concluding this quick seasonal roundup of bearded men who hope to squeeze down the chimney at Lambeth Palace, James Jones was writing almost everywhere, and Rowan Williams got profiled in the Daily Telegraph by Victoria Combe, as part of her series of Spiritual leaders for the millennium. Though this was interesting, and sympathetic, it was not as interesting as the discovery that her trip to Bethlehem, which I wrote about last week, was paid for by the Chief Rabbiís office. When Charles Moore was editor of the Spectator he once sent me on a Moonie-funded freebie round the Far East, on the reasonable grounds that I had no reputation to lose by it. Iím surprised the Daily Telegraph will take such money, though.

The chief rabbiís freebie, which was to have had six journalists, among them Cristina Odone, who failed, at the last moment, to show up, had an itinerary which originally involved no Arabs at all. The trip seems to have been put together, like most of these things, by people who know nothing at all about journalists. Victoria and a couple of her companions hired a taxi to take them to Bethlehem rather than meet the president of Israel. What decent reporter wouldnít? Yet the organisers always suppose that the chance to meet Someone Important and be showered with dishonest platitude is more exciting than the chance to see something interesting and be showered with bricks or abuse. The cream of the joke is that the subs on the Daily Telegraph removed from Victoriaís story everything the Chief Rabbi said to her. This is one occasion on which Dr Carey comes out as the more impressive figure.

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