Press Column Saturday 02 September 2000

Whoever at the Spectator thought of sending Rowan Pelling to interview Richard Chartres deserves another glass of champagne. Rowan is the editor of the Erotic Review but that’s not her only qualification. What really fits her to interview the Bishop of London is that she has nearly as much charm as he. She once came to lunch at my house with her husband, and the moment when she explained to my eighty-two-year-old mother precisely what magazine she edited was one I will treasure for years. She brought this information out at exactly the right moment in the interview with Chartres — immediately after he "exclaims in bewilderment ‘There’s this absolute obsession with sex! Where does it come from?’" but I would be a little surprised if he was as shocked by the information as she supposed him to be. But his reply "I take a rather 18-century view of these things" wrong-footed her so beautifully that she completely missed the intransigence of his professed views. For his interviewer to say "he’s not exactly a cheerleader for women joining the ranks priests" seems to miss something important about his attitude to the question. So far as I can tell, he doesn’t think they’re priests at all; and when asked if he could accept women bishops, he replied that he would if the Orthodox did.

All in all, it was a performance as subtle as anything Cardinal Hume might have managed: I particularly liked his attitude to gay clergy, when asked about Cardinal Winning’s fulminations against perversion. "Well Cardinal Winning can sort that out with his own conscience. I can tell you that my main job personally is trying to defend single priests who do a very good job and live in a way entirely compatible with Christian teaching and are nevertheless subject to a great deal of harassment and an atmosphere that has become frankly hysterical." This is politics of the very highest order: resolute, clear, and, when you think of it, impossible for anyone to take offence at. There must some such priests as he describes in the diocese, and they certainly deserve defence. Even Cardinal Winning cannot mind these remarks, since the idea that he should get trouble from his conscience for reiterating church teaching is ludicrous, as the Bishop certainly knows.

Only PJ Bonthrone, in the Daily Telegraph, picked up on the interview, and he led on the admission that Chartres was one of the drafters of Lord Runcie’s Falklands sermon. But he too ran it as a marker for Canterbury. "His admission is significant because, taken alongside other comments in the interview — notably his support for the many ‘admirable women’ clergy in his diocese — it shows him softening his characteristically traditionalist viewpoint."

Christopher Morgan returns from holiday refreshed, and immediately produces a story that is true, well-sourced, and followed up by the Daily Mail. Perhaps he should take more holidays. The Earl of Powis, who sounds as if he might be most socially distinguished member of the Assemblies of God, has refused to have Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles to stay if they plan to share a bed under his roof (the thirteenth century Powis Castle) when the Prince next pays his annual visit to his principality. It sppears that he prefers to co-host the Powys Prayer Conference, for more than 100 representatives from around the country. It emerged from the Mail’s follow-up that the story was true, yet not complete, since the Earl was there suggesting that 100 Pentecostal evangelists were less trouble to look after than one Prince. Perhaps they will pray for his gazebo.

The serious story of the week was the decision of a judge to over-rule the "devoutly Roman Catholic" parents of Siamese twins who were born sharing a heart and liver and who appealed against the doctors who want to separate them surgically. If they are not separated, both will die, yet separating them means killing one. To the parents, this goes against the will of God. Mary Warnock, who is more or less Baroness Ethics, a position even more distinguished than that of being Earl of Powis, wrote about this in the Observer, in a curiously unsatisfying way. "I believe that … this is a decision with which we, as a society, should be satisfied, But there is one aspect of it which is of great importance. Broadly, it a decision of a secular society, unwilling to take seriously the religious scruples of the parents This is a factor in the case which we cannot disregard, and which, I believe, should be examined more closely."

Her examination, though, came to the conclusion that the religious authorities would come round to the judge’s view. "Religion will eventually adapt itself to this view of human life, just as, eventually, it adapted itself to the Copernican revolution and the principles of Newtonian physics. It will so adapt because the human need for religion will not go away." I think she’s right, but she missed one important point which tends to strengthen her thesis; and this is that British religion has already made the adaptation. The parents in this story come from an un-named Mediterranean island (presumably Malta). They came here because the medical care available was better. But here, where we take such standards of medical competence for granted, there seems nothing contrary to the will og God in surgeons exercising it. I haven’t seen a single comment from a British religious leader who did not side with the judge. The God of the gaps does not merely inhabit the inexplicable; e is also to be found in the shrinking realms of the impossible.

Two classic headlines from the Sunday Telegraph: "Religious surfers ride the waves for Christ’s sake" is about the Jesus Surf Classic, at Croyde Bay in North Devon, where the winners will receive Gideon Bibles with their cash prizes. And Ann Summers is to open a sex shop in Mecca, though this will only sell "lingerie, leather goods, and PVC bodywear." The story goes on to say that the chain hopes to introduce chocolate body paints and massage oils later. … The shops will be staffed by men. Senior staff, including Jaqueline Gold, the chief executive of Ann Sumers, will be replaced by male executives for the stores’ openings."

I still wonder how they got permission to do this in Saudi: perhaps they asked Jonathan Aitken for tips on doing business there.

Front Cuts Book Back