Press Column Saturday 04 March 2000

The attractive thing about gay sex is that people never get tired of it. With discussions of heterosexual matters, there comes a point when even the most self-righteous fall suddenly into an exhausted swoon from which they emerge clear-eyed and wondering why in some unimaginably distant past they found the whole subject so interesting and compelling. But with gay sex the disputants can keep it up for decades, never flagging, always able to contort themselves into fresh positions to revive the argument. Thus it was that the BBC, in its preliminary report of the synod, advised us that there would be no discussion of section 28, and Tuesday’s papers were full of the synod discussing it, in terms which show us a lot about the way these controversies get reported.

The headlines in the pro Section 28 papers were all about the largely evangelical pressure from the floor of the Synod: "Church grassroots fury at gay law ‘deal’." in the Daily Mail; "Bishops urged by laity to defend Section 28" promoted to the front page of the Daily Telegraph even though it is only an agency report, and the main quote comes from Peter Bruinvels. The Mail would not, I think, be caught making its own campaign ridiculous in quite that way. In the generally pro-bishop Times the headline was "Section 28 must go, says Bishop"; and in the Guardian, "Church split over Section 28 repeal". All these headlines can be justified; all are more or less true. But it’s quite clear that none of them tells the real story. The clearest expression of that came in the body of the Daily Mail story, which pointed out that the churches seem to have done a deal with the Government under which they will trade their opposition to section 28 for the explicit promotion of marriage in schools. I think this is a superb piece of negotiating, myself, to give up something worthless which will in any case be gone within a year for something of real and lasting worth that could not be gained any other way. I am assured in private that it is one of George Carey’s most brilliant accomplishments. But he can’t admit to it in public. The fact that a deal is being so often and so publicly denied gives the whole story a wonderfully comic air. It also raises the suspicion that perhaps the deniers are telling something like the truth. Perhaps the Church of England has not negotiated the deal at all; and it was all the work of Vincent Nichols.

The Times probably guessing correctly what sort of sex excites its readers most largely ignored this story in favour of a "Hands off safety code for clergy" splash. This was an account of the dealings of the convocations, and their suggestion that it be made easier to complain about the conduct of priests. Obviously the priesthood offers huge opportunities for sexual predation; a suburban rector once told me he reckoned that he met someone new with whom an affair would be possible at least once a week: just as obviously, though, these opportunities are rarely taken. Perhaps this is because it would be so hard to confine yourself to one or two if you had a taste for that sort of exploitation; and once behaviour gets uncontrollable it is also quite easily detected. However, there seemed to me to be another, stronger story buried inside the sexual one. "A new system of ‘bishops’ tribunals’ will also allow parishioners to complain about lazy or drunken clergy, and those who breach ‘laws ecclesiastical’ which includes the correct order of service or doctrinal beliefs’." If this sentence means what it says, we should expect a torrent of heresy trials as soon as Reform gets its act together.

The Times also had a fascinating interview with David Hope on the subject of spin, or communications as it is known in polite circles. "The church ought not to be in the business of spin at all. There ought to be an openness and a readiness to be vulnerable and honest" he said, and then glided with enviable agility form "ought" to "is". "I don’t think there has been any conscious spin. Clearly, there has been an attempt to show the best side of things we might find uncomfortable or difficult to face." By the end of the story he had spun himself off into the stratosphere. "In a debate on the decline of religious broadcasting on the BBC, Dr Hope will suggest that the corporation should give eight times as much coverage to religion as it does to football. This is because the total church attendance in 1998 was 210m, more than eight times the 25m who attended a football league match in the same year." The figures look fairly meaningless to me: perhaps he is claiming that 4m people go to a church on an average Sunday while only half a million go to a football match. And I’m sure that if you put turnstiles up in church entrances, and charged people £25 or £60 to get in, the comparisons would turn out rather differently. Nor do broadcast synod debates have quite the potential for sponsorship that football matches have. Perhaps Vanpoules and Whipples could be approached to buy space on the cassocks of the clergy, but it is hard to see which retailers of what would want to sponsor the laity. I’d welcome suggestions.

The Times story also had a quote from poor, misunderstood Dr Beaver: "I do not consider myself a spin doctor. It makes me really angry when people refer to me as a spin doctor." Oh dear. He is one, you know, and so is Lesley Perry: so was Rob Marshall in his time working for Dr Hope in London. They are all people who take journalists to one side and tell them a story in which their employers appear as well as possible, and sometimes better. This ought to be for all concerned an enjoyable game conducted between consenting adults in private. It’s only when you dress it up as a "communications strategy" that you get into trouble.

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