Press Column

What a wealth of drama can lie concealed behind a single line in the classified ads! Last Wednesday, the Times carried a note announcing the birth of Ruth Gledhill’s baby in the births column. "Gledhill — see Franks", it said. And when you saw Franks, there was the real announcement. "Franks — to Alan Franks and Ruth Gledhill, a son, Arthur Peter Gledhill."

Lots of people have known she was pregnant, and rejoiced with her over it, all summer. She even brought the baby to the latest General Synod meeting. There is a picture of it being held by a smiling Archbishop of Canterbury. But somehow, in all this excitement, she forgot to tell him or any other religious figure, that she had left her husband, Andrew Daniels, in the spring and was now living apart from him. So huge bunches of flowers turned up at her husband’s house to celebrate the baby, sent by the Archbishop, the General Synod Press Office, and even the Chief Rabbi. Some of the people sent more bunches of flowers to Ruth once they had found her real address, though none, apparently, sent another bunch to her husband to apologise for the first bouquet.

Still, things could have been worse. Arthur Peter Gledhill is charming, affectionate, intelligent; and doted on by both his parents. He is moving in the most eminent circles, having already been breast-fed at the Preacher of the Year awards, which got Ruth into the Daily Mail’s gossip column, and the Reform Club. He shows no signs of being a liberal.

I don’t know whether anyone has actually got round to telling Dr Carey all this background, though a friend of Ruth’s did take Bill Beaver aside and explain it all. In any case, the Archbishop may have had other things to worry about. There was a sudden fluster of stories in the Sunday papers suggesting that he is going to retire next year. Watch that word "suggesting" because Jonathan Petre’s story, in the Sunday Telegraph, is as fine an example of the three-card trick as you will see in journalism. It started like this:

"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is to announce his retirement as early as next month.

"The Archbishop will remain in post until the end of next year to allow time for his successor to be chosen, and to participate in the Queen’s golden jubilee celebrations. He is, however, expected to step down soon after is 67th birthday in November 2002 — three years earlier than the normal retirement age of 70."

What this actually says, if you read it carefully, is that the Archbishop will certainly not retire before November 2002, but that he might announce his retirement next year — "as early as next month": a phrase subtly but importantly different from plain "next month".

But few readers will have paused to work this out. Instead, they see the headline: "Carey to announce early retirement." Later in the story comes the unexceptional news that "The news that he is to step down will trigger a fierce struggle for his succession between competing factions in the Church." And of course this sounds as if the thing were a done deal. It may be. But the only hard evidence comes right in the last paragraph: "Soundings are already being undertaken by the Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary and his counterpart in Downing Street."

But of course, to some extent, they take soundings all the time. That’s their job. And it’s not exactly a new story that people think the Archbishop will step down in November. That’s what the smart money has been on ever since he failed to take the last obvious opportunity to step down early. People have to gossip about something.

The only thing that gives Jonathan Petre’s story credibility — apart from his byline — is the appearance of something even stranger in the Sunday Times the same day. "Carey ‘heir’ hit by row over age."

"A senior Church of England figure has raised concerns that Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester and a leading contender to succeed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, may have misrepresented his date of birth. The bishop’s allies say that the attack is unjustified."

Again, you have to read this carefully. It doesn’t say that Michael Nazir-Ali has lied about his age. He hasn’t. It says that "a senior Church of England figure", later identified as a former member of the Crown Appointments Commission, believed he might have done, and passed the rumour on to "senior officials" who said they would check it out and never came back to him.

One thing the story doesn’t mention is that all this happened at least two years ago, which is when I first heard the story that Chris Morgan was trying to stand up the rumour. Then the motive for faking his date of birth was supposed to be that it would make him appear even more precocious as the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion. Now it is that "this would enable him to retire later, giving him more years on the job."

The only explanation of the timing that seems to make sense is that there really has been a burst of well-informed rumour about the Archbishop retiring early, and someone has decided to nobble one of the candidates for the succession before the race has well begun.

Meanwhile, back in Kabul, the Daily Telegraph has found a story which the Washington Post had last week, about the last two Jews in Afghanistan. Yitzhak Levy and Zebolan Smilento are the last survivors of 800 years of Jewish life there, and have been for the last eight years. They live in the same courtyard, but each has built his own synagogue, and banned the other from it. "Apart from being Jewish, all they have in common is their explosive hatred for one another. ‘He is an old fool whose brains do not work properly, Mr Simanto said yesterday. ‘He is a donkey who thinks only of himself. I wouldn’t go into his flat if I were you. It stinks.’

The two men are quarrelling over a Torah scroll they believe is worth $2m. They denounced each other to the Taliban who threw them both in jail repeatedly — once in the same cell — and confiscated the scroll. Now the scroll is gone, and only their hatred remains. Neither dares emigrate for fear that the other will claim his synagogue and his rights to the scroll.

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