Press Column

His week there has been masses of church news, so it is in a spirit of pure perversity that I want to start with Matthew Parris in the Times, writing about the troubles of the Conservative party. The connection will, I hope, become apparent later on. "Hague’s people have taken their party apart in the hopes of mending it, on business management school principle. But the Conservative construction is not amenable to the understanding of a management consultant. That is why they have made such a hash of it. They have tried to see the politics of the Centre-Right in terms of products, target audiences, sales staff, and advertising pitches. The Tory structure, meanwhile with its huge corps of amateurs, its eccentricities, its memories and its mores, and its dependence on the personal loyalties of staff, makes it impossible to convert into a modern business machine without irreparable loss."

This grafting of leadership onto a volunteer aggregation of organisations brings us, by a pretty direct route, to the bishops’ expenses. I don’t know whether these are outrageous or not: that slightly depends on what you think a bishop’s job should be. What is quite clear is that they can’t be defended as is if bishops were business executives, who have to be paid and perked up in case they are headhunted by a rival firm, perhaps the Methodists. The defence of castles, palaces and so on much more straightforward, but it requires a difficult combination of humility and self-confidence to say that the Church is the least-worst custodian of such buildings, and the best able to make them useful and instructive to the world at large.

Releasing the report on the morning of the general election was no doubt pure coincidence. So was the fact that the interesting stuff was hidden as deep in the report as possible. This kind of spinning doesn’t work in the sense that the specialist journalists by now regard it as a challenge. But the hurried generalist, working on the eve of a general election, may yet print what’s in the press release. Thus, both the Independent and the Guardian repeated the rather odd claim of the report that "We found no evidence to suggest that bishops and their families live in a grand manner or that they occupy their houses in a possessive or ostentatious fashion." — well, they may have found no evidence to substantiate the allegation. But if there were no evidence to suggest it in the first place, why set up the committee? The dilemma here was exquisitely put by an anonymous sub on the Yorkshire Post, who placed between two large photographs the following caption: "Above, Bishopthorpe Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of York, David Hope, below right, Auckland Castle, the residence of the Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull. Both churchmen live very modestly."

Spare a thought, though, for the difficulties of the Vatican confronted with the verdict of genocide against two nuns in Rwanda. They were defended with a great deal more tenacity by their church than accused Anglican clergy have been. That is to the credit of Dr Carey; and it should also be recorded to Dr Beaver’s credit that he has never said anything to compare with Dr Navarro-Valls’ comments on the verdict, as relayed by the semi-official Zenit news agency: "The Church [...] cannot be considered responsible for the faults of its members, who have acted against the Gospel law.

"The Vatican cannot but express surprise in observing that a few individuals are blamed for the grave responsibilities of numerous men and groups, who were also involved in the genocide that took place in the heart of Africa." The agency also quoted Father Dominique Karekezi, director of the Kilgali religious newspaper Information: "Obviously, it is a sorrow for all the Church in Rwanda, and also for the whole universal Church. Above all, religious are witnesses of Christ and defenders of life. We are not judges; human justice can be mistaken. Perhaps they did not have a proper attitude during the tragedy."

Quite what this improper attitude might consist of came out later in his remarks: "Truly, I cannot know the circumstances experienced at that time by the nuns. But the people wonder about the nuns' attitude, especially when they heard that they gave the gasoline that was used to burn the house in which 500 people had sought refuge, who later died."

It will be interesting to see how much understanding and sympathy such spokesmen would show to John Crowley, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Middlesbrough, who, according to the Daily Telegraph, was to preach the sermon and celebrate at a service to mark the 25th anniversary of the most prominent gay catholic couple in England: Julian Filochowski and Martin Prendergast, who are respectively the director of CAFOD and former director of Catholic Aids Link. As the story pointed out "Holding a service which appears to celebrate homosexuality flouts the teaching of the Church and defies the leadership of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor… the timing could not be worse for Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, who is still coming with fall-out from a Channel Four documentary .. which claimed a ‘gay underworld’ thrived in English seminaries.

‘The cardinal will flip when he finds out,’ said a Catholic source."

The service looked like a wonderful story; but it clashed with the ordination as Bishop of Kieron Conry, much loved as Director of the Catholic Media Office, so any journalists going to church went there instead. And Victoria has gone on holiday. So there has been no follow-up reporting what actually happened: Cormac did go ballistic, and fifteen minutes before the service,. John Crowley stood up and announced that because of the danger of misrepresentation, he could take no further part. "I have been asked to reiterate that the service you are gathered here for is about what it says on the order of service and nothing else", he sais, according to one of my informants

The only flaw one can find in this demonstration of loyalty is one tiny little prefix. It is not the danger of mis-representation that frightened the bishops and archbishop. In the event, the service was taken by the head of a seminary; this merely compounds the catastrophe from point of view of those who are trying to hold the line against gay clergy. The story will undoubtedly be followed in the Catholic press. It will be interesting to see if it breaks into the mainstream.

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