Press Column

Who would have thought that the General election would be such good news for religious news? The Times and the Daily Telegraph seem to have decided simultaneously that the news a large proportion of their readership needed to help them cope with the opening of the election campaign was religious. The Telegraph placed on its front page the news that "worshippers may be able to nominate their bishop": it was a nicely told story, but it is hard to believe it would have made the front page if the alternative were not the opening of what promises to be a truly disastrous and humiliating election for the Conservatives. One paragraph was thoroughly worth it though: "Lady Perry said she was not comfortable with the label ‘people’s bishops’ ‘What we are not trying to do is to get the local hairdresser turned into a bishop’ she added."

Times had a second front on the Prayer of Jabez, the latest wacky bestseller from the American spirituality market. This one says that it is absolutely fine to ask God for money, and he will give you some if you do. What I thought amusing about this was that not only the feature, but the news story on which it was launched, seemed to have few sources outside the New York Times report, on the front page the day before the London Times caught up with it.

The next day, Victoria Combe had a very much better story, much less prominently displayed. She had penetrated the tangled recesses of the Church Commissioners’ annual statement to discover that Bishops’ expenses had gone up by 10% last year, at a time when everyone else is asked to spend less and give more. The third sentence of the story was a real beauty: "The usual annual press briefing on the report was cancelled because the commissioners said there was nothing to discuss." But this was stashed away on an inside page. I may be entirely wrong, and more Telegraph readers are interested in the mechanics of episcopal selection than they are in where the money goes. But I doubt it. Besides, a story got by digging through a tedious report has to be worth more than one which simply comes from recording a well-organised press conference.

Searching for an electronic copy of this story, I punched the words "god, bishop commissioners church" into the Telegraph search engine, and got back one of the largest questions of all time: " ‘Can he do it again’ matching God." It said.

Dirty vicar stories come and go: few are worth covering. But it is noticeable that some of them don’t involve vicars at all. This is because everyone now knows that the clergy like boys, whereas only readers of the Daily Telegraph suppose that BBC producers do. There was a nice example in the Sunday Times: Which makes the better story? "BBC producer abuses boys" or "Tony Charman, who was sexually abused as a choirboy, tells Stuart Wavell that the Church of England failed to protect him." Got it in one: the Sunday Times had a long interview with a businessman who was one of the victims of Terence Banks, a child abuser recently jailed at Lewes Crown Court. So you had to read a very long way into the story to discover the following sentence: "The event that brought Charman and dozens of boys into Banks's orbit was the Southern Cathedrals Festival drawing choirboys from Winchester, Chichester and Salisbury. Banks's main career was a production job in BBC Television's drama department, but at weekends and festival times he would stay in Chichester, where his father was the town clerk with a house inside the cathedral precincts."

One quite sees that the church connection helped to put him touch with boys. But he doesn’t seem ever to have had any official church position supervising children, in the way that a priest might.

Silly vicar stories are much more rewarding. The Daily Mail had a classic one. Here it is. Livvy Allenbury, born 7th January 1999, contracted meningitis when she was eleven days old. The damage to her brain was permanent, and after seventeen operations she died in her father’s arms this year. At her funeral a poem composed by her father was read out: none too terrible by the standards of these things. The last verse read "So many times you evaded death’s grasp / your strength was enormous, as you fought for each gasp/ Until came a moment, you chose as your right/ And gently and softly walked into the night." So they put that on the tombstone, and added beneath it, ENJOY HEAVEN in capital letters.

This is a god-given opportunity for a truly crass intervention by the vicar, and the Rev’d Patrick Foreman scores full marks for style. He refused permission for the wording on the tombstone unless the family changed "night" to light". He told the Mail "I am looking at this from a theological point of view. They are saying that their little daughter has gone into the night. But underneath that, they want the words ‘Enjoy Heaven’. But heaven isn’t night it’s light. I cannot allow it in a Christian churchyard. I don’t mind Mickey Mouse or teddy bears on gravestones. Bit I cannt allow heresy to come into the churchyard. I have to go by my conscience."

I thought he might have been misquoted so I rang him up. No, he meant every word the Mail had used. "I’m usually very lenient", he said. He could not understand why the parents had gone to the press rather than talk over their disagreement with him. "I wanted them to have a challenging think about the Christian faith, and to realise the personal relationship that Christians have with Christ." The baby who died had been baptised; and her parents were married in a Catholic church. Mrs Allenbury told the Mail: "It makes it hard to believe in God when you go through something as emotionally draining .. We are not atheists. We probably both have an open mind about religion. .. But I personally don’t believe in the ‘walking into the light’ thing."

I think this shows quite astonishing forbearance on her part. Mr Foreman said to me "We know that there is neither sun nor moo in heaven, but only the light of Christ. I know less about the light levels in heaven than Mr Foreman but we can all agree that when he gets to his heaven he won’t be troubled there by any parishioners.

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