Press Column

The Sunday Times had an excellent story buried in its gossip column: the bishops’ attendance records in the House of Lords. This was wrecked by bad timing: it came out in a week when the only newsworthy peer was Lord Archer. If it come out when the synod was discussing the reform of the House of Lords, it would have been a lot more fun, and might have had more space, for what it showed was the space which the Church of England is so eager to reserve for itself is seldom occupied. In the last session of parliament, Lord Longford turned up 75 times to the Lords, missing one meeting. The Bishop of London inverted this record, turning up once, and missing 75 sessions; but even he did better than the Archbishops, neither of whom turned up at all. Apparently this is the longest that any archbishop of Canterbury has ever stayed away. Sixteen of the bishops, among the Michael Turnbull, who argued at synod for their place in the House of Lords, turned up fewer than ten times. It seems to me that these figures entirely undermine the case for keeping bishops in the House of Lords: presumably, they can be defended on the grounds that it does not matter which one of them is defending the church’s position — but if it doesn’t matter which bishop speaks for the Church of England, then there need be only one of them, rather as there is only supposed to be one who talks to the press. And if, on the other hand, the bishops are there to give us the benefit of their individual wisdom, how come they’re not there?

The Independent had a long and wholly admirable investigation by Mary Braid into the curious glass bell-tower at Basildon, whose finances are now as transparent as its walls: there never was any money to pay the builders. For all the declining prestige of the Church of England it is difficult to think of any other institution which would lend so much respectability to a man that he can run up bills of half a million pounds over three years for improvements to a parish church with a congregation of forty. And the story was told as a kind of tragedy, which it is, as well as a comedy. It was really rather a shock for the PCC to discover they owed, with interest, £700,000 to a multinational company. Perhaps the most unexpected comment came from Sarfraz Sarwar, a Muslim leader in Basildon: "Whatever the outcome, Lionel’s intentions were good. Most of Basildon is not religious, so it does not understand that the tower was the vision of a religious man. It’s for God to judge him, not people.

"If this had happened in the Muslim community, we would have hushed it up and rallied round. We would have run jumble sales and sold our cars to bail Lionel out. But Lionel’s church and Basildon have deserted him."

Of course, this is all nonsense. Conning people for God is the kind of thing that gives God a bad name, even if you don’t get caught immediately. What’s more, it would take more than a few jumbles and car sales to raise £700,000. But it casts an interesting light on the ethical standards of muslim religious leaders. Anyway, this was an excellent, subtle piece of work which showed just how careful and illuminating the Independent can be when it tries.

The Times had another parish row, more about principle than money, but still given a good showing. Derek Stanesby, who used to run St George’s House at Windsor, has been banned from preaching in retirement at his local parish church in Uppingham, after some parishioners complained when he pointed out that it was not, strictly speaking, either true or helpful to say "this is the word of the Lord." As he told Ruth Gledhill, "It is one thing to find great wisdom in the Bible, but absurd to treat it as the source of all knowledge. It is a plain and undeniable fact that the Bible was written by the hand of Man."

I should declare an interest here: when Derek was warden of St George’s House, I benefitted hugely from some of the consultations he arranged. For a journalist newly arrived from foreign parts, it was a revelation to discover that there were grown-up literate, scholarly and very sharp clergymen to be met. It made it clear that the Church of England was worth taking seriously, despite everything else I knew of it. Of course, there was a price for this. If the Church of England is concerned with truth, it will say truthful, painful things: even I was shocked when a distinguished clergyman described the book of Genesis as "bronze age myths", but that’s because I didn’t expect him to admit it, not because I didn’t think it was true; at least they’ll never hear the phrase in Uppingham.

Two Roman Catholics writing about religion in the Guardian in one day! Will wonders never cease? One of them Rupert Shortt, used to work for the Tablet as well as the Church Times which makes it harder to dismiss his thoughtful article about Rwandan genocide as knee-jerk anti-catholicism. He argues that the Catholic church remains a large force for good in Africa; it is one of the largest sources of development aid, and the single biggest provider of education. But the country in which its resources were concentrated as nowhere else in Africa also witnessed the slaughter of almost a million people in under a month… Catholic pastors not only failed to stop the genocide, but at times colluded in it. The church’s self-appointed role as champion of human rights will appear bogus for as long as it refuses to come to terms with this collusion."

Meanwhile, the Face to Faith column had a piece by Annabel Miller of the Tablet, who was about to get married to someone she had met as a result of an earlier column she had written for the Guardian slot. I used to tell people, when commissioning them, to write as if they had ten minutes to chat up a delightful dinner party neighbour. Perhaps I should have told them to tout for proposals of marriage instead.

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