Press Column

[editorial note. I will be in Trier all week, flying out at 7am on Tuesday, and getting there about noon English time. In emergencies, my poserphone should work, or the hotel Blesiusgarten +49-0651-36060. I don’t know whether I will be on email. I will take a copy of this with me, though.]

For years, I have been urging press officers to put journalists in touch with the people who really know what is going on. It was still a shock when my mobile went off while I was going fishing, and to hear from a complete stranger in the throes of a distressing domestic emergency. "The Rev’d Bill Beaver gave me your phone number" she said — and just then the reception cut out. It took some time to establish that not only did I not know where her husband was, but I wasn’t even the Andrew Brown who might have done. Dr Beaver had simply given out the number of the wrong Andrew Brown. He himself rang about two minutes after the woman in question, but we got cut off again, and he left no message. Perhaps we have been doing the press department a grave injustice all these years, and bishops have been assiduously ringing up Ruth Gledhill, Stephen Bates, and so on with hot stories for years — only to find themselves connected to bewildered pensioners: "Eh, yes. Of course my name’s Bates. Who are you, young man?".

It’s only fair, then, to note that the splash in Friday’s Times was the Archbishops pastoral letter, calling for less negative campaigning. This was a real triumph of forensic spin: the whole story would have collapsed if the paper had printed all the Archbishops’ waffling, but sometimes, in this business, less is very much more. None of the other papers cut away as much of the letter, and, as a result, they noticed it much less.

A very curious piece of religious statistics hidden in a the Independent, which had a story about how Muslim clerics are routinely harassed and abused when they visit their charges in prison. Since the source for this was a former prison governor, it is very probably true. But what did cry out for investigation was the statement that the number of Muslim prisoners has risen from 2,000 to 6,000 in three years. Who are all these people? Why are they there? And why has the number of notional Anglicans stayed steady in this time at 23,000? Has everyone who went on an Alpha course been released, to be replaced by those who haven’t been yet?

The Sunday Telegraph had a curious story about the "fashion bible" which is to have "erotic illustrations" of real life supermodels. As one of the four Swedes behind the project told the paper: "Instead of a boring drawing of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we may well have a couple walking down a New York street, kissing." I was sufficiently intrigued by this story to chase it through the Swedish press because it looked to me to be completely phoney. Surely New York is the backdrop to the story of Lot, not the Garden of Eden? Neither of the main Stockholm papers mentioned it at all; but the church paper had a long story, which points out that the men behind this all work in an advertising agency, but otherwise takes them at their own valuation. There are to be 150 pictures, each with a page of facing text, which will be taken in a swinging, modern, and above all royalty-free way from the Authorised Version. At 150 pages, they are hardly going to fit everything in, especially when it is not photogenic; but this might just be begat’s big chance for the big time. No word yet on who will play God.

News stories should end, like rock concerts, with the audience screaming for more; I don’t think I have ever seen a better example of this than the Daily Telegraph’s story about Archbishop Milingo, the notorious exorcist who married a Moonie. The last two paragraphs read: "Born in a poor village in Zambia, Mgr Milingo was made a bishop by Pope Paul VI in 1969, when only 39. A talented singer, he has recorded a CD of rap music. But his habit of holding exorcisms and healing sessions during Mass led to him being ostracised by the Church hierarchy long ago. His growing friendship with Sun Myung Moon has not helped his relations with the Vatican.

"He is also one of the few members of the Curia accused of being a witch-doctor." Yes, yes. But who are the others?

Nearly as good was the end of another Telegraph story, about divorce ceremonies in California: "The Penningroths' ceremony was held at a meditation retreat in California, decorated with candles and a simple flower arrangement. The music included Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (which was also played at their wedding), and a song from the film Thelma and Louise. A video tribute to their marriage and each other was also shown."

At the end of the story, the former Mrs Penningroth was reflecting that some couples can’t be brought to share even a simple divorce ceremony with each other. In that case, she suggested, you could always perform the ceremony on your own.

The Times didn’t have anything as interesting to offer from Rome. The paper’s correspondent there had a brave stab with a speech of Cormac Muthy O’Connors: "The Archbishop of Westminister, the Most Rev Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, galvanised the liberal faction in the Vatican power struggle yesterday with a call to democratise the over-centralised structure.

"In an address to an ‘extraordinary consistory’ of cardinals in Rome, Cardinal Murphy- O’Connor, 68, observed that the Pope — who presided over the meeting — was the first among equals. He recalled that the early Church at the time of the Twelve Apostles had not been dominated by one man — St Peter, the predecessor of all Popes — but had been collegiate." Curiously, none of the other observers of the conference noticed the earth-shaking implications of this remark. The semi-official Zenit newsletter quoted the Cardinal as saying "Never Peter without the Eleven, but never the eleven without Peter" which is closer to the orthodox exegesis of "collegiality" as the state in which everyone agrees with the Pope about everything.

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