Press Column

This may be the first time that the Sun has established the reputation of a bishop as a man of probity. But its report on "Lies and dirty tricks in the battle for our new Archbishop" shows pretty conclusively that there is no dirt that will stick on Michael Nazir-Ali, or any of the other candidates for that matter. This isn’t quite what you’d suppose from the lead. "The battle to elect Britain’s holiest man has attracted the kind of shady tactics usually associated with political spin doctors. Dirty tricks, smears, lies, and nudge-nudge innuendo have all been dragged out by rival supporters of the favourites to replace retiring Archbishop of Canterbury".

And I love the idea that this appointment is an election for Britain’s holiest man. I knew there was something I’d missed about the previous incumbents. But the important thing in the Sun’s article is what it doesn’t say. It was published on a Monday, meaning that some time had gone into its preparation; and there is nothing more damaging in it about any of the candidates than that "Snipers started cash-for-canapes allegations" . I’m not sure what, if anything, this is supposed to mean: a bishop who offered "blessings-for-canapes" at the till in Waitrose instead would find himself in a different sort of trouble.

What this means, though, is that large, rich newspapers have been scuffling around for a month now, looking for scandal in the past of the possible candidates, and they have all failed completely to find any. Chris Stone writes to say that the reason they didn’t call the Times back in its big story about Michael Nazir-Ali’s childhood was that Ian Cobain, the reporter wouldn’t actually give them a number to call him back on in Karachi. This sounds like a mark of real desperation on Cobain’s part. As I said last week, the only damaging part of the story was that "A spokesman for the bishop said that he was not available to answer questions about his past". But if Cobain didn’t give the bishop a fair chance to become available, then it means no more than "The bishop was unable to say when he had stopped beating his wife", something I hope could be said of everyone on the bench.

From the Sun to the New Yorker, whose current issue has a very thoughtful and wry piece by Jonathan Raban about his own experiences growing up as a vicar’s son contrasted with the attractions of Islamic fundamentalism. The contrast is not of course nearly as great as you might think. He watches his father’s trajectory from ex-service Anglo-Catholic in a country parish through to the radicalised, exhausted and disillusioned vicar of a sink estate: "He climbed his way through the tower blocks less as a priest than as a psychiatric social worker. He grew a beard that made him look like Karl Marx, left his dog collar in the drawer, and went about in an open-necked plaid flannel shirt. Although his church congregations were now tiny, he worked around the clock, negotiating with the authorities on behalf of his parishioners, succouring the needy, counselling the desperate, befriending the friendless." Until, at last, "Ministering to the alienated and the displaced, my father wore his beliefs thin to the point of transparency."

In contrast, Raban sets his own adolescent atheist, CND self: "Like most sixteen-year-olds, as I was then, I could see inside people's heads. None of the churchgoers actually believed. They might go through the motions, singing the hymns, crossing their hands to accept the Communion wafer, covering their eyes in the performance of public prayer, but they didn't really think that the world had been created by a Palestinian peasant, or that a personal paradise of harps and angels awaited them on the far side of their last visit to the Lymington hospital. These dark-suited hypocrites no more subscribed to my father's ritualist, Anglo-Catholic theology, with its transformational magic, than I did. I could tell, for I was an angry fundamentalist with a lock on truth, and as militant in my own way as any fanatic with a holy book.

"As I see now, my own atheism—my ultimate weapon in the Oedipal war—was really a dissident religious creed, full of furious conviction and an inchoate, adolescent hunger for the battlefield. It went hand in hand with membership in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The first time I entered my father's Pennington vicarage wearing the three-legged runic peace symbol on my lapel, it met with an immensely satisfactory response: ‘I will not have your wearing that badge in this house.’ From then on, I was a nuclear fundamentalist."

And it is this sixteen-year-old he summons to help him understand the fundamentalism of modern Islamists, so superficially different, and he finds in it "What certain angry, frustrated young men have always secretly dreamed of — a theology of rebellion, rooted in hostility and contempt." I must stop quoting here, though the sheer pleasure of writing out his sentences makes me want to go on. But the mixture of shrewdness, sympathy and elegant writing makes this one of the finest things I have ever read on the religious imagination and on the experience of exile. You can even find it on the web, if you look around the New Yorker’s site.

And so back to the quotidian. The newly recounted attendance figures were first got by the Sunday Telegraph which spun them in an ingenious way: the old low ones, it suggested, were the result of priests concealing their attendance figures for fear of being assessed for quota on that basis. The Times had no such qualms, and reported them quite straight, but what really caught my eye was the little story underneath, where the Archdeacon of the Navy "described religious fundamentalism as a challenge to all the world’s faith groups" at an international conference of military chaplains attended by Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and even Buddhist clergy as well as the C of E. Here we are, having advanced understanding between armies and religions to the point where such a meeting can be held, and what does it do but find some other religious against whom war must be waged?

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