Press Column

It is a tribute to Jonathan Petre’s reputation that the we would all have looked utter fools if a press conference had been called on Tuesday to announce the appointment of a new bishop of Swindon. Getting the date on which Dr Carey will announce his retirement is a much finer scoop than getting the year right. After all, that’s bound to happen if you run a story every November announcing that the Archbishop will go next year. Not many papers bothered with a parting shot at the departing Archbishop. But almost everyone had runners and riders pieces. The best quote in any of these came from Rowan Williams, who told the Times that "I think continuing the work that George Carey has done is the way forward. That is the nightmare of the job." I really hope more than I can say that this was verbatim. It would strengthen wonderfully his credentials to be the Adlai Stevenson of this election. Williams was described in the Guardian as "one of the leading and most charismatic Anglican theologians". This left me wondering for a while who might be described as "one of the less charismatic Anglican theologians".

The Times had also spoken to "a friend of the Bishop of London". This term, in journalistic usage, sometimes means "an enemy" and sometimes "the man himself, speaking anonymously". The related term "Friends of" can carry these meanings, but also "me and the gang from the Beast and the Brute were talking about this down the pub"; or, if the author has no friends, it means "I wish it were true that…" The one thing that "a friend" never means is a friend.

With this in mind, we can study the remarks attributed to "a friend of the Bishop of London" and conclude at once that it was not the man himself. "In Chartres, you would be getting a man who believes passionately that the Church needs to recover its confidence … [he] believes strongly that the Church needs to discover a sense of confidence as servant of those who are seeking the truth in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings." Assuming that the Bishop has seen either of these films, he knows perfectly well that anyone who is searching for the truth in them needs spiritual help a lot less than they need medication. So he is unlikely to have said anything so silly, even for an audience of Times readers. Otherwise we must make a point of asking him whether the Balrog really did have wings and whether he thinks the Lay of Gimli and Galadriel should be part of the canon.

All the papers mentioned Rowan Williams, Richard Chartres, and Michael Nazir-Ali. The Telegraph’s news story also gave a plug for Christopher Herbert. Its comment pages were silent though you would expect the Daily Telegraph to be another Chartres cheer-leader. But it has been pre-occupied so far this week with an extraordinary piece of republicanism: a huge, conscientious and alarmingly off-putting account of the Queen’s life by Graham Turner. It makes the Royal family and the circles that they move in sound like Gormenghast without the villain. One courtier says "If only she had put as much effort into raising her family as she has done into breeding her horses, we wouldn’t be in this mess." There’s no doubt that the work is meant to be loyal: for instance it is clear that she knows the Bible more or less by heart, and is really worried when her staff skip Sunday services. This ties in with her reported admiration for Dr Carey.

My eye was caught by a discussion of sexual morality: "She is not in any way puritanical: ‘Shortly before I arrived on Britannia’ said another admiral who commanded the Royal Yacht, ‘ We suddenly discovered about six homosexuals on the yacht and they had to go. A couple eventually went to jail. I had to discuss it all with the Queen and was afraid that it might prove embarrassing, but she just felt so sad for the. Several were long-serving yachtsmen. There wasn’t a breath of puritanism in her attitude. But later on, when I was at Buckingham Palace and one of the staff there was caught misbehaving with a housemaid — they were both married to other people — she was very disapproving indeed." A woman whose servants think her remarkably broad-minded when she is sorry for homosexuals who go to jail must have had a strange and miserable time of her children’s marriages.

The liberal papers are of course in favour of Rowan Williams. In the Guardian’s case, this comes by implication, because of its belief in disestablishment. There was an op-ed piece by Hywel Williams: "it is the fact of the establishment which remains the most pernicious feature of the Church of England. The sight of Anglican bishops dancing attendance at court, opining dutiful platitudes in the House of Lords, standing loyally a few steps behind the sovereign at the Queen’s Maundy service … all these things remain a sad reproach and stop the church from exercising a prophetic function." This is a shame if its true, because they are all so much more interesting than the alternatives such as opining dutiful platitudes in public.

In the Independent , however, Paul Vallely made a straightforward pitch for Rowan Williams: "There is only one obvious contender for so thorough-going and sensitive revitalisation [as the church needs] Those who know him well can reveal that for all his fierce intellect he is touched with a deep and simple holiness. Together these qualities give him the courage to be an uncomfortably prophetic figure … Rowan Williams is the man for the season. The question is whether the Church will be perceptive enough to choose him, and Tony Blair brave enough to allow that." Of course, this is the view of a Roman Catholic, but, since Blair is himself the closest thing we have ever had to a Catholic Prime Minister, it may run parallel to his own prejudices. I don’t know. In the next few months there is going to be a systematic bias in favour of Rowan Williams in the press, not for any sinister reasons, but because of all the candidates he is the one who most reminds even hardened journalists of the fact that they once thought religion was important and interesting and grown-up. This quality is unlikely to seem as important to the Crown Appointents Commission.

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