Press Column

I know that most readers, if they tried to help with this project, would end up on the foreign pages, but I still urge all of you to respond to the Yorkshire Post, which has launched an appeal to find when its readers last heard a sermon against the sins of the flesh. Write to The Editor, Yorkshire Post, Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 1RF saying when you last heard the sins of the flesh denounced from your local pulpit.. This may not entirely be what Canon Edward Norman was expecting when he wrote his latest book, Secularisation. But if there is anything more to secularisation than the cofe’s accommodation to modern humanist ethics, we don’t want to confuse the reader with it.

Readers of the News of the World will nod their heads sagely at Canon Norman’s message, for they are well fed with denunciations of every sort of backsliding from traditional morality, especially among the clergy. When the clergyman in question is a canon, the excitement among sub-editors becomes uncontrollable: let’s see — we can have "Canon of Bangor fired for trying to make boo boom with lady vicar" followed by a sub-head: "And he went off half-cocked with church worker too." The story itself needed a lot of spicing up, since all the Rev Geoff Hewitt had actually done was to grope and kiss a couple of female co-workers — reprehensible behaviour, but not really bending the needle on the scandal meter. On the other hand, one of his victims was a woman priest, described as "the gobsmacked Rev Tania". So that made it a whole lot more fun for the paper. Best of all was the quote someone had dug out from Jeremiah: "Behold, I am against prophets, saith the LORD, that use their tongues." This makes one forgive an awful lot of the rest: the fact that he was only an honorary cathedral canon, and that his punishment consisted of being sacked from that as well as from the post of rural Dean, or "his two prestige jobs" as the paper described them.

By Monday’s Daily Mail, the rural Dean had been promoted to "a leading churchman" and his wife was blaming the whole thing on stress. Normally the Mail has strong principles about following up other papers’ stories, but the chance to get "Canon fired" into a headline is worth any amount of principle.

More grist to Edward Norman’s mill in Norfolk, where the Rev’d Kit Chalcraft, suspended for seven years after his third marriage, has been reconciled with his bishop and given permission to officiate at services, though without his licence being restored. In other words, he has been turned into a sort of local NSM. This looks to me like a graceful surrender mostly on Chalcraft’s side. It has been some time since I had a triumphalist press release from Chalcraft’s parishes explaining how much better off they were outside the diocesan structure of the Church of England and enclosing the really rather professional parish magazine. But a breakaway of that sort cannot stay stable. It has to grow or shrink; and, so far as I can see, this one has shrunk back into the rest of the Church. But you have to look quite carefully to work that out, which is a tribute to the good sense of the bishop.

Is the appointment of the next Archbishop of Canterbury still a decent story? The Times is determined that it should be so. There are to be four profiles of the leading contenders, and on Monday there was a very curiously spun news story by Andrew Norfolk about Desmond Tutu, suggesting that he would want Michael Nazir-Ali for the job. The oddness in the story comes right up at the top. "Desmond Tutu has called on the Church of England to consider appointing a non-English bishop to replace Dr Geaorge Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury. Such an appeal from one of the world’s most respected churchmen can only enhance the chances of the bishop of Rochester the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, becoming the first black Archbishop of Canterbury."

But by what criterion is Michael Nazir Ali not an English bishop? I know it’s a silly question, but it’s a good silly question. By any criterion that Church of England can — or should — admit Michael Nazir Ali is an English bishop, (and Rowan Williams isn’t). The whole spin of this story depends on the Times taking the view that its readers suppose that no one born in Pakistan can be English. And the remarks actually attributed to Tutu suggest that he disagrees with this. What he is clearly talking about is the appointment of a bishop from outside the Church of England: "There might have been a separation of the Establishment role, which could be fulfilled by an English appointee, as perhaps by the Archbishop of York, and that non-English persons could thus be eligible for the primary task of being first among equals as President of the Lambeth Conference and … head of the Anglican Communion. I think there are in the present situation some of the most outstanding persons who would be ruled out of contention just because of being ‘non-English’ and our church would be greatly impoverished by this exclusion."

Mary Ann Sieghart’s Times profile of Richard Chartres appears to have been done without talking to him, though it does contain the mysterious news that "Chartres believes that we suffer from a ‘Merlin deficit’: we ache for a wise old man with a sense of mystery and magic to inspire us." Where it does break ground, however, is in the graphic: a row of mitres representing the bishop’s score, out of five, on such issues as "intelligence". "holiness" and "Attitudes to women in the church." The bishop of London got five mitres for intelligence, but I’m sure he’ll treasure more the four-mitre Times certificate of holiness, backed as it is by Rupert Murdoch. Laugh away. I’ve just profiled Philip Mawer in his role as parliamentary commissioner for standards, in a magazine owned by Mohammed Al-Fayed.

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