Press Column

And now for something completely different: the Yorkshire Post believes that the Archbishop of York should become the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Michael Brown was given a large space to fill with reasons not including "Well, he’s the Archbishop of York, in Yorkshire", though this important qualification was mentioned: "Of the eight Archbishops of York in the century just ended, half of them — Lang, Temple, Ramsay, and Coggan – went on to Canterbury. But there’s a danger here, and it’s one that will be readily recognised by readers of this newspaper: that the ancient and venerable see of York should be seen as a mere stepping stone … Heaven forbid."

Of course, it is possible that some people might object to him on ideological grounds. But Michael Brown has a short way with them, "There remains his opposition to women’s ordination. There are now about 3,000 women priests. But is it really the case that they are not willing — no not have the bigness, the magnanimity, the holy charity, to put a halter on their tongues for six years so that a good man like David Hope can become the next Archbishop of Canterbury?"

Just when you think this line of argument cannot get worse, it does, with his concession to feminism: "Even if it were tacitly agreed that an evangelical like James Jones could then go to York to keep the balance?" I am waiting

So far as I can tell from its website, the paper has not had a single letter about all this, which says something profoundly depressing about the way in which people treat religious news.

The Times , on the other hand, has been doing its best to put some excitement into the appointment, even sending to Pakistan Ian Cobain, the reporter who wrote the original "Bishop Nazir Ali smeared" story. This produced an extraordinary front-page story on Saturday captioned "Bishop of Rochester’s long road to faith". There seemed to be a word missing here: "long and winding"? "long and twisting"? — something like that. But there seemed to be words missing throughout the piece. There was a mountain of feathery gossip which never contained anything which actually proved anything more than that the Bishop had been ambitious, able, and flexible as a young man.

The accusations, from "friends" of the bishop, came down to three clear factual things. He was baptised as a Methodist; he had practised as a Roman Catholic, and considered seminary training, while an adolescent; and he had used the title "Doctor" before he was entitled to it. Chris Stone, Dr Nazir-Ali’s press officer, says the first is certainly true. He was baptised in a Methodist church, at a time of considerable denominational fluidity in Pakistan. In fact the church where he was baptised is now, after a scheme of Church Union, part of the Anglican Communion.

It is also true that in secondary school "He worshipped and studied as a Roman Catholic until 1969", according to Mr Stone. The Times found two former schoolmates, not Catholic priests, who remembered him as part of the small group of pupils there fast-tracked towards seminary entry. One told the paper that the seminary was then dominated by Goanese, and that the Anglicans "would offer all kinds of material benefits" to Catholics prepared to make the switch.

The Times also says that he was known as "Doctor" years before he was entitled to the distinction, when he was teaching in Pakistan in the late Seventies after his return from Ridley Hall. Two named witnesses remember him then being introduced as "Dr Nazir-Ali" To this, Mr Stone says that it is entirely possible he was given the title as a mark of respect or affection by his pupils. "But he never used the term Doctor of himself before the completion of his doctorate." He adds that the title most often used in those days was in any case "Padre Sahib".

The only punch that seemed to me to land squarely was right at the end of the piece. "A spokesman for the bishop said that he was not available to answer questions about his past." This is a sentence which should never appear in print. It represents the total failure of the spin doctor’s art. Mr Stone says that the reporter rang from Karachi on a mobile and that they couldn’t ring him back before the deadline.

Ian Cobain is apparently now in Afghanistan — so we should perhaps expect fresh headlines such as "Bishop’s links with Taleban: we always knew him as a Methodist, says former comrade." But it’s possible that there are other stories even more exciting in that part of the world than the appointment of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The Mail had a rather pathetic follow-up on Monday, but otherwise, there was nothing in any of the papers about the whole story. All this is a very small foretaste of what would actually happen if he got the job, of course.

The Sunday Times meanwhile, had a leader calling for an open election to the see, though one in which only members of the Church of England might vote. Chris Morgan had been talking with "friends of Rowan Williams". He had told himself, if I’ve got this right, that Rowan was "understood to have said" that — note the quote marks, denoting verbatim speech, are in the original — "the monarch’s role is part of the package. It will be renegotiation of the bishops in the Lords, the renegotiation of crown appointments and crown prerogatives. I would be a lot happier not to see the monarch as supreme governor."

Only the Daily Telegraph noticed the death of what seems to have been an ideal candidate, not least because, in these ecumenical times, he was an American Jesuit. The Rev’d Joseph Fahey had a doctorate in economics from MIT, but what made him really remarkable were his counting skills. He was such a gifted blackjack player that — although barred from numerous casinos for his skills at card-counting, he still managed to finance "an athletics centre, library, and computer laboratory for Boston College High School" over a period of ten years out of his winnings at the card table. Crown Appointments Commission should make discreet enquiries as to whether the Jesuits can spare anyone else to sort out the Church of England.

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