Careless talk . . .

01 December 2009

An unpriestly book, says Robert Mackley


Sinners and Saints: The irreverent diaries of Britain’s most controversial priest
Michael Seed with Noel Botham
Blake Publishing £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

THERE are some books that you wish had never been written. Sinners and Saints: The irreverent diaries of Britain’s most controversial priest by Fr Michael Seed falls, sadly, into that category.

They are not really diaries, but more a series of anecdotes about his dealings with various celebrities during his time as ecumenical adviser to two Archbishops of Westminster, The Queen, Ann Widdecombe, the Blairs, and George Carman QC vie for attention with Cardinals Hume and Murphy-O’Connor, Dr Billy Graham, and the Duchess of Argyll (to name but a small proportion of those about whom the author talks).

A great deal of the book rehearses reasonably well-known details of his interactions with the rich and famous, adding the odd new snippet of gossip here and there, or alluding to knowledge that discretion prevents his revealing (in the case of John Paul Getty, for example).

The problem, however, is that discretion ought to have prevented his writing the entire thing. While Seed does not reveal any great scan­dal or divulge the secrets of the con­fessional, he does talk about people’s private lives and the things that they said to him and he to them. There is hardly canonical illegality here, but it seems, none the less, in bad taste, at least to this reviewer. One would be less likely to seek out his counsel after reading this book.

Yet the very demands of priestly confidentiality are what also make this a slightly boring read. There are jolly bits (his being mistaken for a strippergram, and Basil Hume’s use of regional accents to express views that he might not otherwise get away with), and even places of pathos; but never does the book rise anywhere near Alan Clark-levels of narration and engagement, not least because the things that would make it an outrageous must-read are pre­cisely those things that the author’s calling demands he keep hidden.

Seed wrote the book with a journalist, Noel Botham, but this does not seem to have improved the text. Indeed, in places the prose is awkward or simply unclear: “For the sinners, which is very much my category, eternal hope — and a way out — thank God for change,” hangs as a sentence at one point.

The overwhelming feeling with which the reader is left, however, is of a small boy desperate to be loved. His autobiography, Nobody’s Child, tells us why this might be. It is clear that he has won the love and devotion of a very large number of famous people over the years, and that he is an extremely popular man. There was just no need to write this book to prove it.

The Revd Robert Mackley is Assistant Chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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