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29 December 2011

by Andrew Brown

THIS has been a year with two huge religious stories, neither of which had anything to do with the Church of England. That makes a difficulty for religious correspondents. I re­mem­ber going to a meeting about the anni­vers­ary of the 9/11 attacks at The Guardian, where it emerged that no one had planned anything on their religious significance or effects.

So the Arab Spring and the Am­erican presidential election, neither of which can be understood without seeing them as religious as well as political, were, for the most part, treated as if religion were just a decoration on the brute facts.

Still, even within the world of English Christian stories, one im­port­­ant thing clearly happened, and one supposedly important one just didn’t. This was a year in which the Church’s public image moved dis­tinctly to the Left.

This need not have happened. The royal wedding was an expres­sion of pomp and ceremony done right. But the death of bin Laden provided the Archbishop of Canter­bury with an opportunity to worry about the rule of the law, and that caused some strains. Then there was his guest editorship of the New Statesman, which certainly got him talked about, but identified him, in the eyes of much of the Conservative Party, as an enemy.

I suppose it can’t be helped that he is seen as a natural Guardian/New Statesman man, since that’s what he is, just as his predecessor seemed en­tirely happy dispensing moral advice from his pulpit column in the News of the World.

AND so to the Leveson inquiry, and the phone-hacking story generally. This really is a large shift in the relationship between the press and the law, and a definite loss of power for the tabloid press. It won’t stop the flow of celebrity trivia, but it will make the press a little less willing to break the law in pursuit of dodgy stories. So it won’t really change press ethics, but if it does ensure that the criminal law is observed in future, that will change press prac­tice quite a lot.

On the other hand, the press will still be with us for a while longer. The year opened with a huge hyping of WikiLeaks, and ended with that story looking embarrassingly over­blown. It turns out that, without journ­alists to sort and organise them, the only people really inter­ested in secret files are cranks and secret policemen.

The other great fiasco — the story that didn’t happen — was the Ordinariate. This has fallen out of the papers almost as fast as the schism. The flaw in the plan, right from the beginning, has always been that no one except the priests im­mediately involved can imagine what need it fills.

I don’t want to end on an entirely crabby note; so it’s worth saying that the year did see one really mem­orable piece of religious journalism: Simon Hattenstone’s interview with the dying Philip Gould in The Guar­dian, in which the Labour pollster talked about death and faith with a matter-of-fact assurance that was simply astonishing.

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