The frozen reaction of history

23 November 2012

"Downbeat": from The Times report on Wednesday

"Downbeat": from The Times report on Wednesday

Disasters bring out the best in my profession. Sitting amid the thrilled panic of the press room at the Synod after the vote had gone down, I was filled with uncomplicated admiration for the reporters, in their pulling together a clear narrative from a complex story. Lizzy Davies, Ruth Gledhill, and Jerome Taylor were the people I noticed running around, and all of them produced quick, accurate, and graceful stories that made the front pages.

Even the press office worked as it should, producing, within minutes of the catastrophe, a bishop able and willing to speak plain English, and soon after that, the statistics needed to stand up its point that the Measure had been approved by very substantial majorities - just not overwhelming enough.

Considering that no one in the press room really expected this result, it was a glorious demonstration of how well newspapers can rise to the occasion when there is some actual news to report. It's when nothing happens that we turn to mischief.

The Times and The Guardian had almost identical lead sentences: "The church was plunged into its gravest crisis in decades after a vote that would have opened up the episcopate to female clerics was lost by just six votes in the house of laity. The house of bishops had voted massively in favour of the legislation," Lizzy Davies wrote in The Guardian.

The most remarkable comment - coherent and very angry - was the Times leader: "Yesterday was a sad and shameful day for the Church of England and therefore for the country of which it is the established religion. It took 12 years of deliberation and prayer for the Church to arrive at its decision on appointing women as bishops, and yet it got that decision dreadfully wrong.

"What happened yesterday will be horribly familiar to leaders of political parties that have lost their way. The process was hijacked by a small but highly motivated group of fundamentalists more interested in factional organisation, textual analysis and strict orthodoxy than in the real world and how people live their lives. When such people take over any body, it drifts away from common sense.

"The leadership of the Church failed in a fairly straightforward job of political organisation and moral guidance. It has been amateurish and shambolic. And sadly, this provides the epitaph for the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury."

Canon Lucy Winkett in The Guardian was less angry and more optimistic: "This vote has been a disaster for the Church of England, one we will undoubtedly recover from, but one that further perpetuates the commonly held view that our society is better off without the contribution of the Christian church. Many like me will stay, of course. Delivering ultimatums is a sorry way to go about a ministry, but we will hang on by our fingertips, sad and furious in equal measure, until the authority of women and men is accepted by the church we love but, at times like this, find impossible to defend."

The Mail leaped straight through to the next story. "The next Archbishop of Canterbury has described the vote rejecting the introduction of women bishops as a 'very grim day'.

"The Right Reverend Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, tweeted his message after the General Synod narrowly failed last night to give final approval to the legislation, plunging the Church of England into crisis and recrimination.

"A 12-year push to allow women to move into the senior positions ended in one minute of electronic voting - and was lost by the narrowest of margins. Bishops and clergy had overwhelmingly backed the move, but the Church's 'third house', made up of lay members, fell just six votes short."

One point about all this is that it was astonishingly downbeat. I mean, here was an opportunity for excitement and overstatement if ever I saw one, yet, apart from a comment piece in The Guardian that started: "I think I have just seen the Church of England commit suicide," most people kept their sense of proportion.

Some of this may have been shock. A number of people who should have known better could not take seriously the idea that, at the end of all this drama, the Synod would do the dramatic thing. I was certainly one of them, and I was quite wrong. Andreas Whittam Smith, in The Independent, had an account of the debate that was clearly leading up to a narrow victory for common sense, and then had the last few sentences tacked on after the vote.

"At 6.10 p.m., after more than 100 speeches, almost half by women, we were asked to vote. I voted in favour. But the two-thirds majority was not attained. The motion was lost. Disaster."

It's in that kind of frozen reaction that history is recorded by journalists.

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