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Opinion piece

06 July 2012

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AS A plea on behalf of the selfless, healing power of compromise, it was hardly inspiring. Asked on The Frock and the Church (Radio 4, Sunday) how a woman bishop might engage with parishes that did not welcome her, one cathedral canon reminded us that there was always the harvest supper.

At the conclusion of a programme when opinions for and against the ordination of women bishops were expressed in bracing fashion, the official church line in support of the Synod proposal came across as flaccid and ineffectual.

That is not to say that there are not perfectly convincing people out there able to do the job. But the presenter, Charlotte Smith, said that she was not able to get hold of them: neither the Bishop of Winchester, nor either of the Archbishops, gave her an interview - presumably a strategy intended to keep their tinder dry before the debate.

To the average BBC Radio listener, Smith is the person who gets up even earlier than the Today presenters to present Farming Today, and who has a portfolio of reporting credits on television and radio. Listeners might, therefore, have expected a dispassionate account of the debate that is going to be consuming the Church of England over the next few weeks.

It quickly emerged, however, that this was more of a presenter-as-author piece, in which the presenter's own background (married to a Roman Catholic, but unwilling herself to go over) and opinions (she described Reform as a group for women fighting for the right to be discriminated against) guided the project. I have no objection to opinion pieces, but they need to be flagged up at the outset.

Like the Anglican fudge that Smith was criticising, the programme changed course as it encountered difficulties. We were told that this was to be a Pilgrim's Way from Winchester to Canterbury, but not even the most errant satnav would take you via Buckingham (to interview Bishop Alan Wilson), and this device was abandoned by the end of the show. We can only hope that the Church has a better sense of direction.

In contrast, there is no doubting the authorial voice in this year's Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), presented by Niall Ferguson. The series is billed as a critique of Western civilisation in decline, and last week dealt with the banking crisis.

I could not help wondering whether the speech would have changed had the news about Barclays broken in advance of its broadcast; for Professor Ferguson invariably puts on an act of intellectual daredevilry, appearing to propose something outlandishly counter-intuitive. It is the revisionists' favourite trick: to take an assumption and seem to turn it on its head.

In this instance, the assumption he planned to overturn was that regulation of the financial system was a necessary result of the recent turbulence. No, he proclaimed: it is regulation that got us into this mess. A daring proposition, you might think - until you heard the rest of the talk, which concluded with the proposition that regulation should be simplified, and the Bank of England should get tougher. At that point, you realise that spread underneath the intellectual high-wire act is some sensible netting.

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