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If Melanie Phillips is against them . . .

20 September 2013

Champion for justice: Melanie Phillips signs off in the Mailon Monday

Champion for justice: Melanie Phillips signs off in the Mailon Monday

BEFORE we get to the serious stuff, it's worth noting a tic that The Times has.

Every year or so, it runs a story saying that the Roman Catholic Church is considering having married clergy. All that's needed is for some respectable clergyman to point out that this is only a matter of discipline, not doctrine. The Times's own search engine (not the most reliable measure) gives me 60 mentions of "married priests" over the past ten years.

Some have a certain poignancy: "Archbishop Keith O'Brien yesterday strongly denied that he had said anything against the Church's teaching on mandatory celibacy, homosexuality, or women priests at a mass held days after his appointment as a cardinal" (2003). Whatever happened to him, one wonders.

Some have been unjustly forgotten: "Radical proposals to reunite Anglicans with the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of the Pope are to be published this year, The Times has learnt" (2009). Whatever happened to them?

And whatever happened to the "400,000 former Anglicans worldwide seek immediate unity with Rome", which was how The Times covered the Ordinariate?

Now we have James Bone in Rome, producing the news that "The Vatican has opened the door to the possibility of married priests, a move that would go against an established Church tradition.

"Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who will be the No. 2 in the Roman Catholic Church when he becomes Secretary of State next month, declared that the priestly vow of celibacy derived from an age-old rule but was not Catholic dogma."

The whole point about this was that the interview was given when he was just the nuncio in Venezuela. Had he said it as Secretary of State, it would have been a real story. But nuncios are still allowed to tell obvious truths in public, even if it is not compulsory.

AND so to Melanie Phillips's last column in the Daily Mail, which was, by an astonishing coincidence, almost the same as the one she was writing 12 years ago. It is the fate of any successful columnist to turn into a karaoke act of her younger self. That is what the business wants: predictable variation. But Phillips became just a little too predictable, even for the Mail:

"Looking back through my cuttings files, I see that my second column after I started writing on this page in December 2001 was on the subject of multiculturalism. . ."

And no doubt it contained a paragraph very similar to one that appeared this week: "It is, in short, a mad reversal of truth and justice that ultimately would destroy western society - a fate that risks being brought about not by Leftist rabble-rousers or Islamic fanatics, but by sanctimonious idiots like Nick Clegg."

There was a wonderfully self-important sign-off: "I will continue to champion the values in which we all believe and to stand up for truth, justice and the truly powerless against those who would destroy them."

WHATEVER you think of Phillips's argument about the niqab, this was far less forceful than Yasmin Alibhai Brown, arguing the same case in The Independent:

"That all-covering gown, that headscarf, that face mask - all affirm and reinforce the belief that women are a hazard to men and society. These are unacceptable, iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi, and Iranian oppressors. They have no place in our country. So why are so many British females sending out those messages about themselves?

"We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous, and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can't be recognised, it is for Muslims, too.

"This is a struggle between the light of the faith and dark forces here and also in Islamic countries. The clothes symbolise an attempted takeover of the religion just when believers are looking for liberty, autonomy, democracy, and gender equality."

Yet, reading this, I find myself slightly less anti-burqa than I was before. This is because both sides in the debate talk as if there was, or ought to be, one proper way to be Muslim. And that, in turn, tends to make Islam look stranger and more alien, because in all the cultures and religions with which we are familiar, argument and dissent is important.

Thus the existence of fierce arguments within the Muslim communities tends to make Islam less alien. You could not have these arguments without a few people on the wrong side, whose facelessness makes more vivid the humanity of their opponents.

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