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Stories multi-layered as an onion

10 January 2014

“Ingenious”: Jonathan Petre’s story in the Mail on Sunday

WHAT a wonderful week for clarifications! Jonathan Petre, in the Mail on Sunday, followed up his story last week with another, almost as ingenious, although lacking the fine touches that make a connoisseur smile. Getting a quote out of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali to the effect that the Church of England is going to hell in a handcart is not really difficult or unexpected - even when there is no longer any hell for the handcart to land in. But making a story out of an old experimental revision of the baptismal rite was still something to be proud of, and it had the most enormous resonance.

His original story on Sunday morning was followed by the Telegraph, The Independent, and The Guardian: you could tell from the increasing desperation of the coverage that no one else could actually stand it up, but their newsdesks loved it anyway. How could they not, when it cast the Archbishop of Canterbury against type - but consistent with the archetype of a modern archbishop - as trendily abandoning immortal truths?

There was even that old standby, the senior anonymous source: "One senior member of the General Synod, who did not wish to be named, said: 'This is more like a benediction from the Good Fairy than any church service.

"'The trouble is that large parts of the Church of England don't believe in hell, sin or repentance. They think you can just hold hands and smile and we will all go to Heaven. That is certainly not what Jesus thought.'"

This was perhaps the justification for the most startling paragraph in the story: "The idea has angered many senior members of the church who feel it breaks vital links with baptisms as described in the Bible."

Petre can get away with this sort of guff only because most news editors have no more knowledge of current Anglican services - or of the Bible - than they can remember from their own baptisms.

By the time the story had reached the picture captions, all shred of nuance had vanished, and readers learned that "Parents and godparents no longer have to 'repent sins' and 'reject the devil' during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony in a move backed by Justin Welby."

By Sunday afternoon, the Synod's press office had got out a pretty clear demolition of the story, and it died remarkably quickly.

Of course, this is storing up trouble for the future. When he has started the year with two such stories, it is hard to see how he can possibly sustain this standard.


THEN there was the Vatican, forced to deny that Pope Francis was softening his opposition towards gay marriage. This had arisen because of his remarks to religious superiors, in which - to quote the National Catholic Reporter - "the pope mentioned a situation involving the child of a lesbian couple as an example of 'new challenges which sometimes are difficult for us to understand'.

"Francis said it's important in reaching out to these children 'not to administer a vaccine against faith'."

It is technically true, of course, that this does not represent any weakening of the line against gay marriage. But what it does represent is a distinct change of tack towards gay people. One can see here the emergence of a compromise similar to that which is clearly under way about marriage after divorce -the official teaching remains as it is, butan unofficial policy is adopted that grants all the practical benefits of same-sex marriage or opposite-sex remarriage, while maintaining that this is not really happening.

This is the policy that the Bishops in the Lords attempted, too late and with too little sincerity, to adopt when they converted en masse to the delights of civil partnerships. But it will work only when the conversion looks sincere. And it is difficult - not impossible - to think of any serving Anglican diocesan bishops distinguished by their affection towards real gay people. It is rather easier to think of those distinguished by the opposite sentiment.


THE Onion, although it bills itself as "America's finest news source", is generally regarded as a satirical magazine that makes up all its stories. So it is not entirely comparable to the Mail on Sunday. But it could teach us all about anonymous sources, as in this usage: "Sources confirmed today that the brainwashed morons at First Baptist Assembly of Christ, all of whom blindly accept whatever simplistic fairy tales are fed to them, volunteer each Wednesday night to provide meals to impoverished members of the community." The headline on the story was "Local Church full of brainwashed idiots feeds town's poor every week".

Much of the skill of journalism consists in getting life to imitate The Onion.

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