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