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The C of E’s reshuffle coverage

18 July 2014


SO THE mountain laboured and brought forth - a hamster, maybe? The difficult thing for the national presss about the women-bishops story was to comprehend the motives of the opponents, and the politicking behind it.

The outcome, however, was easy enough: "The Church of England overcame bitter conflict yesterday by finally approving the consecration of women bishops," as The Times said.

"The move brings to an end four decades of debate and 20 years of disagreement within the established church as well as breaking with nearly 2,000 years of tradition.

"It leaves open the possibility of a woman being appointed before the end of the year, and removes the bar on one being appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church and spiritual leader of the 77-million-strong Anglican Communion."

The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian both put the vote on their front pages. It was squeezed out from the Mail front by acres of reshuffle coverage, which is, though shrewd, a sad commentary on the general interest of the story.

In the tabloids, it was a small story inside: The Sun got a clever headline about the "C of She", and the Mirror ran it in a curious double spread with a group of rejoicing women priests facing the rather more exuberantly dressed singer Rihanna in a paroxysm of pleasure as she danced in Brazil. It's extraordinary the way that bodies change with age when picture editors get at them: a middle-aged woman's head becomes a much smaller object than a young woman's breast.

John Bingham, in the Telegraph, was hard- working and awake enough at the end of a long day to pick up a news line from the exhausted and anodyne news conference given by the Archbishops after the vote was over and the Synod floor emptied.

"The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have signalled they are glad the previous attempts to ordain women bishops collapsed because the new arrangements are more likely to hold the Church together.

"The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, disclosed that he was 'not disappointed' when previous legislation failed to pass the General Synod less than two years ago, despite the fact that it threw the church into its biggest crisis of recent times.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, said the new deal which relies on trust rather than detailed rules was 'much more Christ-like' than what was on the table before."

Yet I have seldom been to an occasion of such historic significance which felt so unexciting. The result of the vote was not entirely surprising, and the arguments had haunting echoes of familiarity. Only the astonishing speech by John Spence really shook the afternoon - and increased my respect for the Synod managers' powers of stage management.

THE real surprise had come on Saturday, with Lord Carey's piece in the Mail in praise of assisted suicide. Here, too, we saw the recruitment of Jesus to the side of an Archbishop. I suppose it's an occupational hazard.

"Those arguments that persuaded me in the past seem to lack power and authority now when confronted with the experiences of those suffering a painful death," Carey wrote. "It seemed to me that both the Bible and the character of God laid far more importance on open-hearted benevolence than on upholding this particular law."

By pure coincidence, the present Archbishop of Canterbury had a piece the same day in The Times: "Compassion is not simply a feeling; it is a commitment to sharing in the suffering of others while trying to alleviate it. "True compassion can be shown through care, through expending time and resources on those suffering, and through offering hope even in the darkest of circumstances.

"More than 500,000 elderly people are abused every year in the United Kingdom. Sadly, the majority of such abuse and neglect is perpetrated by friends and relatives, very often with financial gain as the main motive.

"Compassion must be extended to these people when we consider changing the law to accommodate the smaller number of people who wish for help in ending their lives."

I don't think this is a religious argument, though it will undoubtedly be dismissed as one. But it is, in the best sense, high-minded and elitist. It proceeds from the sense that many people are bad and greedy, and that it is the duty of the law to restrain these tendencies.

The trouble with that is democracy, which proceeds on the basis that, if a majority of people are bad and greedy, then it is the job of the law to accommodate them and of the ethicists to comfort them. We see this in policies on asylum-seekers., Why not on grandparents, too?

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