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Vested interests: can they cope?

03 January 2014


"THERE is a religious angle to the holiday," as a news editor once explained to me when demanding that I produce something to put in the emptying pages at Christmas time. The trouble is that very little newsy happens in church around then - nor should it; so all credit to Jonathan Petre for finding a completely original angle.

His story, based around a private member's motion at the next General Synod, ran under a classic headline: "Vicars defrocked! Fears of jeans and hoodies as Synod votes to decide if clergy's robes are surplice to requirements". This almost makes the trifecta of a diary story, which should contain a joke, a fact, and a mistake. All it lacks is the fact.

The copy, though, is superb: "Never mind the cassocks - vicars could soon be conducting services in shell-suits, shorts or even football shirts under radical plans to overturn centuries of Church tradition.

"Rules requiring the clergy to don traditional vestments are set to be swept aside as part of a 'makeover' designed to make services more relevant to modern congregations.

"If the Church of England Synod approves the reforms, vicars could wear whatever they deem appropriate for all their services -including weddings, baptisms and funerals."

Later, however, comes the touch that lifts this up to journalism of the very highest class. Anyone - well, anyone with the Mail on Sunday's lunch budget - could get an anonymous "senior synod member" to say, as Jonathan did, "soon they will be wearing shell- suits in the sacristy". But it took a master to write the next paragraph:

"Even leading liberal and Thought For The Day contributor the Rev Giles Fraser, whose normal attire is jeans and a T-shirt, said: 'It's outrageous. Is nothing sacred?'"

I don't think that Giles is often seen wearing anything as formal as a pair of jeans.

THERE were uplifting stories, too: in The Guardian, a lovely piece from Helen Pidd, in Bradford, about the way in which Muslims have helped to rescue the city's orthodox synagogue. There are only 45 members, and their building is falling down. And there is a long history, of course, of Jewish suspicion of Muslim anti-Semitism in the city.

"Since the last race riots in the city in 2001, there has been no sign to mark the building. 'We didn't want to be the cause of potential trouble, so we took the plaque down over ten years ago,' said [Rabbi] Leavor, who said there was an incident a few years ago when one man left the synagogue wearing his kippah, or skull cap, and was spat at by two Pakistani men passing in a car."

Yet there is now co-operation in fund-raising, and Muslims and Jews share meals on holy days; and when the rabbi goes on holiday, he leaves the key to the synagogue with the secretary of the local mosque.

THE other Muslim news was much less cheerful. A long piece by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent dealt with the threat of a civil war between Shia and Sunni engulfing the whole of the Middle East. It contained one perfectly horrible atrocity which seems to have escaped much comment: "At the beginning of December, al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station."

I find this worse than the bombing of churches, because the targeted killing of doctors has the explicit aim of killing more of your enemies, as everyone the doctor might have saved will now be at a greater risk of death themselves.

MORE cheering was the skirmish between Rowan Williams and Iain Duncan Smith. The Economist's comment is well worth quoting:

"It's probably fair to say that this little spat will enhance the [former] archbishop's personal standing and do the opposite for Mr Duncan Smith. But think for a moment about why the archbishop-turned-academic commands respectful attention now.

"If he were still the holder of a great ecclesiastical office, occupying a palace on the banks of the Thames, people might react as some do to political comments by members of the royal family: why should we listen to political prescriptions from a person who enjoys prominence only because of a quirk of history?"

Cheering for Rowan, that is. A challenge for those bishops still in office.

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