IT IS, of course, entirely typical that the one week I go away
on holiday, leaving behind a thoughtful piece with no particular
peg, something happens to demand an instant response.
The Bishops' pastoral letter seems to have inflamed passions in
a most unexpected way. Much of this, of course, was in the timing.
We're coming up to an election where no one knows what the outcome
will be. I'm assured by my political colleagues that the polls
point, with an almost unprecedented degree of unanimity, towards a
hung Parliament but that the workings of our electoral system mean
that no one can predict with any confidence how precisely that
Parliament will be hung, and which parties will be able to coalesce
In those bewildering times, almost the only certainty left to
the Tory press is that the Church of England is a nest of
treacherous whingeing wets, a conviction it formed when Robert
Runcie MC was running the show. Hence the extraordinary fury and
uniformity of the attacks on the document.
It has, all in all, been a wonderful week for connoisseurs of
journalistic vituperation. Nothing written about the bishops quite
reached the standard of the Telegraph's attacks on The
Times and The Guardian after they drew attention to
its abject failure to cover the HSBC scandals. The
Telegraph's attack on The Times for supposedly
being so desperate for ads that two people in that department had
killed themselves under the pressure was so grotesque and shaming
that it was published without a byline, although it was on the
The attacks on the Bishops were not bylined either, but that is
because they were editorials.
Let's see: The Times called it: "unsolicited,
disingenuous and in at least half-a-dozen respects nakedly
"The bishops claim that anyone who says that the letter is an
argument for voting for one party over another has misunderstood
it. If so, many will misunderstand it. The bishops should know
better than to wade into an already heated election campaign while
pretending to be above it.
"They are not chosen by voters and they are not appointed to
intervene in politics. What moral authority they wield derives from
the quality of their spiritual leadership and their personal
example. Their role is the soothing and saving of troubled
Personal example is always a good line to take when all else
fails, and The Sunday Times duly followed up with a
hatchet job on the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens:
"Bishop champion of the poor costs £250,000 a year. . . The bishop
has previously criticised the prevalence of food banks, opposed the
decision to limit benefit increases to one per cent, and worked
with Labour to back an amendment to defeat the welfare reforms.
"Although well above average, the cleric's salary of £41,410 may
not seem excessive. But he also enjoys the use of a Victorian
mansion, complete with turret, in Leicester's premier suburb, along
with £15,000 to run this home and £25,000 in travel costs.
"According to the most recent church figures, released in
November 2013, 'Bishop Tim', as he likes to be known, also gets a
£133,000 allowance for staff - which can include personal staff
such as gardeners - and another £34,000 for office costs."
FINALLY, the biggest of the Murdoch papers, The Sun, put
the boot in. There hadn't been space for the story in The
Sun on Sunday, which led with the unprecedented
revelation that a footballer had been unfaithful to his wife. The
news must have shocked its readers almost as much as the discovery
of the wife shocked the mistress, who reeled into his employers'
offices and demanded £100,000 to keep quiet.
With that out of the way, Monday's Sun went with a
front-page splash revealing: "The Church of England is demanding a
minimum 'Living Wage' of £7.85 an hour - while recruiting staff at
more than a pound less.
"Canterbury Cathedral, HQ of Church head Archbishop Justin
Welby, has jobs at £6.70 while Lichfield Cathedral is offering
The original story (I am copying off the web) also mentioned a
church in Pickering, Yorkshire, which is in fact Methodist, though
it advertises on a C of E website. The Sun had actually
rung them for a comment, but the message was left on an
The Sun story was decorated with mugshots of bishops
and the salaries they earn. Archbishop Welby did well to apologise
straightforwardly and truthfully.
The Guardian, meanwhile, was swept by a wave of
enthusiasm for the report. Columnists and leader-writers queued up
to praise it for being thoughtful and non-partisan. So, to be fair,
did Camilla Cavendish in The Sunday Times.
But the whole story was a beautiful illustration of the way in
which everything is party-political if you engage in party
politics. Anyone who thought the report would get a fair and
dispassionate reading has spent too much time in the House of