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‘Partisan’ bishops in the firing line

27 February 2015

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 or co-operate.

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 front page.

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 partisan.

"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 souls."

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 £6.50."

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 answerphone.

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 Lords.

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