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Honouring working-class culture, and sneering at it

16 December 2016


THE difficulties of Arun Arora’s job running the PR for the Church of England are nicely illustrated by the report on The Northern Echo’s website that he is moving from London to take over George Carey’s old church in the marketplace in Durham.

At the bottom of the story — simply a reprinted press release, no journalistic effort involved at all — comes a listing of the most popular stories on the paper’s website.

The press release about Arun’s move comes in at number five; so it is more popular than “Man defies girlfriend to get Jeremy Kyle tattoo — on his bottom”. Perhaps that would do better with a picture? But it interested readers less than “Do you recognise these suspects caught on TV?” and “Jail for brothers who ‘tortured’ hedgehog and kicked it like a football.”

It is also more popular than a story that suggests to me what poverty really does to people: “Dispute over window cleaning debt led to street attack victim suffering cardiac arrest.” The combination of poor health, debt, and violent altercation in the streets is not something you would read about in more affluent parts of England, and, in that tiny headline, it seems to me that there is a remarkable story to be written about what led up to that unremarkable moment, if there were journalists left to write it.

Arun has tried, I think, fairly consistently, to connect the Church of England with working-class culture — an uphill struggle at the best of times. This is, in part, because his own background was that of a struggling outsider. He has recently put a great deal of effort into plugging the autobiography of Matt Woodward, a trainee priest whose wife was undergoing fertility treatment at the same time as he did his ordination training (Feature, 11 November; Books, 25 November). It is not a book I much enjoyed, but the Church is doomed if it can appeal only to people with my cultural background.


I AM not sure whether the Mirror’s story about “the most hated mum in Britain” qualifies as a description of outreach into working-class culture. Karen Matthews was living in poverty in Dewsbury in 2008 when she arranged for her eight-year-old daughter to be kidnapped by a friend, apparently in the hope of collecting the reward money for finding her. After a month or so, in which she was constantly in the news as a bereft and desperate mother appealing for her child back, the plot unravelled. She ended up being sentenced to eight years in jail, along with her accomplice.

She now lives “somewhere in southern England”, the Mirror wrote sanctimoniously, explaining that it did not want to expose her to further persecution. The piece online is illustrated with no fewer than six snatched photographs of her as she looks today, in case anyone wants to know whose privacy the paper is so zealously protecting.

So what’s the God angle? “Lonely Matthews [has] joined a Bible group to meet new friends, has become a teetotaller, and prays every day in an effort to lift her spirits.”

As you might guess, there is a “pal” (in the tabloid usage meaning someone who has ratted you out for money) who is central to the story. “She told the pal she turned to the Bible group as she spiralled into a life of miserable loneliness after being cut off from her family and friends.

“Matthews added: ‘I get to meet people and talk. The people are kind and don’t judge. My favourite passages in the Bible are Matthew’s. They are the best because they are the same as my old surname. I asked for forgiveness through prayer when I first prayed for ­forgiveness.

“‘I knew I did ­something wrong. It lifted me.’

“The group meet in a Pret a Manger cafe. Websites they regularly use have Christian-sentiment messages from TV survival expert [Bear] Grylls and want to help those with ‘questions about life’.”

I think this is meant as a description of an Alpha course.

This is a story which brings out all my Guardian-writer instinct. She is a woman who did a terrible thing, but there is something vile about the jeering tone of the writing, which culminated in one particularly nasty invitation to contempt: “Matthews, once sex-crazed, attends church on Sundays . . . if she gets up on time.”

Poking around, though, led me to an illuminating quote from Grylls himself, picked up from the Radio Times. “‘I really struggle with religion just because it’s the source of so much conflict and disunity. The heart of Christianity is just about saying, ‘I need help, and will you be beside me?’ And I don’t think anyone has a problem with that. What they don’t want is religion.”

I don’t think one could more clearly exemplify the way in which “religion” has now become a toxic brand.

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