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Not in front of the journalists

24 June 2016

Cut out and keep: the Telegraph’s guide to the Church of England’s Shared Conversations, on Saturday

Cut out and keep: the Telegraph’s guide to the Church of England’s Shared Conversations, on Saturday

I BELIEVE that this week there may have been something else going on that captured the attention of the worldly, but the serious part of the nation talks of little but the Shared Conversations.

These got a good spread in The Times and the Telegraph, and, subsequently, a mention in The Guardian. But the most remarkable thing was the preliminary assault in the Mail: “The radical student doctrine of ‘safe spaces’ — often used to shut down free speech on university campuses — has been adopted by the Church of England.

“A major debate on gay rights is to be held behind closed doors with the aim of making all its speakers feel welcome and ‘encouraging diversity’.”

It continues: “The debate is thought to be the first time in its near 100-year history that the Church’s parliament, which has law-making powers, will have gone into secret session to consider its thinking on a moral question of great public interest. The move has angered Synod members on the Church’s conservative evangelical wing, who called the secret sessions an affront to democracy.”

Much as I like Steve Doughty, and respect his normal professionalism at the Mail, this is bilge. The article would be nonsense even without the giveaway line that Andrea Minichiello Williams is angry about something. The Shared Conversations are not a debate, in the sense that they are not meant to issue in any decision. Their purpose is not to shut speech down, but to allow it.

I don’t suppose that Mr Doughty would care to discuss his sexuality in front of the General Synod with the press in attendance, irreproachable though his morals doubtless are. I know that I wouldn’t do that for less than the sort of salary offered to the Church of England’s new “Head of Digital” (£65,000, since you ask).

And, speaking professionally, there are few discussions where people behave better for the presence of journalists. At least, I hope there are few, because if people behave even worse when we’re not watching, the world is in really bad shape.

BUT the week’s big story was the dissection by the magazine The Atlantic of the great fraud, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”.

This was a papyrus fragment that surfaced in 2012, and was endorsed by a prominent scholar at Harvard, Professor Karen King. It appeared to show that there had been at least one Gnostic Gospel in circulation in which Jesus made a reference to “my wife”.

Although the ink and the papyrus checked out as authentically old, through carbon dating, it was only a matter of weeks before the text itself was tracked down to an interlinear translation of the Gospel of Thomas published online in 2002. Phrases from this had been lifted and chopped up to make the passages in the fragment, something that showed up in a very unusual word-break, and one of the words contained a typo (a missing letter) that was found only in the PDF description.

This pretty much settled the matter among serious scholars, apart from inspiring a bril­liant New Yorker parody: “We were married in a simple, private ceremony in the desert, by a rabbi and someone whom Jesus called a Baptist minister. Right before the vows, the rabbi whispered to me, ‘Think about what you’re doing. Your children will be half-Christian.’ Which was when the minister whis­pered, ‘So what? College isn’t for every­one.’”

The story languished in the sink trap of oblivion and embarrass­ment until Ariel Sabar, a wonder­fully persistent researcher, tracked the forgery to Flor­ida, via Berlin. The forger turned out to be a German, Walter Fritz, who had pre­tended to obtain the manu­script from a drunken friend of his who had run an autoparts business in Berlin. He had studied Egyptology for a couple of years, but had more successfully run a net­work of pornographic web­sites featuring his wife per­form­ing with other men. One home page billed her as “America’s #1 Slut Wife.”

The Atlantic reported: “On one of his wife’s sites . . . passages from Goethe, Proust, and Edna St Vincent Millay are inter­spersed with philosophical musings on Jesus’s teach­ings, the slippery nature of reality, and ‘the Perfection of Sluthood’.” She also would babble in a language he supposed to be Aramaic while they were having sex.

She herself claimed that she had been a clairvoyant since the age of 17, and had been instructed by angels to do everything she subsequently did. She had not been influenced in the least by the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

Faced with this evidence, Professor King has admitted that the fragment must now be a forgery. So there is hope, I suppose, that the truth will sometimes triumph. Whether it will this week, I can’t at the moment of writing tell you.

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