THE announcement of last year’s Church of England attendance figures was a masterclass in waffle. You had to read down six paragraphs to get to the admission that Sunday attendance had fallen again, together with all the other measures.
Before that, there were five paragraphs of numbers, largely meaningless without their context; and immediately afterwards came a paragraph boasting that nearly half the churches had kitchen facilities — take that, interior designers whose showrooms have no chapel attached — and more than half had lavatories [insert corresponding tasteless joke here].
After that came four more paragraphs of blather and uplift from the Secretary General of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye. There will most definitely be jam tomorrow.
No one who works in the newspaper business is on firm ground when poking fun at declining institutions. The Church Commissioners are in much better shape than the Scott Trust (which owns, and subsidises, The Guardian); and the Churches have a much more successful membership model than any media organisation. If you excavate through the press release to the report itself, you find evidence of a real appetite for the facts, whether or not they suit the story.
But 30 years of reading press releases that every year celebrate the imperishable heritage of yesterday’s jam, and every year affirm our faith in the certainty of tomorrow’s jam, is enough to cast a shadow of cynicism across even the brightest-eyed and bushiest-tailed journalist, which I am not. In any case, the waffle did not make it into print. The Guardian and The Times did not cover the story at all.
Rod Liddle, in The Sunday Times, was characteristically coarse: “I am beginning to understand why the Archbishop of Canterbury was desperate to invite a bunch of migrants to stay at Lambeth Palace. . . I assume Justin Welby will smuggle those migrants into services to boost numbers.
"‘Just stand at the back for a bit. And no, of course I don’t mind you muttering ‘Allahu Akbar’ during communion. This is the C of E. Anything goes. Turn up for the morning service and I’ll send out for a plate of baklava.’”
The Daily Mail’s lead was: “The number of worshippers at Church of England Sunday services has dropped by 14 per cent in ten years.
"Yesterday’s figures confirm a steep decline in the ranks of the Anglican faithful at a time when evidence shows an accelerating fall in Christian belief in the country as a whole.”
The Telegraph version was: “British families only attend church at Christmas, new figures suggest.”
SOME traditions do survive. The really quite spectacular “dirty-vicar” story of the week got very full treatment in The Sun.
You cannot really go wrong from a lead that starts: “A sex-addict vicar has been defrocked after his wife exposed his depraved double life of hookers and orgies,” and continues: “The bisexual clergyman spanked her, took part in group sex, visited gay saunas and sought out romps with prostitutes. After laying bare his kinky double life she revealed: ‘He said the two most important elements in his life were God and sex.’”
The Sun managed a classic headline above that — “50 Shades of Pray” — and then an interview with the cleric himself (not a vicar as such), all full of injured self-righteousness: “As God is my witness, and the judge of us all, I hope that the needless violence that has been wrought by my accusers will cease.”
THERE was a very good and unusual story in The Times by Helen Rumbelow about the Government’s deradicalisation programme for teenagers, Channel. She had been to talk to one of the boys in it, his mother, and his social worker.
"Ali didn’t get put into Channel for drawing a gun. If that were so, every kid — including those who experiment with a swastika doodle — would be on some kind of high alert list. Yet the teacher supervising Ali’s detention was alarmed enough to keep Ali back for a conversation.
"It didn’t take long to observe his unhappiness. While the teacher tried to draw him out Ali hunched, avoided eye contact and gnawed at the skin on his fingers, making them bloody and raw. Yet to explain the gun, Ali said he wanted to fight for Islamic State. This skinny 13-year-old schoolboy was to all intents and purposes an undetonated bomb.
"Ali is doing much better now, thank you, according to his Channel case worker, who sits beside Yasmeen in the room. She is a social worker from Kirklees Council whom I will call Nadiya (all names in this article have been changed).
"‘He was on the path to radicalisation,’ says Nadiya.
"‘Now he wants to work in car sales,’ says his mother.”
Sometimes, life really does imitate Alan Bennett.