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Treading carefully in a tricky area

09 September 2016

Pre-emptive: The Guardian’s front page on Saturday

Pre-emptive: The Guardian’s front page on Saturday

I AM beginning to think that the Archbishop of Canterbury would be rather good at walking through a Swedish forest. The tracks there have a habit of suddenly disappearing into a bog. The trick is to put your foot down only where there is rock beneath — but you cannot tell from the surface whether it is safe, or if your boot will vanish over the ankle with a chilly squelch.

The outing of the Bishop of Grantham, the Rt Revd Nicholas Chamberlain, has left the Archbishop’s socks pretty dry.

So far as I can reconstruct what happened, The Sunday Times was preparing a monster piece on the state of play in the gay wars, in advance of the meeting of the College of Bishops. This might be seen as the liberal riposte to the Evangelical story about the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon, the Tunbridge Wells vicar now threatening that 12 parishes will go into schism.

Part of the Sunday Times story was a letter from 14 same-sex married clergy outing themselves; another part might have been the announcement that there were two celibate gay bishops known to Archbishop Welby — but only if the parties involved agreed.

Two bishops were approached. One told the paper to go away, if not in quite those words. The other, Bishop Chamberlain, con­sulted central authorities, and was advised to spike the scoop by giving a pre-emptive interview instead to The Guardian.

This duly appeared, conducted with deft sympathy by Harriet Sherwood. The crucial line for close students appeared a long way down the story: “He declined to express objections to the C of E’s celibacy rule for gay clergy. ‘My observation of human beings over the years has shown me how much variety there is in the way people express their relationships. Physical expression is not for everyone.’”

That is nicely judged. It does not say that physical expression is wrong for everyone, either. You could read it both ways, which is, I think, how the official position is meant to be read at the moment.

It also serves the purposes of Lambeth Palace in that it split the conservative side between those who genuinely believe, or try to believe, that gay people are OK so long as they’re celibate, and those who think that they’re just icky, even when they’re pretending to be normal. For readers who do not watch the story closely, the message was that the Church promotes gay people; for con­servatives, the message was that it promotes only celibate ones.

Of course, this left The Sunday Times spitting tacks. Nicholas Hellen was especially furious at the suggestion that the paper had threatened to out anyone. I think it is fair to say that the paper would not — and did not — run a story about sexual orientation without the consent of the person involved, and never intended to do so. On the other hand, a note from a journalist saying, in effect, “We know all about you. Would you like to co-operate?” is easy for the recipient to misunderstand.

Whether there is a legitimate public interest in the sex lives of bishops is another story. The Telegraph appeared to believe not, sucking the story away underneath the page lead: “Church urged to sack vicar who joined ‘cruel’ hunt”, with the marvellously Court and Social headline: “Bishop tells of his homosexual relationship”.


THE question arose still more sharply in the case of Keith Vaz MP, who was caught with two Eastern European rent boys despite being a married man who, until Tuesday, was chairman of a parliamentary committee look­ing into the laws around pros­titution. The touching faith that so many people in public life seem to have in the integrity of the prostitutes they hire is quite remarkable. In any case, these young men shopped him to the Sunday Mirror.

Prostitution makes a diffi­culty for the liberal belief that nothing consenting adults do in private should be the object of public censure. It is, of course, quite true that this was a contract freely entered into by both sides, just as it is true that rich and poor alike are free to sleep under the bridges over the Seine.

It would be interesting to know how Jeremy Corbyn, who dismissed it as “a private matter”, would have reacted if Mr Vaz had offered him £50 in exchange for sexual services.

Hugo Rifkind, in The Times, got it about right: “You do not need to be convinced of the absolute evil of prostitution to feel capable of making a moral judgement about somebody who uses them, let alone three [sic] of them at once, let alone when all three are eastern European, let alone when the punter in question is the co-author of a report which talked, directly, of migrants being ‘particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation’. Our MPs are not technocrats but representatives, and learning about their character is always in the public interest.”

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