TWO contrasting examples of stories that were actually chiselled out by a journalist instead of arriving in a PR handout: as a result, they managed to get people talking.
The silly one was in The Sunday Telegraph, where Olivia Rudgard looked at the guidance published, all unnoticed, by the General Synod on celebrity weddings some weeks ago. It went all unnoticed because no one really famous ever gets married in church these days — unless, of course, they are members of the royal family or close relations. Like Pippa Middleton. So the story raised the delightful prospect of ordinary people being allowed into a parish church while the media are held at a distance.
It was followed up in The Times the next day, by which time the Telegraph was busy rewriting Harriet Sherwood’s Guardian story about cathedrals.
Sherwood had talked to the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, who chairs the Cathedrals Commission, and got a wonderful quote out of him: “Although it seems unimaginable, it is possible to imagine a situation where an individual cathedral could get into a situation so desperate that there is no obvious solution.”
I think that counts as something rather more than an authoritative statement of the bleeding obvious, which is normally the root of any news story about a bishop. What made it better was that the story set it in its proper context, as part of a joined-up quote expressing joined-up thought:
“Cathedrals are operating in a world where demand for their services is growing, yet the funding environment is more challenging, the legislative and bureaucratic demands are pretty voracious, and there is no lender of last resort.
“My finger-in-the-wind estimate is that perhaps half of cathedrals are facing some significant financial challenges, although pretty much all of them are planning on how they’re going to get through that.”
This is the kind of thing that yields real nuggets of the kind of news that lets you glimpse the future, especially in these two phrases — “pretty much all of them are planning,” which means that some of them are not; and “there is no lender of last resort,” which means what it says, and specifically that the Church Commissioners are not going to bail people out.
I wonder what will happen if it comes to a stand-off between the Commissioners and Parliament over repair bills.
By the time this story reached the Telegraph, the headline had mutated into something harder: “Half of England’s Anglican cathedrals could close amid funding crisis”. Since this version of the story had no new facts in it at all, but was written entirely off clippings and quotes from The Guardian, it is difficult to defend the headline.
BOTH The Economist and the Financial Times had pieces asking how the party leaders’ Christianity might affect their campaigns. What was new here was Tim Farron’s Easter message: “Mr Farron . . . accused Mrs May of linking Easter to ‘comfortable nostalgia’. He insisted that the message was, instead, ‘radical and disturbing’. ‘People do not traditionally willingly exchange riches, glory and comfort for poverty, shame and pain — but that is what we see in the Easter story.’”
The whole message, if you clicked through it, was astonishingly close to a sermon. It did contain the standard politician’s template, which goes something like this: “I’m not for a moment suggesting that Jesus would have voted for me or any other political party, but when you read the Gospels it is astonishing to see how his radical, disturbing, and profoundly important message coincides with mine.”
But Farron’s message also had this ending: “Christmas is cute and cosy, it’s about a baby. Easter is about the death that the same baby would grow up to suffer. It’s much more grim; no wonder people choose to displace it with chocolate.
“But it wasn’t the end of the story. The resurrection means that this death wasn’t in vain — it’s the ultimate vindication which brings forgiveness. That’s worth celebrating.”
I can’t think of another instance of a politician preaching so theologically and, despite his instincts, apolitically in a message aimed at a secular party.
The Economist’s excellent Erasmus blog, meanwhile, took aim at Theresa May’s rather more anodyne message: “Mrs May’s vision of religious Britain is similar to the vision that she has put forward, a bit implausibly, of political and civic Britain: a place where decent people want to rub along and work together with a common purpose (in this case, managing Brexit) with no hindrance from pesky purveyors of rancour.
“But as a statement of fact about modern Britain, they are hard to square with any sort of reality. In certain ways, Lady Thatcher’s brand of religion, like it or loathe it, was more crunchy and real.”
In their various ways, both of these analyses could mark an important shift in the coverage of religious belief. It stops being an outgroup marker, and becomes a way to illuminate the imagination and habits of thought of individual believers. What is significant and informative is no longer the party leaders’ shared faith, but their differences of style and understanding within it.