Press: Media, old and new, lap up Bishop Curry’s performance 

25 May 2018

WHEN was the last time that a newspaper reprinted the whole text of a sermon? The very word denotes a dreary inaccessibility to the audience, and an evening, at least, of preceding torment for the performer.

But Bishop Michael Curry managed to get the whole of his sermon reproduced in The Times, and provoked 40,000 tweets a minute as he delivered it. My calling them “audience” and “performer” rather than “congregation” and “preacher” is entirely deliberate.

The theatrical elements of the ritual were what made it compelling. The language on the page was a script for delivery rather than an argument for consideration; but, although a number of people sniped about this, I can’t see what’s wrong with it. The audience was hardly in a mood for severe eloquence.

I missed the televised impact myself, since I was walking through Stockholm at the time, but my republican colleagues at The Guardian seem to have been transfixed. Our readers certainly were: seven of the top ten stories on the website that day were about the wedding, and, I suppose, the rest were all about the football.

THE notable journalistic feat preceding this was Harriet Sherwood’s profile in The Guardian of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was, among other things, a demonstration of the unrevealing nature of a formal interview: although she got a couple of news lines out of it, they did not say anything very new. On disestablishment, he said “Would it be a disaster? No. Nothing is a disaster with God.

Establishment was “a conglomeration of different bits of history. There’s no Establishment of the Church of England Act that you could repeal — it’s a complicated process. And if you mean, by privilege, that the Archbishop of Canterbury is often involved in royal weddings, or crowns the monarch, or whatever, that’s really a decision for parliament and the people.’”

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I read that, and wonder what else he could possibly have said. But this may be to underestimate the difficulties of performing in front of the national press. Like Admiral Beatty at Jutland, or, indeed, like Lord Williams discussing sharia, an Archbishop in an interview becomes the only man in the Church who could lose the war in an afternoon.

So we learn that he can dodge heffalump traps. But it’s the side glances that are really illuminating. It is the Archbishop, not some random humanist, who tells an audience of business leaders that England is the only country outside Iran which puts spiritual leaders into the legislature as of right. And there is this passage: “After each event, he climbs back into the minibus transporting him and his small entourage (his wife, Caroline, plus his chief of staff, chaplain, and head of media) and asks, ‘Was that OK?’ They reassure him; he reflects on the conversations he has shared and occasionally points out of the window to exclaim, ‘I used to have a pint in that pub!’ or ‘I know that man!’”

There is also an unusually fine piece of Establishment-speak, when he is asked how his views on gay people have changed. “I’ve not changed in the sense that I believe the scriptures, properly interpreted, remain for me the final authority in matters of doctrine, in matters of practice. But the phrase is ‘properly interpreted’.”

You could not say plainer than that.

COMPARE and contrast The Sun’s profile of Caroline Welby, clearly put together by a Master of Arts at the University of Oxford:

“Who is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife Caroline Eaton?

“Caroline studied at University of Cambridge in the mid 1970s. She met Justin, who read history and law at the famous redbrick.

“They married in 1979 and Justin later went on to forge a successful career as an oil executive.”

THE Daily Mail, I am sorry to say, does not believe in original sin. The sketch-writer Quentin Letts chuntered for Britain after he was told to attend a course on safeguarding as part of his duties as a churchwarden: “My fellow church volunteers . . . and I were battered and splattered by gibberish. It was like standing in front of some muckspreader loaded with stinking bureaucrat-ese.

“The Stasi secret police in communist East Germany used to get citizens to snoop on their neighbours. Now this message is being pushed by the Church of England.”

It is, of course, entirely possible that the course was badly run and the material badly expressed. I know that I was once prevented from photographing the small daughter of a friend (and the vicar of the church in question) as she played in a patch of sunlight in a church.

But, while Letts thinks the piece shows up how bureaucracy is destroying the Church, he supplies material for another explanation. He writes as if it were 1945; one of his companions is “a septuagenarian Austrian countess”; another is 100. The church raises £8000 a year in quota. That might be three months’ expenses for a Mail hack, but it is unlikely to cover the running costs of a medieval building, or whatever fraction of a vicar’s time it gets. Still, much more comforting to blame bureaucracy.

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