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Press: Angry duo park tanks on Christ Church quad

27 March 2020


“YES, but apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” Those of us with an interest in church scandals will be reassured to know that life goes on in times of pestilence.

The Revd Jonathan Aitken and Alan Rusbridger, who had once struggled fiercely to bankrupt or imprison each other, when one was a government minister and the other an editor, have joined forces in the battle at Christ Church, Oxford. They wrote together a really brutal opinion piece for The Times on the shenanigans there: “Imagine this: a charity so wealthy it can spend £2.5 million on trying to oust its own chief executive. A charity that hires a flash City PR company to brief against its own leader. A charity whose trustees are deliberately kept in the dark about the one truly independent analysis of its own affairs.

“Such a charity would surely be investigated by the Charity Commission. Anyone who has ever sat on the board of a charity receives mandatory training about the fearsome powers of the commission when things start to go wrong. But what if the charity is the most august college of Oxford University, with its own cathedral, an endowment north of £550 million and the Queen herself as the Visitor? Does it become too big to fail?”

Portions of the article strike me as a little disingenuous: “Both of us read Andrew Billen’s recent detailed account in The Times of the breakdown in relations between the college’s governing body and its dean with mounting astonishment.” If their astonishment did not take the form of wondering whether Billen had used something that one of them had told him, I would myself be astonished. But the central point is, of course, unarguable.

“The picture drawn by Billen is one of an institution that is literally incapable of governing itself. Oxford University is powerless to intervene. It is unimaginable that the Queen or her representatives will be drawn into the dispute. Only the Charity Commission has the powers to take decisive action to resolve the situation.”

This is parking their tanks on the quad all right. The interesting question is whether they would do so without checking quietly with the Charity Commission that the tanks were available for active duty. I find it difficult to believe they did not.


SO, DID anything else happen this week? Funny you should ask. Before the national lockdown, the clampdown on church services provoked some good letters to The Times.

My favourite was from Ann Tillar, from a village in East Sussex: “Years ago I was at St Michael’s, Chester Square, in Belgravia when the vicar asked the congregation to exchange the sign of the Peace. . . I was sitting behind Harold Macmillan, who was then prime minister. He turned round, glared at me and said: ‘Don’t you dare.’ I didn’t.”

The people who will really miss their religious gatherings were spotted by The Washington Post. “Across the nation, the church basements and community rooms that host the 12-step programs — group meetings that are the key to recovery for millions of addicts and those affected by their addiction — have closed.”

Some, of course, have gone online, but this works only for the middle classes. If you are poor, you may well not have access to video-conferencing equipment; if you are rich and famous, you may not be able to protect your privacy online, which is an essential part of the AA method. And, of course, the stress and uncertainty of isolation is driving many people to drink.

Of all the attempts to strike a note of real tragedy — and not just fear or reassurance — in the week’s comment, the only successful one that I saw was indirect: the historian Tom Holland’s essay on T. S. Eliot and plagues past, on the website Unherd.

“Churches, more than any other kind of building, bear the imprint of the past: of what Eliot would call the pattern of timeless moments. Those that have stood for centuries have borne witness to birth and death, joy and suffering, peace and war, over the course of many generations. And borne witness as well, of course, to epidemics. A church like Saint Bartholomew the Great, the oldest in London, and a rare survivor of both the Blitz and the Great Fire, has heard the lamentations of those who lived through the Spanish flu, the plague of 1665, the Black Death.”

The piece moved elegantly and eloquently from Eliot to the plague of 686 which devastated the monastery at Jarrow, leaving as one of the only two survivors a small boy who almost certainly grew up to become the Venerable Bede.


BUT the quote of the week came from another of Holland’s interests, Stonehenge, where the Druids were prevented from gathering to celebrate the Spring Equinox. From The Guardian’s report: “Stuart Hannington, a druid, also stayed behind the fence, accepting it was fair to restrict access. ‘They’re closing the churches so it seems OK that they are not allowing us to get to the stones. It’s disappointing but we have to make sacrifices.’”

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