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Press: Southwark popups thwart journalistic inquiry

12 March 2021

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I’VE NEVER been to Iraq, North Korea, or China as a journalist; so the most obstructive bureaucracy that I have dealt with is the United States government, which required you to wait in person on a bench at the embassy for half a day, undergo an interrogation about your motives, and — if you passed — pay your fee in cash only. The border guards still gave you a hard time when you landed. After that in the rankings came Communist East Germany, for obvious reasons, and then the Vatican.

But now, leaping over these strong competitors, comes the diocese of Southwark, which, its website says, employs four “Communications Officers”, not one of whom has a phone number or a public email address. Instead, there is a small box in which to write an email message, guarded by a popup demanding that you click in the captcha box to prove that you are a human. Then you click, and start typing. But it’s not that simple: the popup reappears every 60 seconds, demanding fresh assurances that you are still human, before it lets you type another character. Exactly what is being communicated here?

So Nick Hellen of The Sunday Times is not entirely to blame for the one-sidedness of his coverage of a pastoral dispute in Croydon (News, 5 February). The diocese has made it as difficult as possible to get hold of its side of the story, even those parts of it, like the report of a Bishop’s visitation, which are meant to be public.

His story started: “The first black woman to become a deacon in the Church of England is fighting to keep her job and home in a dispute that will force church leaders to confront its handling of race.

“Yvonne Clarke, 62, whose case will be heard by the church commissioners on April 28, says the Bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev Christopher Chessun, and other senior clergy have waged a ‘personal vendetta against her the main grounds for which appear to be her race and gender’. If she loses, she will be forced to step down after 23 years as vicar in her south London parish.”

The story then becomes extremely strange to anyone who knows the Church of England. It says that, in November 2016, Bishop Chessun “ordered a ‘visitation’ of her church, All Saints, Spring Park, in Shirley, Croydon, because he was concerned it might be bankrupt. The church was struggling to pay utility bills and its £250 monthly contributions to the CofE. The visitation led to Clarke being locked out of the church for six months, undermined by false rumours that she was guilty of financial misconduct.”

A quota of £250 a month?

And, while the diocese is still unable, as I write, to supply the report of the visitation, there is a copy on the web (but very hard to find through Google). From this we learn that the £250 was not the parish share (which was £57,000 in arrears), but a standing order from parish funds, which had bounced. That raised fears of immediate bankruptcy, which were not assuaged by the visitation.

As for the racist aspects of the story, a check on all three churches involved in the reorganisation showed that one Sunday in February 2019, two were led by black priests; one of these, St George’s, had a congregation of 55 adults and ten children, of whom 13 were BAME; Ms Clarke’s church had a congregation of ten adults and one child. Seven of those people were BAME. The third church in the group had 65 adults, and ten children, with “7 or 8” BAME attenders.

 

I UNDERSTAND that there has been another story this week of a black woman alleging racist persecution by the English Establishment, but on that I have no informed opinion. The only question that no one seems to have asked is whether anyone is actually responsible for the pastoral care of the royal family.

The curious story of Justin Welby’s visit to the couple when he did not marry them only adds to the confusion. I like to imagine that he urged on them the beauties of the Lambeth 1.10 resolution, with its demand that sexual intercourse belongs only in marriage.

 

IN ANY other week, the Pope’s visit to Iraq might have been more widely covered. There were practical difficulties for the accompanying press: they will have to quarantine in Italy on their return, and then again in England when they leave Italy. None the less, if any religious meeting mattered this year, it would have to be the Pope and the Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

The Guardian had coverage from Martin Chulov, a correspondent based out there, which had a wonderful vox pop from a Sunni Muslim: “For him to come here now and stand among us as a man of God urging tolerance is a powerful thing. We need something to unite us as a community. The religious divide isn’t really there. It’s become about politics. Iraq needs a man like him to show confidence in us. We were once a very different civilisation.”

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