The Press Saturday, April 18th 1998
Every year at this time we celebrate the central story about the Church of England, the one that says the bishops don't believe it. The historical evidence on which this story is resurrected is patchy as best. There was in fact a video camera at the scene, it would have showed David Jenkins saying the resurrection "was not just a conjuring trick with bones" but — since no one ever saw the programme, the myth of the Bishop of Durham is based on the writings of his followers, many years after the event. The chief source is known to scholars as "PA" and trusted by thousands of simple believers at newsdesks up and down the country. If PA said he called it "a conjuring trick with bones" that is for them the Authorised Version, and modern scholarship has made slow headway against the myth.
So this year the Sunday Telegraph carried the traditional front page story: "Church of England bishops remain divided over one of Christianity's most contentious theological questions what happened at the Resurrection
"An Easter survey of the bishops by the Telegraph has disclosed widely divergent views on the physical reality of the resurrection. While some believe the event is so unquestionable that it could have been captured on film, almost two thirds expressed profound doubts."
Which is great, except that they didn't. What the quoted "doubters" all said, among them Rowan Williams, Peter Selby and Robert Hardy, was that something took place which was not just a hallucination and not just in the minds of the disciples even if they didn't know what it was. I don't quite see how this position could be described as unorthodox. The resurrection is by definition as singular an event as the Big Bang, and as difficult to imagine. I know, for I have relatives among them, that there are fundamentalists who believe that you can hardly move in modern Africa for missionaries raising corpses in front of large adoring crowds. But none of these people have ever seen it happen themselves, and neither has any bishop of my acquaintance.
I think the Telegraph knew it hadn't got a story, for its treatment of the David Jenkins narrative was unashamedly mythological. "The former bishop of Durham" it said, "caused a furore when he linked the event to 'a conjuring trick with bones'." 'Linked', here, is a breakthrough in the technology of journalism. From now on, if anyone ever says "I was kissing my wife, not trying to strangle her", we can describe this as "he linked kissing his wife to trying to strangle her."
I worry about Peter Tatchell. I think he's getting religion. There can be no explanation of his attacks on the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral except that he really believes that injustice matters when it is perpetrated by a Christian church. Most of the papers disapproved of his actions thoroughly but the Guardian reported the claims of the protesters that their action was not aimed at the congregations but at all the people who do not go to church. This seems to show an unwarranted faith in the charity of the agnostic. The great insight of Dr David Holloway was that if the Church is perceived to be beastly to gays, that will increase its popularity.
In a similar vein, George Austin announced his retirement in the Sunday Times. At least, I think he did. The last time he wrote a newspaper article to announce that the forces of enlightenment had triumphed and his career was over, he was appointed Archdeacon of York within three months. So perhaps he will now get a diocese where he can promote priests who will have nothing to do with women — without of course discriminating against "those we must sadly call our enemies" as they do against him. The burden of his complaint was that the Church was being taken over by liberals who would not appoint Forward in Faith types to the jobs which are their due. George has the art of elevating Jobs for the Boys to a matter of high theological principle.
In case we failed to get the message, his "friends" had been talking to Christopher Morgan. "He says he despairs of a church which has adopted a liberal agenda, from feminism to homosexual rights, and which failed to keep promises to its orthodox members after the ordination of women. Austin claims that recent senior appointments have almost all been awarded to liberal clerics."
It is clear from this, if from nothing else, that the pressure to get some religious story in at Easter was overwhelming. If the Church really wants better publicity, it should be campaigning to get the Bank Holiday moved away from the religious festival, so there are other things happening to fill the news pages.
Martin Wroe, in the Observer had a better shot than most people at making an interview with the Archbishop interesting. If nothing else, it showed his commitment to the GodCo dream. "If spin-doctoring means managing news, then I am all for it. If spin-doctoring means distorting what you are doing I don't want that" he said, or spun; and "As I look at New Labour I am very impressed by the slickness. There is much we can gain from that, adapted to our own special circumstances. I am impressed, because, ten years ago, where was New Labour?"
Wroe commented "Ultimately the reason the Church cannot conduct a Labour-style makeover on itself is that while New Labour conveniently jettisoned the 'S' word, the Church cannot jettison the 'C' word. Yet Christianity on the West does not go down well in market research."
Yet the interview was not without respect for him: "Carey is the Neil Kinnock of the Church of England, the untelegenic moderniser stubbornly rebuilding an apparently has-been institution in a defiant bid to make it palatable to a new era. But there is no sign yet is a charismatic Blair figure to take on the mantle when he departs, nor a Mandelson among his Bishops to intimidate dissenters."
Nothing could more clearly illustrate the problem than that the word "dissenter" is used there with no religious sense at all.