The Press Saturday, November 7th 1998

It is difficult to define in a throwaway sentence what people mean by "speaking in tongues". Victoria Combe had a go on in her profile of Bishop James Jones on Saturday: "an ancient phenomenon where the believer goes into a trance-like state and delivers an incoherent babble of sound" and quoted the bishop himself: "I was worshipping in a language that did not make sense intellectually but expressed what was in my heart" but those definitions would cover almost everything the Synod does.

The fact that the bishop appears to believe that "to make sense intellectually" means no more than "to be intelligible" is also slightly worrying. But on the whole, the piece was a good illustration of the worth of a deeply underestimated journalistic technique: asking religious types about their religious beliefs. In this it made an interesting contrast with Madeleine Bunting's profile of the bishop in the Guardian,  which covered his beliefs on almost every subject except God. There was sex, of course: she quotes him as saying "If the cabinet is behind the policy on the family, the all its member ministers are implicated in that. You can't say one thing in your policy paper and another in your behaviour."

Then she adds: "ask Jones where that leaves homosexual members of the cabinet and he flounders uncomfortably .. spelled out to its logical conclusions, Jones; position becomes absurd.: all cabinet ministers must be in faithful monogamous relationships or be single if the Government is to back the family. Jones's position has the virtue of clarity but the bigger vice of literalism." Perhaps it would be kinder to say that his position is intelligible, and leave it at that.

Of course, the intellectual incoherence does not lie in the Bishop's ideals. Fifty years ago, and certainly at the time that Archbishop Fisher intervened in Princess Margaret's love life, these ideals were widely recognised and  consequently enforced. Cabinet ministers would still have had mistresses, and Robin Cook would doubtless have been accompanied around Europe by his secretary, as Lloyd George was. But there would have been no question of divorce. What is incoherent or at least dishonest, is to pretend that the old dispensation constituted a pinnacle of behaviour from which we have, as it were, absent-mindedly slipped. There was nothing absent-minded about the abandonment of the old order.  

The Bishop of Durham got into all the broadsheets for suggesting that Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles might marry. It was interesting that no one ran this as a split with the Bishop of Oxford, who had earlier suggested that it wouldn't matter if they didn't. The Daily Telegraph found one priest in the diocese of Newcastle, the Rev George Curry, to condemn the idea: "You cannot have the Church endorsing immorality particularly in a marriage ceremony which in the eyes of God is an adulterous union. The church is getting muddled in our moral views."

I love this use of "muddled" to mean "people are disagreeing with me." It does look as if there is no serious resitance to be discovered to the Prince marrying if he wants to. "The stocks are sold, the press is squared, the middle class is quite prepared.". The Daily Telegraph has taken to calling her "Mrs Parker Bowles" in its front page headlines, as if thei were in itself a title. Even George Austin has come round to the couple marrying, a fact recorded at the very end of the Times' piece on the Bishop. There is only one fly in this acreage of ointment: you find it in the second piece the Times ran on the Friday, from Alan Hamilton, who was accompanying the Prince in Romania. He may not, after all this, want to get married, or, as Hamilton put it "Officials of the Prince's household … and the Prince regard the vapourings of churchmen on the matter as merely creating unnecessary pressure."

No tip there, then, after the wedding. Rabbis are different. It is difficult to imagine an Anglican minister being tipped by the family of every man he buries almost as difficult as it is to imagine any gentile getting away with the anti-semitic attitudes that are the basis of most Jewish comedy. Jack Shamash's piece in the Times faith page was a bitterly funny meditation, in a most unexpected place, on the question of how much and in what form his family should tip the Rabbi who buried his father.

"In accordance with Jewish tradition we held evening prayers at my mother's house for five days. The rabbi came three times and sent a colleague twice. On one occasion, the rabbi brought his wife, which my wmother assured me was a rare privilege.

"My mother was anxious to express her appreciation. But she was worried that if sew gave him money, he would feel obliged to give it to charity, so it wouldn't be a real present.

After consulting with a neighbour and discarding the idea of giving a book token, she decided to give the rabbi a cheque for 250, since the neighbour, after her bereavement, had only given 200. The piece ends: "I hope our rabbi appreciates the gift, and I hope he spents it on himself and I hope it gives him some pleasure as Mum wished. Oh, by the way, you might have noticed that I have omitted the name of my Rabbi. This is just in case the tax people are reading."

Sometimes you have to range a long way to find a news story in which Christians appear to be acting on their ideals unselfconsciously. The Internet magazine Salon had an article the other day on the somewhat esoteric subject of Perl, a computer language which allows the construction of the strings which holds much of the rackety machinery of the Internet together. The name, by the way, is an acronym for "Pathologically eclectic rubbish lister". One reason for its popularity is that it is entirely free. The author, interviewed, turns out to be a principled Christian who said he felt it is his duty to help the world in this way. This is delightful, especially as Perl is the only computer language whose  users compete to write programs which can also be read as English poetry.

Front Cuts Book Back