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‘Who put “thumbs on scales”, the archbishop or the newspaper?’

“I had that Bertrand Russell in the back of my cab,” the old taxi-driver story goes, “and I said, ‘Here, Lord Russell, what’s it all about, then?’ And do you know, he couldn’t tell me.” The Archbishop of Canterbury has had similar experiences. He told Ginny Dougary for The Times that, one Saturday night, edging through “the huge crowds of not terribly sober young people” that Canterbury (like any English market town) musters at the weekend, he heard someone call out “Archbishop!” and was suddenly asked, “What about evolution, then?” The Archbishop laughs at the memory. “So I stopped and chatted for a bit. That does tend to happen.” This is a perfect analogy, though I am not sure it was intended to be, of the difficulty of a clever man in a world unfamiliar to his interviewer attempting to explain a complicated question, the unbalanced reporting of which could do much harm – in this case to the Anglican Communion around the world. In a 6,000-word interview in The

Times magazine, conducted before the Pope’s visit, Ms Dougary kept worrying away at gay bishops — a question over which the world outside is endlessly inquisitive while simultaneously blaming Anglicans for spending so much energy on it. Ms Dougary, an award-winning

interviewer, and the lyricist of David Blunkett: The Musical, ended up asking what is wrong with a gay bishop having a partner. “I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it …” To this she replied: “All right, but do you personally wish it could be overcome in some way?” Silence, then: “Pass.” “Is it really so difficult for you to say?” “We’re in the middle of vastly difficult conversations about it, and I don’t want to put thumbs on scales.” She explained that “any comment he makes is likely to be seized upon by either side”.

12 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010

So what does Dr Williams find on the doormat of Lambeth Palace on the Saturday after the Pope left town? A copy of The Times with a headline on the single report on the front page: “Gay bishops are all right by me, says Archbishop.” It would not be on the doormats of Abuja or Los Angeles, but they still have the internet.In smaller type beneath were the words: “But homosexual clergy must remain celibate.” In the interview, Dr Williams’s

attempt to explain that proviso had met with the reaction, “This is both confusing and rather revolting”, from the interviewer. “First, it is an unappealing idea that the Church makes such unnatural demands on its clergy and, second, how on earth does it expect to monitor the bedtime activity? Perhaps by installing CCTV cameras?” There is no harm in an

interviewer having opinions, and better perhaps if they are expressed, lest tacitly they colour an interview. But the news report accompanying the interview said of Dr Williams: “His comments provoked a furious response from campaigners for gay equality and risked deepening divisions within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.” Who elicited the furious response? Who “put thumbs on scales” – the archbishop or the newspaper? Meanwhile, in a Britain notionally

transformed by the Pope’s visit, a story appeared in all the papers that would have looked at home in the 1850s, a decade perplexed by German “neology” in interpreting the Bible. “One of the most dramatic episodes in the Old Testament,” reported John Von Radowitz in The Independent, “the parting of the Red Sea, may actually have happened, research has shown — although the event described in the Book of Exodus was more likely caused by freak weather conditions than the hand of Jehovah.” As that unlikely phrase “the hand

of Jehovah” also appeared in the Daily Express, we may take it that, like the Evangelists Matthew and Luke per- haps, they were drawing on a common source. Anyway, the “Bible boffins”, as The

Sun called them, have come up with the idea that an east wind could have driven water back from the Nile delta. Since Exodus says that “a strong east wind” all night “made the sea dry land”, it is not clear how much further the Bible boffins have got, except to deny that the wind and waves were ordered by the Almighty.

■Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph.

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