What newspaper does your bishop read?

The Church of England has published details of a poll carried out among the House of Bishops. Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times, wonders why any of them took part at all.
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The Independent Online
Poor old Daily Telegraph. All that sensible, clear, friendly advice it gives to the bishops in the Church of England, and only one bishop takes it. This is known, because three-quarters of the bench of bishops answered an internal questionnaire about themselves, the results of which were released last week. I meanwhile, can address myself here confidently (and, it must be said, smugly) to the 15 who read the Church Times.

The publication of Church of England General Synod 1990-1995 - Analysis of Membership triggered the inevitable debate about whether bishops were out of touch or in touch. The phrase was used so often it was like being tuned in to a 24-hour rugby commentary, and a dull one at that. At one point an interviewer on Radio 4 had her teeth into a bishop's leg and was shaking it vigorously. Out of touch, out of touch. "But I listen to Radio 4," he bit back.

The results of the poll were predictable for any group of male executives with an average age of 60: 84 per cent university-educated; none listened to Radio 1; only one with satellite television; none read any of the tabloids. The big difference, as suggested by the low Telegraph readership, was over politics. Most were members of the House of Lords and hadn't voted in the previous election. Of the 14 who had and were prepared to divulge details, four voted Tory, four Labour and six Liberal Democrat. Did voting for the LibDems show them to be in or out of touch?

Asked to list which, in their view, were the most important issues, they chose the environment, unemployment, Third World problems, politics and racial harmony, in that order. These priorities are more generally those of people 40 years younger. Once again, in or out of touch?

Where bishops seemed out of touch was in taking part in the survey at all. It is a peculiar quality of the present Church of England, this obsessive self-examination. No other set of managers would take regular polls of opinions and habits - and then publish the results. The survey showed that one member of the House of Bishops had video games equipment in his home. I cannot recall reading anywhere about how many Nintendo executives go to church. And do Sony executives read the Sun? I think not.

Behind all the form-filling, one can detect two strong emotions: guilt and doubt. In the minds of those answering the questions is the suspicion that other people, better, more representative, ought to be leading the Church. It was perfectly clear in the questionnaire which boxes ought to be ticked, if the Church were as modern, populist and relevant as it would like to be. The bishops must have left these blank with regret. The next step is to fib. "I am really a black, illiterate female aged 24."

At one level such an exercise is a piece of fun, guaranteed to amuse the troops and feed the columnists (thank you). But what if the results actually make a difference? When the Crown Appointments Commission next meets to fill an episcopal vacancy, will a little voice be saying to them, "55.3 per cent of bishops in the sample went to public school; let's try to balance that out a bit?"

And what about the depressing effect on the current bunch? Unlike the Nintendo executives, they have no happy sales figures to cheer themselves up. Their reward system is odd. If a bishop is particularly good at his job - efficient, pastoral, spiritual, approachable - he simply gets more work thrown at him. He is appointed to more committees. More people, priests especially, bring their problems to him. Television researchers phone and invite him to talk about homosexuality at 7.30 on a Sunday morning. Nobody, I suspect, would want to be as in touch as that. At such times, being young, female and black must seem attractive.

It is Lent, the steep hill up to Easter, so a line or two about Jesus might be permitted. He is carefully portrayed in the Gospels as someone who did connect: with women, with foreigners, with children, with outcasts, with the mentally disturbed, with tax fraudsters and with terrorists. No time to read the Jerusalem Post.

I don't particularly care what newspapers my bishop reads (as long as he reads mine): but I'd like to think he had the courage to connect with people like that. Just going by the questionnaire, he has the inclination, and the time, to do so.

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