Tales Of The City: The needless disgrace of His Grace

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"A vice both obscene and unsavoury/ Holds the Bishop of Reading in slavery/ With maniacal howls/ He rogers young owls/ Which he keeps in an underground aviary"... We used to pass on this charming limerick at school (though it may have been the Bishop of Oxford, or London or Durham), when it was considered shockingly scandalous, because bishops were god-like figures, impossibly holy men who processed down the church aisle with awful majesty at confirmation services. But who'd want to be a bishop today? Of all the forms of employment available to a modern intellectual who believes in God (a pretty weird position to start from, but still...), I can't think of any that appeals less.

"A vice both obscene and unsavoury/ Holds the Bishop of Reading in slavery/ With maniacal howls/ He rogers young owls/ Which he keeps in an underground aviary"... We used to pass on this charming limerick at school (though it may have been the Bishop of Oxford, or London or Durham), when it was considered shockingly scandalous, because bishops were god-like figures, impossibly holy men who processed down the church aisle with awful majesty at confirmation services. But who'd want to be a bishop today? Of all the forms of employment available to a modern intellectual who believes in God (a pretty weird position to start from, but still...), I can't think of any that appeals less.

Think of the trajectory of your career. You discover a vocation, spend 10 years in a seminary poring over the theological gymnastics of Bultmann and Pannenberg, take holy orders, are instantly racked with spiritual doubts, read the works of Hans Kung, feel better, take over the pastoral care of tragic social outcasts in Gateshead and Tower Hamlets, publish articles in the local press demanding action for homeless, get praised, move to a more fashionable district, become monsignor, take a stand on animal rights or Eritrean arms, convert a member of the Royal family to your faith, get invited to ambassadorial parties, publish an article on liberation theology in learned journal, grow a beard, become canon, open fêtes, concelebrate mass at Easter - and then one day you find that your name has been "put up" by a friendly diocesan superior, as a chum might put your name up for the Garrick or the Athenaeum, only this time it's for you to be consecrated as suffragan bishop of Reading... God damn it. You'd been having a perfectly good time. Your life was sailing into the calm seas and tropical breezes of middle age, you were successful, admired for your nimble brain and spiritual tact with the faithful, your mildly ephebic behaviour might raise eyebrows but nothing worse, your sex life was a closed and locked prayer book, everything was proceeding with the utmost equilibrium. And then the world suddenly explodes around you.

Poor Jeffrey John. Being a gay canon hadn't been an issue. But being a gay bishop means that he is now anathematised by the Anglican leaders of Nigeria, Congo, Latin America and Australia. Because of the world's fascination with mitres, croziers, purple robes and the people who walk around inside them, Jeffrey's predilection for other men is threatening to split the global church and shake the belief structures of 70 million people. You can imagine him sitting at breakfast in his canonical pyjamas, spreading Oxford marmalade on his toast and silently digesting the news that he has become "a symbol of where the faithful don't want the Church of England to go".

Nobody wants to be a symbol. And surely nobody wants to be a bishop, either. It's not that the world's scrutiny is turned upon you, but the scrutiny of other bishops that becomes unbearable. It's become a grace-and-favour position for men who can be relied on to fight like for a single interpretation of narrow doctrinaire pronouncements, rather than to radiate worldly wisdom, human justice and spiritual enlightenment. Once bishops seemed titanic, awe-inspiring figures. Now, I'm afraid, rumours about rogering young owls with maniacal howls seems about the right level of theological debate.

Gently does it: surviving a musical marathon

In a priceless interview on Radio 4's Front Row, Mark Lawson asked the haunted musical mystic (and speed-crazed, Lexus-driving boy racer) John Tavener about his new opus, The Veil of the Temple. Well, we learnt, it will have its debut performance tomorrow at Temple Church, Fleet Street. It starts at midnight. It concerns the themes of spirituality and redemption. And it's seven hours long. Gosh, how appealing. Even one's worst musical memories - sitting through the passing weeks of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth, or the first performance of anything by Harrison Birtwistle at the Proms - seem like a trip to Margate compared to the prospect of seven hours of late-period Tavener. But the great man is not so unworldly as to expect an audience to sit still through 420 protracted minutes of uplifting crochets and quavers. No, he told Lawson, he'd be happy if the audience listened while lying on the floor. He would understand if they took a brief, refreshing nap. It was fine with him if they were "gently" to walk around and stretch their legs. He even suggested that they might "gently" go outside for a minute to get some air. He stopped short of suggesting that they might like to "gently" hail a cab, direct it gently across Waterloo Bridge, furtively arrive home, cautiously pour themselves a large slug of bourbon, gently knock it back and gently congratulate themselves on making a clean getaway...

A painful French farce

You must check out Summer Things, a movie adaptation of Joseph Connolly's novel. The film has been adapted in French and directed by a Frenchman, Michel Blanc, with a mostly French cast that includes Charlotte Rampling, who is English, acting as the epitome of Frenchified hauteur. Reading the English subtitles, you feel a little shut out from this story of snobbery and infidelity by the most English of writers. It's a reminder of the gulf that divides the English from the French sense of humour. Little in the cinema has made me squirm as much watching Ms Rampling, Carole Bouquet, Jacques Dutronc and other sophisticates trying to work with Connolly's snortingly funny lines. When a baby cries in a hotel lobby, the receptionist tells the mother, "Maybe you should change her."

"I can't," comes the reply. "I've lost the receipt."

If Maureen Lipman had said it, you would be in fits. On the lips of a French actress, it's about as funny as a guillotine.

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