Leading Article: The Last Chronicle of Lincoln

Wednesday 19 July 1995 23:02
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The Very Reverend Dr Brandon Jackson, Dean of Lincoln, must now be the Very Relieved Dean of Lincoln. Found not guilty yesterday by the two clerics and two laymen of the Church of England's consistory court - convened in an old mental hospital - Dr Jackson will now keep his frock. For the participants in the proceedings - the plaintiff, the defendant and their families - this must have been a painful week. For the rest of us, however, it has been unavoidably comic.

From the start this was a case of the Trollopes meet Tom Sharpe. The characters and mores of the small English world of the cathedral close exert a particular fascination. Deans and archdeacons, canons and vergers, their personalities and jealousies, have for over 100 years been the perfect stuff of middle-class soap opera. But add a story line involving accusations of sex after evensong, (not quite) bonking in the (not quite) belfry, clerics in track suits toting vino to the houses of female parishioners - all topped by a courtroom drama - and it was irresistible. Even Trollope J, whose adulterous rector's wife was called Anna Bouverie, would not have dared to name a character "Verity Freestone". Yet there she was. The jogging Dean, however, is pure Joanna.

In his novel The Warden, Trollope A (writing in the middle of the last century) describes a campaign waged against the Reverend Septimus Harding of Barchester by a newspaper, the Jupiter. The leading articles in this journal are described as having the power in England that the Tsar enjoyed in Russia, or the Kaiser in Prussia. Ranged against the clerics of Barchester, its guns were powerful indeed. Dr Jackson and his colleagues have undergone today's modern equivalent - seeing and hearing their names and faces in every newspaper and on radio and television.

No one can blame them for asking: was it all really necessary? Should Dr Jackson's and Ms Freestone's disputed relationship have been the subject of a very public and archaic trial? Many believe not and argue that these proceedings have been yet another example of the church's persistent inability to strike a convincing posture in any discussion about sexual morality.

But there is an argument in favour of the way that the church has behaved. This is that the consistory court has been nothing more than a workplace disciplinary hearing, examining an accusation of malpractice against a senior employee. After all, doctors and lawyers, who are bound by codes of conduct towards vulnerable clients or patients, also face disciplinary action for taking advantage of their positions.

There is a lot to be said for this view. But when the church comes to consider how such cases might be handled in future, it ought surely to decide against public hearings. The rest of us may like to know exactly who is saying what about whom, but only if there is a guilty verdict is it really essential for the facts to be made public. A breathless hush in the close would be more fitting.

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