George Austin on a life with Charles and Camilla

George Austin

Media watch – fine. But watching the media when oneself is on view – that’s another matter. No-one believes me when I say I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s true nonetheless, and there would always be a cold sickness in the pit of my stomach as I waited for the reaction to something I had said or written.

Why do it then? Well, I would more often than not first suggest to a journalist who was requesting a comment that he should speak to this or that person, often a bishop. Of course people tend not to become bishops if they are likely to break spin-doctors’ codes of conduct by doing this and so back it would come to me. I do believe it is to fail in our responsibilities when we flee from an opportunity to do so to an audience counted not at most in hundreds but in millions, many of whom would anyway never set foot in a church.

To be fair, some bishops will do it and do it well. When James Jones was Bishop of Hull he once said, with some puzzlement in his voice, that he couldn’t understand why he kept being asked to comment either to the press or on television about contentious sexual matters. I had to confess that it was my fault, my own most grievous fault, and that I owed him one as a result.

Punch and Judy

The cold sickness came back recently when I was asked to write a piece for the Daily Mail on whether or not Charles and Camilla should marry, which led to appearances on Richard and Judy on Channel 4 and on Lunchtime Live for Yorkshire Television.

Once again when trying to set out the traditional Christian moral stance it was the response that is always difficult to counter. In The Mail article and on television, I tried to set out the standards that we are supposed to uphold – that marriage is for life, that adultery is wrong, that co-habitation is not enough.

There is the old story that when Moses came down from the mountain with the tables of stone he said ‘The good news is that I’ve got them down to just ten; the bad news is that adultery is still in.’ But the commandments are not simply rules by which God makes life difficult for us – they are foundations on which a stable society is built, Christian or non-Christian. We only need to look at the growing disintegration of our own society to see the truth of that, and it is strange that moral revisionists in the church seem blind to it. Still, no one’s mind is more closed than that of the open-minded liberal.

No shades of grey

Yet for the orthodox Christian there is the other side of the coin – redemption – and that is what is difficult to get across. You are fundamentalist if you proclaim moral standards, and you are abandoning them if you try to meet the human condition. There is no halfway point, no grey area.

Of course Christians haven’t been helped by forty years of compromise, where so many Christian moral teachers have failed to see that the whole point about redemption and atonement is that the Cross gives us the way out from sin to a renewed life in Christ.

If we simply remove the principles and imply there is no morality save that of loving, it assumes we can and will always act out of the purest motives – which is palpably untrue and largely impossible. It overlooks the simple reality that we are sinners and can never be sure that our motives are absolutely unimpeachable.

Jesus recognized this when he was asked to condemn the woman taken in adultery (‘in the very act!’) to be stoned to death as the Law required. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ But what always seems to be assumed whenever I have been drawn into commenting on a moral issue is either that I am already casting the first stone or else that I have abandoned a Christian moral principle, that I am saying, not ‘Go and sin no more’ but rather ‘Ignore those out-dated ideas about sin and express yourself just as you want.’

Ten years on

Perhaps that is hardly surprising, given that so often the Church has seemed to do just that. Ten years ago on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, I inadvertently tumbled into the cauldron by commenting on the (then) rumours about Prince Charles and Camilla and daring to imply that the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England ought not be breaking the seventh commandment.

All hell broke loose and I received over a thousand letters, four to one in agreement with even those against largely suggesting that the Church should put its own house in order first. But one newspaper rang round all the bishops and archdeacons, many of whom in those days felt they could give a response. Should it be a surprise that most bishops attacked me and most archdeacons supported me? Two bishops even implied that it was for Charles to behave as he wished and that I should come to terms with modern morality.

In 2002 the situation has changed, not least by the awful tragedy of Diana’s death. Prince Charles is free to marry the one who is clearly the love of his life, though there is the problem with a church marriage because of Camilla’s divorce. And there is the growing practice of co-habitation, which leads many to the view than marriage doesn’t really matter anyway. Should not both redemption and practicality lead the Church to press for a civil marriage rather than the status quo?

The decent thing?

Or ought the Church to ‘do the decent thing’ and avoid embarrassing the Heir to the Throne by comments on his private life? The difficulty is that no one in public life, least of all one who is a symbol for the nation, can behave just as he or she pleases. It may be that behind the scenes representations of the Church’s position are being pressed. But the public impression is that once again the Church has nothing to say.

At a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury is in the media promoting the idea that the Church has a vital role to play in society and should not be disestablished, it gives the impression that establishment means no more than to have ‘the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues’.

Shepherds lead their flocks whereas lambs are led. All we seem to have is the silence of lambs.

George Austin is a journalist and broadcaster