Chatting idly earlier today with my friend Laura in Switzerland, we swapped notes about how we missed "The News of the World." The paper was closed hurriedly in the summer of 2011 when the forces of a different Laura, Laura Norda, closed round its editors and journalists - and the cases continue. For over a century and a half it had afforded the masses, and those who like to slum it, titbits and gossip and scurril and rumour, about the great and not-so-good, in politics, show business, sport, the arts, even the church. I used to read it in the pub after church on a Sunday, wearing my dogcollar. Challenged one time "why are you reading that filth?" I replied, "Looking for forthcoming job vacancies".
At first sight, it would appear, like the cheaper newspapers in general, to have appealed to our baser nature - sex and drugs and money and scandal. But on reflexion, I was reminded of something that Tom (N.T. in academic life) Wright, a brilliant New Testament scholar who became a rather less glowing bishop of Durham, said to us at Lincoln Theological College in the Lent Lectures of 1995. He was asked the question - one which we are still asking - "why is the church so obsessed with sex?". He replied something like "because the world is, and we are called to be in the world, and to pay attention to it, and whilst it is in pain about questions of relationships and sexuality, we too must be in pain, as the church, the Body of Christ, in the world".
That's all rather high and mighty, but there's something in it. Anglicanism is the religion of the Incarnation, of the Word made Flesh. And what the flesh does, tells us an engaging and important story about the soul within. Of course, tales of self-sacrifice, denial, and abstinence would be very improving, but they don't shift newspapers. Instead, we are engaged by tales of those with power and influence who themselves are overpowered and influenced by bimbettes in nightclubs, illegal substances, and the heady promise of even more illegal money. There is a part of our reading which wants the powerful to be human, to have feet of clay, to be like us. There is another part that wants to stand in judgement over them, to punish them, even if only by scowling at a newspaper page, for their success, which is so very much more than ours. The latter element, although very human, is not very edifying, and has its roots in self-righteousness, envy, and spite, all of which are just as much sins as anything ever reported in the News of the World.
But for those of us who simply don't have the wherewithal to live the high life, there's something pleasing about knowing that that those who can, do: that princes of the blood spend hundreds of pounds on bottles of Champagne in louche bars with loucher girls, that respectably married MPs have secret affairs with other women's husbands who then become Prime Minister, that someone really did break the bank at Monte Carlo.
Most of the time, the lives of the people we read about are just as drab as our own. Just as our own are only mostly drab. Too much excitement would be enervating. But week after week we can read about the thrills and spills of the glamorati and wonder what it would be like to be like them, and perhaps thank God that we are not, not because we are better, simply because life hasn't thrown us the chance to be.
Flanders and Swann had great fun with this after the Profumo affair in 1963. In retrospect, it was a storm in a teacup, and an essentially good man (as for over forty more years he proved) was brought down by malign forces and his own idiocy. The song they wrote was about gossip and rumour, and contained such lines as:
"No romance, said Juliet, I haven't left school, yet, we're friends, just friends"
"Said Hero and Leander, it's nothing but slander, we're chums, just chums"
"Nonsense, said Bonaparte, she lives on her own, apart, in her own apartment"
And ends with the delicious:
"Such models of friendship are precious and rare;
But the friendship of models ... is not!"
Baser nature? Perhaps. But within it also lie the profoundest elements of human love and striving for excellence, which is why it will continue to fascinate, because there is a little bit of us, when we read the latest juicy scandal, that knows, and even slightly wishes, "there, but for the grace of God, go I".