Sex and circulation

There is nothing like a good sex scandal to boost circulation. A quick glance at the covers of the magazines offered for sale at your grocery store will confirm the maxim that sex sells. The escapades of film stars, royalty, and sports heroes have long been a staple of this genre, (politicians too, but they do not generate the same intensity of interest).

In recent years we have seen reality TV stars Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters and so forth -- people who are famous for being famous -- rise to pictorial prominence. But one of the staples of this genre that never seems to fade is the vicar sex scandal.

Every so often there will be a U.S. press feeding frenzy about naughty vicars -- Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, John Corapi -- but this is one area where in quality and quantity the English press continues to outshine America.

The naughty Church of England vicar caught with his pants down with a member of the choir is a story that never seems to grow old. The Daily Mail, which loves these stories, ran one the other day with the title "Queen's chaplain takes a blonde from the church choir as his third wife (what would the royal flock say?)"

Here is the opening:

He is a senior Church of England cleric and Queen’s chaplain who has written guides to marital harmony. But the Reverend Canon Andrew Clitherow’s own affairs of the heart are causing quite a stir in his parish. He has divorced his second wife, Rebekah, and taken a third bride, Nicola, a glamorous soprano.

His congregation is in uproar and so is the local bishop. For Canon Clitherow, 60, is said to have assured the diocese there was no one else involved when he split from the second Mrs Clitherow last year. Now, less than a year later, the father of four has married Nicola Howard, 44, who has sung worldwide and released several albums. She has moved into the sprawling Georgian vicarage with him.

Although he is still at home, the Canon is no longer performing any church duties and is said to be on ‘sick leave’. Parishioners say his latest marriage to the mother of three is yet another episode in a bizarre clerical soap opera which began last year and is ruining the reputation of the church.

We then learn the details of Canon Clitherow's personal life.  He married his first wife in 1982 and they had two children, but they divorced in 2002.  He married his second wife that year, a women he had first met in 1992 when she was a high school student and he the chaplain of her school.  This marriage also produced two children, but in March 2011 he announced to the congregation that he was divorcing a second time.

The Mail lets us know that rumors at the church swirled around this second divorce, with tongues wagging about the vicar's affair with a blonde divorcee who was a member of the choir.  At the time of his divorce the vicar informed his bishop that the marriage had broken down but that there was no other person involved. The vicar went on sick leave following Easter services, citing stress as the culprit -- and then married the blonde divorcee at a private ceremony at a registry office over the Christmas holidays.

The story makes great play with Canon Clitherow's having written a number of marriage manuals as well as his position as one of Queen Elizabeth's chaplains -- a very great honor in the Church of England. It also offers the voices of angry members of the congregation, who want their thrice married layabout vicar -- who continues to draw a salary and live in the rectory but does no work -- to be gone from their parish as he is an "embarrassment".

So you have it -- a sex scandal (with pictures of the glamorous blonde) that one can read with moral relish and no embarrassment.  Too embarrassed to read about the trashy behavior of the Kardashians? Here is the genteel option, a Daily Mail story that allows the reader to be titillated and express opprobrium at someone who should have known better. What fun!

Now criticizing these sorts of stories is akin to taking a shovel to a souffle. This story has no pretense to being a morally improving tale or a work of cutting edge reporting -- it is celebrity/gossip journalism. But in my secret heart I would have liked to hear something from the man's bishop or some church voice to explain what exactly is wrong with this picture.

What is the Church of England's view on divorce and remarriage? What is its view on divorce and remarriage of the clergy? There is a religion ghost here that could have been addressed without making the story too heavy.

I noticed one item -- the timing of the first divorce in 2002. With the introduction of civil divorce and civil marriage in the nineteenth century, the Church of England was able to bear its witness to the evangelical expectation of marriage by refusing remarriage in church to divorced people without absolutely denying marriage to them.   This position, though never maintained without some sense of strain, continued to be the official position of the Church of England until November 2002.

Canon Clitherow could not remarry in the church until 2002 -- and that coincidentally was the year that he divorced and remarried.

The Daily Mail ran a second story last week that touches upon these issues. "History's repeating itself: Ex-Archbishop tells of the Queen’s 'despair' over Charles's split from Diana and love for Camilla in a revealing new biography" offers excepts of a new biography of the Queen.

A new biography of the Queen reveals for the first time her despair over the divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the Monarch’s fears that  her eldest son was about to ‘throw  everything away’.

In Elizabeth The Queen, by Sally Bedell Smith, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, recalls the moment that the Queen finally confronted the problems in her son’s marriage. The Archbishop reveals she was terrified that history was about to repeat itself – that Prince Charles would give up his place in the line of succession for Camilla, just as King Edward VIII gave up the throne in 1936 to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson.

Lord Carey says: ‘There was a moment when we were talking very candidly about divorce. I remember her sighing and saying, “History is repeating itself.” I saw despair. What she was talking about was the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

‘She was concerned that if they divorced, Charles would marry Camilla. She thought Charles was in danger of throwing everything out of the window by rejecting Diana and forging another relationship.’

In this naughty vicar story there are some strong echoes of the Charles/Diana/Camilla affair -- Canon Clitherow after all is a chaplain to the Queen, as well as underlying religion motifs.

In 2005 the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams refused to marry in a church wedding Charles and Camilla, as conducting a new marriage would be tantamount to consecrating old infidelity. It would be compounding the wrong according to the Church of England's teaching on remarriage -- when the partner in the new marriage has been a significant factor in the breakdown of the old marriage.

The question I ask is how can these be reported? It may be too much to expect People or the Tatler to make these links. But is it beyond the Daily Mail? Is it beyond any newspaper? Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture can this topic even be addressed?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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