From Mr Clifford Langley SIR — It is easy for someone like me who started on a national newspaper in 1967 to look back over 40 years and deplore "the declining standards of the British press". But I shall resist the temptation simply to jerk my knee and cry "Hear, hear!" to the attack by John Allen of the (US) National Catholic Reporter all the standard of British religious affairs reporting in general (Report, March 2). In some ways Mr Allen is guilty of misreporting too, because he bases his attack almost wholly on one piece of journalism, by Ruth Gledhill of the Times, with a few other minor examples thrown in.
As a generalisation that is very unfair to other British correspondents who write about religion on a daily basis. For instance, exercising responsible restraint, none of them followed up the Times' front-page lead story headed "Churches back plan to unite under Pope". which began: "Radical propos als to reunite Anglicans with the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of the Pope are to be published this year, the Times has learnt. The proposals have. been agreed by senior bishops of both churches." I suspect like me they only had to read a few words to realise how utterly implausible the story was, not least in the light of what we know about the becalmed state of AnglicanRoman Catholic unity discussions. Nor did any of the church papers, when they reported on the same document (Growing Together in Unity and Mission by the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission), find any such sensational proposition in it. Is everybody out of step except Ms Gledhill?
In her subsequent defence Ms Gledhill referred again to a quotation from the document on which she based her story, which urged "Anglicans and Roman Catholics to explore together how the ministry of the Bishop of Rome might be offered and received in order to assist our Communions to grow towards full, ecclesial communion".
Admittedly, this is ambiguous and vague. Ignoring the much more cautious language of the rest of the document, I suppose an excitable tabloid reporter with no knowledge of theology, religious affairs or English history might, with imagination at full stretch, just about draw the conclusion that Ms Gledhill offered. But I would submit that it is part of the responsibility of a specialist news correspondent, in quoting such a text, to apply an expert understanding of the context and history of the matter in order to offer an interpretation that is in accordance with the intentions of the writers, as they may be discerned. They were clearly going one small step further than a similar passage in the 1998 ARCIC document The Gift of Authority, of which Ms Gledhill was undoubtedly aware. But urging a joint exploration of an issue which has in the past proved an insuperable stumbling block (as Ms Gledhill surely knows), for instance over papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction, is an entirely different matter from "Radical proposals to reunite Anglicans with the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of ' the Pope". For instance, there is no way of knowing whether such an exploration would ever reach an agreed conclusion, or what that might be.
It would have been far better if Ms Gledhill had simply accepted that her story• was a misreading of the document and of the situation in general. We all make mistakes. It has nothing to do with giving religion the "hard news treatment". as she said. However you treat a story. first you have to get the facts straight.
Yours faithfully, CLIFFORD LONGLEY Religious affairs editor of the Times, 1972-1992 Orpington, Kent