A REPORTER at the General Synod was overheard on the phone to his news desk, which had possibly just asked him why the Synod was taking a vote that it had taken two years previously (as it appeared to some observers unfamiliar with the Church’s legislative procedures). “You don’t understand it,” the reporter on the phone explained with deliberate emphasis, “because it’s the Church of England.”
Religion, of course, extends far beyond the C of E; if it did not, several national newspapers would not still appoint specialist religious correspondents. This is a recognition of the subject’s importance and its difficulties. Correspondents of this kind may have had revelant experience, but not necessarily so; and this is not a situation confined to religion, as coverage of science bears witness. Reporters learn most of what they need from doing the job, and this is inevitable. Even a theology degree is of limited use on some religious assignments: it is unlikely, for example, to have dealt with many practicalities. So reporters are expected to find the right people and ask them the right questions; and press officers are there (in part) to help them to do so. A good press officer can make as much difference as a good reporter.
“To be religiously illiterate in the world in which we live today is foolish,” Tony Blair said last week, referring to the lack of positive religious news stories. He accused the media of being cynical and inward-looking, and of focusing on conflict and division. While there are journalists who know little about religion except that they do not like it, they are not normally appointed as religious correspondents. But the environment in which such correspondents work is tough, and in this respect newsrooms are scarcely unique. They shape the views of readers, listeners, and viewers, but are also shaped by them — and here Christians need to exert a pressure for truth even when it hurts. Cynicism comes in when facts are not sacred, and editors refuse to correct inaccuracies.
But ignorance is a broader issue. Surveys repeatedly detect widespread ignorance of Christian basics. You would think, from the way many people talked, that church history lay entirely on religion’s debit side. And there are C of E lay people, and even clerics, who will vote on the women-bishops legislation in the dioceses, or elect the next General Synod, who are far from au fait with the questions at stake. This last point is not a new one: it has been the strongest argument against synodical government, and for the Church’s supporting its own press. Wisdom is based on knowledge, which is acquired only by effort, and there is no shortage of people who prefer making statements to securing an informed basis for them. This aspect of modern Britain seemed to become more apparent during Mr Blair’s administration; how far New Labour or the new ethos of the internet was to blame is open to debate. But it is encouraging that Mr Blair now highlights this issue.