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How to stop being a media victim

09 November 2011

To avoid PR disasters, the Church needs a theology of engagement, says Christopher Landau

THERE is one aspect of the saga of the protest at St Paul’s Cathedral which has prompted overwhelming agree­ment among commentators, clerics, and even a professor in this news­paper’s letters page: it has been, in their words, a “PR disaster” for the Church.

A certain irony of timing in this respect may have escaped some readers’ attention. It was four weeks ago (Comment, 14 October) that the Revd George Pitcher, who until recently was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Public Affairs, wrote in these pages about “ten ways in which the Church can sharpen its media act”. The very next day, the Occupy London protesters began camping outside St Paul’s. It appears that Mr Pitcher’s excellent ten-point plan had not been cut out and kept by those near the heart of the storm.

The Pitcher Plan, as I hope it may become known, exhorted the Church to “define the issues . . . stop being a victim . . . and allow access”. But the period between the protesters’ arrival and the Dean’s departure may well act, alas, as a case study in media mismanagement.

Having moved from what Mr Pitcher so lovingly described as “the incestuous circuit of religious-affairs correspondency” into ministerial training, I can only admit to dismay as I witnessed the Church’s response to the crisis.

DURING my eight years with the BBC, I regularly took part in con­ferences and discussions about the fraught relationship between reli­gious institutions and the media. But I became increasingly convinced that, from the Church’s point of view, the real problem was not so much the tactics of media engagement — important and in need of improve­ment as they are — but questions about the theology that underpins how and why, at every level, the Church speaks in public.

Whether it is the promotion of a flower festival in a local newspaper, or the coverage of a St Paul’s In­stitute report in national broad­sheets, the same factors should affect how the issue or event is presented to a media operation that has no duty to carry church news. The impetus to engage beyond the Church’s boun­d-aries surely comes from a desire to see the Church grow, recognising that the media afford extraordinary opportunities for engaging those who seldom, or never, attend church.

At root, the question is whether media engagement is seen as part of the Church’s missionary endeavour — and whether even the notion of “mission through the media” is part of our vocabulary.

Events at St Paul’s have been so telling precisely because they have highlighted the ambiguities implicit in our current media engagement. We are certainly happy to contribute on our own terms — through tele­vising the royal wedding, or appear­ing unchallenged on Thought for the Day. And even if we have stayed silent for days, we are likely, eventu­ally, to use a media platform to get our message across — as the Arch­bishops of Canterbury and York have done in the past few days, comment­ing on the broader issues around the St Paul’s protests through the Financial Times and the Yorkshire Post respectively.

Yet what tend to be conspicuously absent are examples of the Church on the front foot, confidently en­gaging with the media, with the hope (if not always the firm expectation) that agendas could change, or, at the very least, a more nuanced picture of an apparently black-and-white story might emerge. It is in the midst of a crisis that our lack of coherent theology is so apparent. When the subject-matter feels edgy, it appears that our regular and default response is to pull up the drawbridge and hope that the bad weather will pass.

IN HIS blog on 31 October, on the day of Dean Knowles’s resignation, the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, attempted to ex­plain why the polity of the Church of England meant that “no one will comment because it is not our remit to do so,” despite admitting that the story at St Paul’s had developed national significance “which affects the reputation of the whole Church of England”.

What his words underline is that our current institutional structures actively impede creative, confident en­gagement with national media that have little interest in the dio­cesan or metropolitan boundaries that we may hold dear. Whether we like it or not, we all represent the Church: effective media engagement might begin by considering the breadth of the Church’s mission, not the ap­parent narrowness of our individual remit.

Perhaps part of the complexity of our Anglican inheritance is that we simultaneously value tradition as well as criticise it. But we must surely hope that our institutional frame­works are valuable in so far as they enable us to carry out God’s mission.

If our internal complexity be­comes a justification for our being unable to engage meaningfully in public, then perhaps we need to re-examine whether we are rather too happy to sit within silos of our own creation. We do, after all, each play our part in the Church’s mission to the nation — however tempting it might be to create internal sub­divisions that apparently lessen our sense of shared responsibility.

There is one further tendency that should be resisted: what one might call a resurrection defence. Both the Bishop of London on Radio 4 and the Revd Richard Coles in The Guardian have reminded us that Christianity transforms despair into hope — new life emerges from dis­aster. Quite right, but that is no jus­tification for shrugging our collec­tive shoulders and waiting for the next PR disaster to come along.

Instead, we should join together — even across our internal bound­aries — and begin to work out how confident media engagement can be an integral part of discipleship.

Christopher Landau is a former BBC World Service religious-affairs corres­pondent, now training for ordination at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

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