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Don’t wait for the press to call the parish

18 October 2013

Every church, whatever its size or situation, needs a press officer to engage with the local media, argues Christopher Landau

FINDING a topic on which Anglicans of all traditions agree is not easy. But, in my experience, introducing questions about how the Church is reported in the mainstream media is a sure-fire way to elicit a surprisingly united view. Christians from all backgrounds seem to share largely negative opinions, and discussions about the media will often reveal both suspicion and contempt.

As someone who has made the perhaps unlikely journey from journalist to newly ordained deacon, I have realised that there is little escape from trenchant attitudes about my former working life. Meet the poacher-turned-gamekeeper, as one bishop put it recently.

The problem is that, while we may be enthusiastic in our complaints about media coverage of the Church, we too easily fail to show any enthusiasm for actually trying to improve the situation. Diocesan communications officers have shared their frustration with me at how often appeals to clergy for information or potential interviewees fall on deaf ears - or are responded to days later than any media deadline would allow.

A TELLING example of the challenge that we face came in John Coles's most recent monthly bulletin to the New Wine network. Reflecting on the involvement of churches in projects such as food banks, he writes:

At a time when so often the Church is headlined for what it is against, wouldn't it be fantastic if in all our local newspapers there were stories about the amazing generosity of Christians in their giving to change the lives of the poor? But even if the media never picks it up, it will change people's lives, honour God and extend his Kingdom.

The striking phrase, for me, was "even if the media never picks it up". Too many of us conceive of coverage of Christianity only as something that might happen to us, if "the media" showed interest - rather than as something that we might initiate ourselves, for the good of the gospel.

No church - even with the smallest congregation - should doubt that it is likely to find itself pushing at an open door when it comes to receiving media coverage. As local newspapers face budget cuts and redundancies, their news pages are becoming increasingly reliant on press releases from organisations in their area. The Church, however negatively it might be viewed through the lens of the national or international media, is still generally seen as a good source of community-based stories.

The danger is that churches retreat from such media engagement, and instead become closed groupings, publicising only within the shrinking organisation. For that reason, I have limited enthusiasm for the various diocesan newspapers and magazines that mostly preach to the converted. Just as some local councils began printing newspapers of their own, partly in response to negative coverage in their area, so, too, our in-house offerings can risk representing a retreat from confident engagement with the community as a whole.

Given that the communications officers working at diocesan level are often heavily consumed by their in-house PR - typically the newspaper, website, and leaflets about diocesan initiatives - it is up to individual parishes to take responsibility for active engagement with local media outlets.

The diocese will offer help and advice in times of crisis, if Soham-scale media attention comes your way, but in the mean time, there is much to be gained by building relationships with local newspapers, radio stations, and websites, and engaging appropriately with social media. Clearly, some parishes are already doing this, but such work is often seen as an optional extra rather than as a necessary core activity.


IT IS for this reason that, I believe, the notion of a nominated press officer on every PCC is not merely a headline-grabbing whim from a former journalist, but a genuine challenge to each church to consider how much of its life it might usefully share with a broader audience. From the smallest village church alerting people to a flower festival or harvest supper, to larger suburban churches promoting Messy Church or other initiatives, there can be real value for every parish.

For too long, it is as if Matthew 9.27-31 (where Jesus warned those he had healed not to tell anyone about it) has offered an unspoken justification for reluctance about publicity: if Jesus himself failed to control the spread of news about his ministry, what hope do we have when it comes to media engagement? This is, of course, a counsel of despair - and one that implies that the good news has long ago lost its ability to invite, surprise, and transform.

The statistics about the Church of England's numerical decline offer a sobering context within which we might reconsider our approach to media engagement. The Church Growth Research Programme (www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk), a project investigating growth in the C of E, suggests that while more than a quarter of Anglican parishes have lost substantial numbers of worshippers in the past decade, almost one in five parishes bucks that trend, and does so across regions and traditions.

Various approaches clearly work - but it may be that part of those churches' success is being open to their communities and adept at communicating news of their activities.

There is little doubt that Christian media engagement is a risk, and has few straightforwardly quantifiable rewards. But, in a society where, the younger people are, the less they have to do with church, and where even the most rudimentary teachings of Christianity are a mystery to many, we have a duty to use the media - in all its contemporary forms - to seek to re-engage our communities with our own take on what constitutes good news.


The Revd Christopher Landau is Assistant Curate of St Luke's, West Kilburn, and Emmanuel, Harrow Road, in the diocese of London, and is a former reporter for BBC Radio 4's World at One and PM. He is the author of Christians and the Media (Grove Books, 2013).

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