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Well, that’s the C of E written off

22 November 2013

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THIS has been a week full of front-page news. As usual, this consists not of astonishing things being said by ordinary people, but of remarkable people saying things that everyone knows. Lord Carey announcing that the Church of England is "one generation away from extinction" - as he has been saying since at least 1999 - would never have made the news, had it not come on the same afternoon as the Synod meeting began.

The origin of the story was a report from a provincial news agency in Birmingham. That explains the remarkable similarity between The Times's and The Daily Telegraph's coverage. The Mail also splashed on it: The Church "is on the brink of extinction. . . Lord Carey laid the blame at the feet of church leaders who he said should be 'ashamed' of their failure to bring youngsters into their services.

"His stark message was echoed by the Archbishop of York, who told the General Synod that, compared to the need to attract new worshippers, 'everything else is like re- arranging furniture when the house is on fire.'"

But the Telegraph's coverage was what gave me the deepest pleasure. Dr Sentamu, wrote John Bingham, "called for a campaign aimed at the 're-evanglisation of England', on a par with the ministry of saints such as Cuthbert, Hilda, and Aidan, who spread Christianity in Anglo-Saxon times. Synod responded by voting to set up a committee."

I will read no more perfect paragraph in my lifetime.

THE row between Ruth Gledhill, The Times's religious-affairs correspondent, and Arun Arora, the Church of England's director of communications, was illuminating. It started with something characteristically Ruth-ish: she went to an extremely worthy event that no one else seems to have covered, and grabbed a few words with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He said, in the course of them, that "What you are seeing in the Church schools is a deeper and deeper commitment to the common good. There's a steady move away from faith-based entry tests."

For all anyone knows, this is true. It's certainly not very shocking. But it gave Ruth a lead, with that useful word "revealed": "Church of England faith schools are moving away from selecting pupils on the basis of their religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed."

This, in turn, provoked a splenetic response from Arun on the C of E Communications website: "The (erroneous) story in today's Times newspaper claiming that the Church of England [is] 'moving away' from selecting school pupils based on religion was a creative piece of writing." So creative, in fact, that the Lambeth Palace issued a statement correcting the story, which read: "In the course of a wide ranging interview for The Times today on the subject of tackling poverty, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked about the role of schools. He praised the work of church schools especially in areas of highest deprivation, and stressed the importance of home, family and excellent school leadership."

This was - to use a term of art - bloody stupid. The Archbishop undoubtedly said what Ruth quoted him as saying. She very rapidly put up a blog showing this. All she did to make a news story was to quote him as if he knew what he was talking about and that his opinion mattered.

This is where the interest comes in - because everyone who cares about the subject knows that the Archbishop of Canterbury does not set admissions policy for church schools. Arun's rebuttal made this clear. Schools set their own admissions policy, and some, the oversubscribed ones, undoubtedly use faith-based criteria. This is perfectly defensible, even on egalitarian grounds. But, either way, it's not something that an Archbishop can change, either in law or as a matter of practical policy.

My own guess is that he knew this, and was reporting a trend he had thought he had observed rather than laying out a policy, as Ruth's piece rather suggested.

The Times's leader on the following day rubbed this in: "Unwise or not," removing faith-based entry "is something that Church schools would be free to do. It remains unclear, however, whether or not Mr Welby wants them to. He was initially unequivocal that the schools were moving away from faith-based entry tests, and was apparently in favour of this trend. Later, Lambeth Palace issued a statement in which he expressed complete support for the schools' freedom to continue selecting as they wish."

The claim that the Archbishop of Canterbury runs the Church of England is one that goes largely unexamined, because it is so convenient for everyone that journalists don't ask "You and whose army?" whenever he proposes something. Over the Wonga row, he benefited from this. On schools, it has come back to bite him.

In any case, he has had a salutary lesson in the limits of charm as a technique for managing journalists.

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