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Welby and the press: a progress report

06 September 2013

Repent: Archbishop Welby reported in The Daily Telegraph  

Repent: Archbishop Welby reported in The Daily Telegraph  

THE story that wasn't deserves a mention this week. The Archbishop of Canterbury said last Wednesday that the Church of England "has been and continues to be in some ways mired in racism".

He said this in front of a roomful of reporters from the national press, and the comment is recorded on the web. You can imagine the outcry if it had been said by a different Archbishop a few years ago. But it was entirely ignored, because he also talked about sex on the same occasion.

His performance at the opening of the new Evangelical Alliance (EA) HQ was an interesting example of risks taken largely successfully. There is an obvious interest in watching his early public performances, both for what he reveals about himself and what he is learning to conceal.

In front of the EA, he was dealing simultaneously with two audiences who had almost nothing in common: a handful of reporters sent around in the hope that he would say something about Syria, at a time when Parliament was about to debate going to war, and a roomful of EA stalwarts, who needed to know that he was on their side and not worried by their growing self-confidence. They wanted to love him, and to admire him. One of them spoke of his astonishing gift at being able to talk both to the EA and "in the studios of the Today programme", apparently the most hostile environment she could imagine.

A little Etonian self-deprecation did wonders for the Evangelicals in the audience. They were entirely his from the moment that he joked that having an Archbishop of Canterbury in the building was "nothing an exorcism couldn't cure".

But Steve Clifford, introducing him, had praised the work of Lyndon Bowring in resisting gay marriage, and the Archbishop said almost in passing that the churches had not done enough to resist homophobia, so it was natural to ask whether he regretted voting against the same-sex-marriage Bill.

The answer made the front page of the Telegraph, where John Bingham wrote: "The Most Rev Justin Welby told an audience of traditional born-again Christians that they must 'repent' over the way gay and lesbian people have been treated in the past and said most young people viewed Christians as no better than racists on the issue."

Ruth Gledhill, in the The Times, had: "The Church of England's stance on homosexuality is regarded by most people aged under 35 as 'wicked' and equivalent to racism and other prejudices, the Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday."

She went on to make the important point that: "Even young Evangelical Christians, a group that would be the most likely to adopt a conservative, biblical line against active gay relationships, are now pro-gay, the Archbishop added."

And she had the money-quote in full, the one for which the meeting will be remembered: "We have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 not only think that what we're saying is incomprehensible but also think that we're plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice."

It would have been helpful if someone had noticed this a year ago. But of course, when young people think those are your attitudes, they will seldom take the trouble to talk to you at all.

The Mail had not sent anyone along, which explains why its story had the Archbishop speaking "last night", when the rest of us were under the impression it had happened before lunch. The Guardian had a comment piece up about 12 hours before the PA report on the news being commented on.

So what do we learn from Welby's handling of the press on this occasion? He's getting better, and more confident, and, by and large, the journalists go along with this. I hesitate to praise his sincerity because I think it is absolutely genuine, however deliberately wielded. He maintains the impression of being interested in the truth largely because he seems prepared, perhaps compelled, to act on his beliefs. And the tendency to ramble in front of an audience is compelling.

But anyone with a gift for hearing what their audience wants to be said, and then saying it, is going to get into trouble when they are overheard. Perhaps at the EA it didn't matter. Both sides heard what they wanted to hear, and disregarded all the rest as persiflage.

This trick won't work for ever, though. Sooner or later there will be a backlash, not from any agenda, but from the motiveless, unresting malice of the public appetite for distraction that we in the media are so privileged to serve.

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