THE TIMES has abolished the post of Religious Affairs
Correspondent, and with it, its incumbent, Ruth Gledhill. It is
tempting to say that this is the first time it has happened since
the Reformation, but, as so often, that turns out to be not quite
In fact, there were only two people to hold that post: Ruth, and
Clifford Longley. Before Clifford, there was a "Churches
Correspondent" who largely ignored everything that happened outside
the Church of England.
Now there is not a single full-time religious-affairs
correspondent in the British press. There are still very good
journalists writing religious stories, but none has it as a
specialism. This is paradoxical, in that Christianity has become
more of a specialist subject as it becomes more distant from the
quotidian culture in which the readers live.
Part of the job of a specialist is to avert misunderstandings.
Part of the job of a news reporter is to seize on misunderstandings
avidly, and this Ruth always did enthusiastically. Much of this, I
think, was encouraged by her news desk. Provided a story was
sensational, the paper could not have cared less if it looked
ridiculous a year later, or even, to some people, ridiculous at the
When relieved of the pressure to spin stuff, though, Ruth was an
enormously energetic reporter whose quotes were accurate. She was
also one of the earliest people to grasp the possibilities of
digital media - filming and recording events that she would earlier
simply have written about. The blog that she ran for some years was
an indispensable resource for people wanting to know what the news
about the Church of England might be, but the decision of The
Times to bring it inside the paywall killed it off. It turns
out that no one will pay for straight church news, even when it is
accurate. [There are exceptions. - Editor]
IT IS hardly original to say that the religious beat needs now
to be done as if it were a foreign correspondent's job, but it gets
truer with every passing year. This has a number of implications.
The first is that straight news without context becomes less and
less important. The problem is not so much that the straight news
lacks context - nothing in the news lacks context - but that
context becomes increasingly misleading as the subject becomes
remote. So, stories need to be wrapped in explicit interpretation,
since the obvious, implicit interpretation will often be wrong.
To take a very obvious example, every news story that labels the
Archbishop of Canterbury "leader of the world's 70 million
Anglicans", or whatever this week's figure may be, is going to be
read as if it meant that 70 million people round the world care
what the Archbishop says and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
That also is not exactly true.
The second point is that the coverage is likely to become
increasingly international. For as long as I can remember, there
has been an assumption that, once a religious story becomes
sufficiently interesting, it is no longer religious. I watched that
happen right back with the Satanic Verses fatwa, which
became something political. It is happening to religion under Pope
Francis. He is normally covered from Rome, not least because few
specialists speak Italian. And the enormous and important stories
in American religion are generally done from the United States.
That is a greater loss, since the particular strain of civic
religion to which the US's élite media subscribe makes it almost
impossible to understand popular religiosity there.
WHETHER the Churches will suffer from this is not entirely
obvious, at least in the short term. There must be a temptation to
assume that they won't. Local churches can, should, and must deal
with local media. They don't need the national press.
Archbishops, by virtue of their office, and even bishops who
have something to say can still reach out to the national media
(provided the story involves sex or money). The internet, by making
almost anyone a publisher, allows them to put their views out
without intermediaries. The people who care will all find out from
their preferred blogs or specialist papers anyway.
None of this, in any case, can show the clergy in such a
sympathetic light as Rev did.
In the long run, though, the Church will lose a great deal by
being driven to the margins of the national conversation in the
secular media. It fails not just to get its message out but to get
our message in, and so has no idea how to respond. The
Telegraph on Tuesday made quite a noise about Archbishop
Welby's condemnation of homophobia in schools. The Times
gave it a nib (news in brief) on page 25. There is a message there
for archbishops as much as for Times readers.