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Press: The Observer lays bare monochrome C of E    

12 June 2020


The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, who retired this week, and bishops, outside York Minster, after the consecration of the Bishops of Penrith and Jarrow, last year

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, who retired this week, and bishops, outside York Minster, after the consecration of the Bishops of Penrith and Jar...

THE departure of Dr Sentamu from the archbishopric of York (News, Comment, 5 June) was treated as a national story in Yorkshire, but went unnoticed by the press south of Sheffield, except in The Observer, where the Revd Arun Arora had two bylines, one appreciating the Archbishop and the other on the lack of appreciation for BAME clergy generally in the Church of England. The latter piece actually had four authors, but The Guardian/Observer has a policy against multiple bylines; so the other three were relegated to the end.

They made fair points, which went much further than the Bishops: “Leadership in the church is about more than bishops. Leadership comes in many forms — lay and ordained, in parachurch organisations, mission agencies, theological colleges and diocesan administrators, to name but a few.

“These groups present an equally monochrome image of leadership. Take for instance Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and New Wine, two of the strongest evangelical networks operating in the Church of England today and with a considerable influence on new and growing churches across the country. There are no BAME members of HTB’s senior clergy or senior leadership team. None of their churches across London and the UK is led by BAME clergy. According to New Wine’s website, there are no BAME clergy or lay leaders in its 30-strong team of national directors, regional directors and heads of ministry.

“This failure is not confined to the church’s evangelical wing.”


TALKING of HTB, The Economist had a rather strange piece about an Evangelical Old Etonian, the Revd Pat Allerton: “the muscular, chisel-jawed man of the cloth has become an unlikely lockdown celebrity, turning heads for more than just his sermons. Thousands follow online as he goes from street to street playing ‘Amazing Grace’ on a sound system. His looks, he insists, are irrelevant. ‘You can have the best-looking people in front of a camera, but if they don’t have God’s anointing, then they will only touch a few people.’”

The piece went on: “Many vicars were reluctant to close their churches when covid-19 began to spread in Britain. But empty pews in the Church of England have been replaced by packed-out virtual congregations. A quarter of Britons have attended an online religious service since lockdown began, providing a boost to a faith that has seen dwindling church attendance.”

This is an astonishing statistic, and I’m afraid I don’t believe it at all.


BRUCE CLARK, the paper’s excellent religious correspondent, had a sobering take on the Dutch economist Rutger Bregman’s new book on human niceness, Humankind: A hopeful history (Bloomsbury): “Both Mr Bregman and Marx are too sure of a lost — but real — Eden in which people lived co-operatively before the sudden rise of factors that distorted human goodness. In both cases, the resulting worldview is atheistic yet intensely religious, an odd mix. But 21st-century readers are short on prophets, especially the optimistic kind, and will give this one a cheerful hearing.”


I HAD the rather bizarre experience this week of testifying by Zoom to an All-Party Parliamentary Group on religious literacy, along with Ruth Gledhill and Peter Oborne.

I don’t know what the parliamentarians made of the experience, but I learned a lot from Ruth’s testimony. She described her life on The Times as a condition of endless anxiety, always trying to gin up two or three stories a day to justify her salary; always trying to crank everything up as far as possible; usually writing to a pre-cast headline rather than allowing the headline to grow out of the story. This was, she explained, what journalism consists of: the daily struggle to get something into the paper ahead of what the arts correspondent might come up with.

This was so unlike my own experience on The Independent that it brought home very vividly the political and economic bubble that the high-minded press subsists in. I have always thought that the job of a specialist journalist is at least as much to keep stories out of the paper as to get them in. You don’t want to waste the reader’s time with stuff that isn’t true and doesn’t matter. But, of course, this view of the world presupposes that the reader’s time is valuable, and that isn’t how the economics of mass-market, ad-supported news works at all.

In that world — as we see on social media — the stuff that isn’t true and doesn’t matter is also the stuff that gets shared and that people want. It follows that this is the stuff that journalists are trained to supply. The problem is particularly acute when they are writing for a general audience about organised religion, because the organisation of religion isn’t interesting or important even to people who are religious. They care, perhaps passionately, about what happens in their parish. They don’t care much what happens in anyone else’s, and still less for the deanery or diocese. This is obvious when you look at what people will pay for. “Save our local church” is a fund-raising campaign that might work; “Save our diocese” not so much.

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