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Press: Cash not producing converts, says The Times

24 September 2021

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ONLY The Times, so far as I could see, picked up on Madeleine Davies’s interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury in this paper last week (News, 17 September), and the headline that it chose will not have raised spirits in Lambeth Palace: “Church of England spends millions but fails to convert cash into congregations”. I don’t know whether this is fair or not, because the figures that might tell us whether resource churches are working are almost impossible to get hold of.

I hope that the Church Commissioners have got them, since I know that the plan was to measure carefully the success of all the different things that they are trying and cut quite ruthlessly the ones that seem to have failed. But no one else has, and they could be gathered only on a very local basis.

The Times’s religious correspondent, Kaya Burgess, did quote Debbie Clinton of the Renewal and Reform programme: “We’ve seen that decline in attendance can be reversed through well-founded approaches in areas and demographics where attendance has been low. It hasn’t shown growth across the totality of the church but it has shown what is possible.”

The central question is how well the favoured churches work with those that already exist. We already know from the statistics of the Alpha Course that it is possible to have an apparently hugely successful initiative that turns out mostly to redistribute existing Christians rather than make new ones.

The Sunday Times, however, had a lovely interview with Jeremy Paxman on his Parkinson’s — although it was obviously given as a book plug. The Revd Richard Coles was a remarkably deft and sympathetic interviewer — a cat grooming a Rottweiler, perhaps.

“Depression is a common symptom of Parkinson’s. Of course it is,” Fr Coles writes.

“I used to see a shrink, I don’t any more,” Mr Paxman tells him. “I couldn’t see any point. They couldn’t turn the bad news into good news. But all this has made me think a lot about religion. You’re the right person to talk to about this, of course.”

Fr Coles writes: “I tell him that my father, who also had Parkinson’s, would occasionally hallucinate when he was further down the line. After one episode he asked me if I thought it possible he had met God. Yes, I said, but he was not given to flights of fancy so I asked him how he knew that it was God — and he said he was wearing an Old Etonian tie.

“‘Ah, the epiphany was authentic?’

“I tell him my father thought so, but it accorded with the public-school-and-army religion that he had grown up with and preferred.”

 

THE Wall Street Journal ran a series of terrifying articles about Facebook, and what the company (or parts of it) knows about the harm that it causes. The stakes of this game are shown by a throwaway comment: in 2013, Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram, a company that then had 13 employees.

Twenty-two million American teenagers now log in there every day. Internal research showed, in 2019: “We made body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

This is bad, of course. But I found it less shocking than the costs that Facebook makes other people pay as the price for its expansion into developing-world markets. In Mexico, for instance, one of the most feared drug cartels has a large Facebook presence. An internal Facebook report “identified key individuals, tracked payments they made to hit men and discovered how they were recruiting poor teenagers to attend hit-man training camps.

“Facebook messages showed recruiters warning young would-be hires about being seriously beaten or killed by the [CJNG] cartel if they try to leave the training camp . . . the first post appeared on a new CJNG Instagram account: a video of a person with a gold pistol shooting a young man in the head while blood spurts from his neck. The next post is a photo of a beaten man tied to a chair; the one after that is a trash bag full of severed hands.

“The page, along with other Instagram and Facebook pages advertising the cartel, remained active for at least five months before being taken down.”

The other tech story was also revealing: two MIT scientists trained a neural network on three million articles from 100 different sources in the United States, to see whether they used phrases that could predict bias. Examples might be “Big Oil” v. “oil producers”; “Was shot dead” v. “the killing of”. The test was whether the network could work out which newspaper had published which article on the basis of such phrases. This pretty much works, but with an illuminating exception: some words, such as “socialism”, turn out to be used far more in a pejorative sense than a positive one, so that the avowedly Socialist magazine Jacobin appears as a moderately right-wing outlet because it uses “socialism” itself so much.

Similarly, the word “woke” started off as a left-wing term of approbation, but is now used only by the Right and as a stigma. The difference, perhaps, between rich and poor worlds is that the rich can treat hatred as entertainment.

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