Let's turn the other cheek

Newspapers often attack the Church of England. So why doesn't it retaliate, asks James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool

At the press conference prior to my enthronement as Bishop of Liverpool, a national broadsheet newspaper photographer told me that his editor wanted a picture of me in a derelict site. I had deliberately chosen the regenerated Albert Dock for the backdrop to the conference so as to show a positive image of Liverpool's urban renaissance. So I refused to be shot in the rubble of a ruin and conform to the media stereotype of the city.

At the press conference prior to my enthronement as Bishop of Liverpool, a national broadsheet newspaper photographer told me that his editor wanted a picture of me in a derelict site. I had deliberately chosen the regenerated Albert Dock for the backdrop to the conference so as to show a positive image of Liverpool's urban renaissance. So I refused to be shot in the rubble of a ruin and conform to the media stereotype of the city.

In the end the broadsheet carried an article minus a picture. Yet, better no picture than the wrong image! Even the Church is getting streetwise about the power of the media. Most bishops and dioceses now have their own media officers and Church House in Westminster is served by a full-time communication unit which does not simply react to media enquiries, but seeks to be proactive in setting the agenda by placing stories with journalists.

The press-reading habits of church members reveal a division between the clergy and lay members. This evidence is anecdotal but in the homes of the clergy I find mainly either The Independent or The Guardian, whereas in the homes of middle-class lay members it is more often The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. It's no secret that the attitude of these two papers is frequently less than friendly towards the Church of England, especially its modernising tendency. Andrew Brown, once of The Independent, recently wrote a scathing piece on the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Daily Mail. He's a witty and caustic writer and his pen leaked vitriol all over the page. Many fair-minded people feel that his fingers have become stained with the indelible ink of his own prejudice. But he writes the passionate sort of piece that the Daily Mail loves and the Church of England hierarchy hates because it poisons the mind of its own constituency. If the Church were ever to develop a media strategy after the likeness of Peter Mandelson, it would set out to woo the Mail and The Telegraph.

The opinions of the person in the pew are framed not so much by the denominational papers such as the Church Times and the Catholic Herald, but by the secular media. The religious weeklies have impressive circulations, but the people who wield influence are religious affairs writers on national papers.

As both Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell have proved, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between prime ministers and their media moguls. For no one can hold public office without regard to how their message will be communicated. The Archbishop of Canterbury communicates most effectively when he is relaxed and mixing with ordinary people who, especially on his foreign trips, flock to him in their thousands. He is least effective, as most of us are, when on the ropes at eight o'clock in the morning, being pummelled by John Humphrys. It was this latest sparring match that led to Andrew Brown's article in the Mail. What does not come through the media, however, is that he will go down in history as one of the most reforming archbishops of this century. By dint of his energy and authority, he has driven through the most radical reorganisation of the Church's structures. He has also transformed the House of Bishops into a truly consultative and collaborative body.

Recently Christopher Morgan of The Sunday Times ran a piece on the Archbishop seeking advice about his image from the PR consultant Tim Bell. The contact was, in fact, with two of his senior staff, but what is so remarkable is that in a media-saturated age such a meeting should be considered news- worthy. Ability to handle the media is to this generation what skills of public-speaking and handwriting were to previous times. The problem with image is the distance between it and what it represents. Within that space there is room for manipulation and distortion. The honest communicator tries to narrow the gap as much as possible.

The media tag Dr Carey as an evangelical. Sadly, most commentators think that this word was dreamed up by transatlantic tele-evangelists! They forget that evangelical is a noble English heritage that describes the likes of William Wilberforce, the radical emancipator of slaves whose achievements parallel the aspirations of Jubilee 2000, and Thomas Cranmer, one of the greatest wordsmiths, whose compositions have influenced the cadences of the English language.

Yet evangelical has become a by-word for superficial. In reality, it characterises the radical and the profound.

It would be tempting for the Church of England to deal with a hostile press by hunting with the pack. But there's a salutary example given by the founder of the Christian religion which challenges the tendency in all institutions to be in control. Jesus could read and write, yet he left it to others to pass on the message. Never was truth so much at stake. He did not seek to control but yielded his message, as well as his life, into the hands of others who could have crucified him with the pen as well as with nails. In a culture obsessed with control there is something gloriously liberating about the example of Jesus.

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