Church leaders who let their audience nod

FAITH & SEASON: The Archbishop of Canterbury and the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches could learn from newspapers, suggests Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times.
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The Independent Online
Jesus had been talking to the crowd for a while. "Master," said his disciples, "it's getting late. Send the people away so they can buy something to eat." Instead came the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and, though the Gospels don't say so, Jesus could presumably carry on talking. Since that day, church leaders have assumed that boring your listeners is biblical.

Konrad Raiser, head of the World Council of Churches, was in London last week. He's worried about the WCC's image, and thinks, rightly, that it's contributing to the council's cash crisis. So he invited me, and several other members of the religious press, to an informal dinner. "We are anxious to hear about perceptions of the council's work in the UK and how you think we may be able to enhance our image and communication as we seek new sources of income to support the council's work." Well, shorter sentences or a few more commas would help.

I said as much to Cole, my news editor, when I asked him to go in my stead. (The week of the General Synod was not a good one to choose.) "Tell them to change their typeface," I suggested. "If they made it bigger, they wouldn't be able to fit as many words on their press releases, and I might begin to read them."

I had in mind their release on the Dayton agreement about Bosnia. In a modest announcement (for them), the WCC "welcomed" the peace agreement: "congratulated" the parties on reaching it: "recognised" that it was not fully secured; reminded us what they had said in September about peace having to extend to every minority; and "recommitted" themselves to the peoples of Bosnia.

The release concluded: "Reconstruction and reconciliation is, in the first instance, the task of the peoples of Bosnia. The WCC stands ready to help them in their efforts to reconstruct not only their homes, but also their communities in the spirit of peace and tolerance." Once again, we didn't report any of it; here was a chance to tell them why.

"We are anxious," said the letter of invitation, "to hear about perceptions of the council's work." So anxious, that Konrad Raiser stood up and talked for 40 minutes. At a dinner which started at 7.30pm, questions weren't taken till nearly 10. Cole got up and left.

It's probably just the effect of the General Synod, but I'm less tolerant of verbiage than usual. Generally, I accept it as an occupational hazard. I accept that religious leaders are constantly trying to describe the indescribable, but sometimes I wish they would admit defeat sooner.

So I reacted badly to a recent lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The press is often criticised for being selective; here, unexpurgated and unadulterated (oh, all right, with a few interpolations) is a paragraph from that lecture, chosen at random. We sneak into the church halfway through the lecture.

". . . Any such theology must begin with God's presence in the Church. [Platitude.] We are here as the body of Christ, our task is to witness to his love for the world shown in Christ. [Platitude, slightly garbled.] The Church, therefore, should always aim to be present seven days a week in our communities, reaching out in faith and hope. [Another platitude, indicating we are on autopilot here.] That suggests that we must be prepared to look at our resources, not with eyes eager to maintain what we have cherished in the past, but with eyes eager for mission. [Aha, making a bit of a point here. Still, mustn't alarm the listeners, so . . .] In saying that, I am still convinced in [sic] the power of worship to draw people to God and of effective preaching as a tool for teaching and evangelism. [There - have we gone far enough back?] But [advancing again, more cautiously this time] we must respond to the fact that, if indeed it was ever the case [qualification] that church worship and preaching on its own [qualification] can no longer be treated as the entire [yet another qualification] arena for mission and service. [Back, more or less, to where we started.]"

It is unfair to single out these two. Most church leaders, aside perhaps from the Pope, are so busy looking over their shoulders, terrified of offending one constituency or another, that they fail to notice their audience nodding. But that is why they so seldom get reported. Newspapers have to be more careful - if we bore our readers, they stop subscribing. Konrad Raiser and George Carey, take note.