How do we proclaim good news during the pandemic?

On Sunday just before lunch, I was invited to be interviewed on Sky News on Monday morning about a letter I had signed calling on the Government to keep churches open even if there was another lockdown. This is what I said—but I also want to offer some reflections on what is required to engage well in the local or national media in this way:

There has been a very positive response to the interview—though listening back I think there are a number of things I could have done better. But these are my ten reflections on how to make the most of opportunities like this, whether they are local or national.

1. Say yes straight away

Those working in the media have pressing schedules. They must fill their slots, often at the last minute, and are desperate to get hold of names they can use. This is especially so in the case of covering religion, about which most of them will be completely ignorant. If they get in touch, then you are potentially the answer to their prayer (pun intended); they don’t have time for you to check your diary, come back to them, or allow you to suggest a change of schedule.

On Monday morning, I was planning to write an article for the blog, walk the dog, then go into a morning’s teaching on Zoom. It would have been easy to say ‘no’, but instead I rearranged what I had to do, including bringing some things forward into Sunday evening, in order to do this.

If you are approached, say yes immediately unless it really is impossible. They won’t ask a second time.

2. Do your research

Offering a good comment means doing lots of research, and then selecting carefully the most important messages. I had already done a couple of morning’s work in order to write my piece at the end of last week on a Christian response to the possibility of lockdown—but there was more to do. I re-read the letter that I had signed, highlighting key elements and making notes, and also read some articles which had commented, for and against. I also read a further set of discussions about the pandemic and the response of lockdown, including one with Professor Sunetra Gupta, who used the phrase ‘ecological relationship with the virus’ which I mentioned.

You also need to do your homework on the piece itself. When is it happening? What medium are we using? What comes before? What is the background? Who is interviewing me (so that you can address the person by name)?

All this might sound a lot of work for 4 minutes on air—but Sky News reaches about 12 million viewers, so that makes it worthwhile. Our local BBC Radio station has an audience of 170,000, so even that is worth the effort.

3. Hone your comment 

I was given a remarkably long time of uninterrupted speaking (mostly because I think Kay Burley didn’t really know the best questions to ask me), but even then, I only had about two sentences I could say on each point I wanted to make—and having three points is a good plan!

I like to scribble on a sheet of A4 freehand, then circle what seems important. Take a leaf out of Jesus’ book: he often tells a story, then summarises the main point in a pithy aphorism. On broadcast media, you probably only have time to share the aphorism. I don’t think I did as good a job as a good have done in honing my sayings—but I did do another thing, which is make things concrete and specific. Actual examples of people struggling communicate more than general sayings; mentioning the actual number (1,698) who will die today gives the point punch.

You can practice for broadcasting by preaching short, unscripted homilies in midweek services, or on other occasions. Note that on radio you can look at the words in front of you; on television that is not possible since you need to make eye contact with the camera (which represents the person you are talking to).

4. Pray

This might be too obvious to state—but you need to be constantly listening to how God might direct you. But it is also worth immersing yourself in the usual patterns of prayer. Common Worship Daily Prayer (which I read on the phone app) quite often uses verses from Ps 103 in this season—and when I read it that morning, I realised it was perfect as a summary comment: we are fragile; but God is compassionate. There you have the gospel in a nutshell.

5. Reference forward

Kay Burley started with a lovely open question—which is a real gift in an interview, and does not always happen. Because I signalled immediately that I wanted to say three things, it was harder for me then to be interrupted, though I had to say each briefly. The moment that Sky cut to the general view of a church building, I knew I could carry on talking; an interviewer cannot really interrupt someone who is not on camera.

But doing this also sows ideas for the interviewer, allowing them to ask more detail from something you have said in order to add depth to the conversation. It comes back to the principle of ‘leave them wanting more’ rather than closing down the conversation with exhaustive comments from the beginning.

6. Deliver with pace

I have a tendency to speak too quickly when I get excited—so on my scribbled notes I have SLOW written in large letters. At the time I thought I spoke too fast, but listening back it was actually a good pace. Rowan Williams (who was on Radio 4’s Start the Week twenty minutes later) is a good example of someone speaking slowly and with gravitas, as if each thought has only just come to him, drawn from a deep well of previous thinking—which is fine in other contexts, but actually not what is needed on Sky News as we approach 9 am on a Monday morning.

It is always worth remembering that, despite broadcasting to 12 million, you are really only speaking to one person—the interviewer, but also each individual who is watching or listening. So your style needs to be conversational—I have mostly eliminated ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ from my speaking, but I had a few in this interview. I don’t think it mattered, though, since it made the conversation seem more natural and less rehearsed.

*Additional comment* It is also good to start and end with a smile and be positive. Being conversational (rather than confrontational) means communicating that you are working in partnership with the interviewer, not against her or him. That is a good way to undercut antagonistic questions.

*Second additional comment* If you have a choice, go live not pre-recorded. That way you are in complete control of what you say; pre-recorded comments can easily have your most important gems edited out.

7. Be realistic

There was some little local difficulty amongst some of the signatories of the letter as to whether there was the implication of civil disobedience, and one or two individuals got a bit upset about that. But if the letter hadn’t been misrepresented in this way in a report in the Sunday Times, Sky News would never have shown any interest. ‘Church leaders believe they are important’ really isn’t a headline or a news item; ‘church leaders in rebellion against the government’ is.

Christian leaders need to be a little less worried about what news outlets want, and a little less focused on our internal differences for the sake of making the most of opportunities that are out there (Matt 10.16).

Why was I picked out of the list of 700 signatories? I suspect it was because I had added to my name ‘Member of the Archbishops’ Council’. To a media person, that looks like establishment and something important. Was that a good choice? Who cares.

8. Be bold

I have a suspicion that most broadcasters find Christian leaders on the media rather dull—concerned to avoid controversy, not wanting to upset the apple cart, not wanting to criticise the Government, particularly if they are part of the established church. As a result, during the pandemic, I think most comment from church leaders has skirted around the fact that we are confronted with our mortality, and that the major existential questions are being presented to us. What is odd is that other commentators have not shied away from this.

So I wanted to raise and address the two questions of fear and death. There is no need to be ‘preachy’ about these big issues—I was very happy to preface everything I said with ‘Christians believe that…’ But it is worth being bold and clear about what we actually believe, since so many in our culture simply don’t know.

Part of this is not allowing yourself to be distracted—keep the main thing the main thing. Kay Burley followed my first comment with ‘…and I am sure all faith leaders will say that’. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? But it didn’t need a response. Her second question also could have derailed me, by asking about civil disobedience. That was not the point of the letter—so I got back to the point as quickly and naturally as I could. It is worth taking an ‘undefended’ approach to possible distractions; there is no time to be side-tracked on self-defence. And there is simply no point dodging around things you imagine your critics will later pick up on. Think through your message carefully—then stick to it.

9. Focus on what God has done

Again, I think a lot of formal media comment from Christian leaders has focussed on the practical implications of the pandemic—what we ought to do. But this just leads to a ‘hardening of the oughteries’ and a sense of earnestness. By contrast, focussing on what God has done (taking a theocentric rather than anthropocentric approach) is actually at the heart of all good preaching and proclamation. It is what is mostly missing from the media, and what we ought to supply.

As part of this, it is actually worth talking about Jesus…which doesn’t seem to me to have happened nearly enough.

10. Review and learn

When I have been involved in a broadcast, I alway listen back several times, make notes, decide what went well, and think about what I could do better next time. We should all be doing this with all our preaching, and it is particularly important when being involved in broadcast media. And when you have made notes about what you should do well and what you could do better, keep them in a place where you can reach for them easily the next time around.

So those are my reflections and observations. Do share in the comments your own observations, either from this interview or your own experience.

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27 thoughts on “How do we proclaim good news during the pandemic?”

  1. Thanks Ian – well done on the interview and thanks for sharing these really helpful lessons. I wish I had been given these points before doing some of the media stuff I have done in previous jobs – would have helped me a lot!

    • Glad they are helpful. I started early—doing a three week media course with Stephen Travis in 1991! But we did spend a considerable part of that time learning how to cut and splice tape on a Uher tape recorder, which was the industry standard at the time!

      I haven’t done any formal training since then—though have made comments about Comms strategy in AC! I think these things come from experience and reflection…not sure why they are not included in training…

  2. Thanks so much for this Ian. You were magnificent on Sky News, and these tips are so helpful for anyone else who has an opportunity to publicly speak of Christ.

  3. I watched this, yesterday evening following s link I found.
    My observations mostly were.
    1 how well prepared and calm and in control and unflappable, extremely well paced and so reasonable, and dare I say it, likeable, that it didn’t seem to leave much room for Burley to interrupt.
    2 by not contesting what you said she seemed to be accepting what you had said
    3 two points she did make one about other faith which was handled deftly by largely ignoring it and continuing with what you had to say, the other about law breaking which I was aware had caused at least one signatory to seek to dissociate, recant from signing was also handled well sticking to the main points of the letter. As you say, it was probably that which gave an opportunity for Jesus and key everyday today existential concerns: fear and death.
    4 Your comment above, “who cares” is delicious.
    5 You mention things you would have said, in hindsight; what were they?
    6 I’m always interested in how long it takes to do things, so thanks for the info on time spent on writing your original article.
    Well done and thanks.

    • Thanks Geoff. I really think that, as I moved into spirituality and theology, she didn’t have the vocabulary to question what I said…!

      On your 3, I am afraid there is a lesson from the politicians: answer the question you want to, not the one that has been asked!

      On not caring—we really need to be less fussy and more pragmatic. The media paint with a very broad brush. The dispute about how the letter was interpreted was just silly. You need to work the system!

      On 5, I would normally like to have had more polished summary statements, so that I didn’t fumble. On ‘beating the virus’, I should have had my phrase to hand.

      The articles vary. With no preparation needed, I wrote this one in just over an hour. For the biblical commentaries, I usually take an hour reading, and two to three hours to write.

  4. Good, clear advice on communication, and an encouraging message of Christ-centred hope. You also deftly answered a question looking for controversy. Thank you! I pray that those words will be a seed in Kay Burley’s heart and in others.

  5. It was good. Don’t we all wonder afterwards if we could have done it better? It’s just possible that the Holy Spirit might be at work as well. 😉

    Clear, engaging and (!) relevant.

    Well done.

  6. Hi Ian

    On another subject altogether… I had been idly ruminating on what is meant by ‘the kings of the earth bringing their wealth etc into the New Jerusalem and thought I’d check what you had to say (having recently bought your commentary). I was a little disappointed to see you seemed to struggle with understanding this too.

    It’s easy to see, I think, in its literal sense what it once meant… presumably something like the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon. It’s not so easy to grasp what it means in the New Jerusalem. If it is not literal in some kind of dispensational sense (which I don’t entirely discount being probably a premillennialist) then what are we to make of the image. Are we the kings/nations like the bride in her self-woven linen… the righteous acts of the saints? Or is it that in resurrection our skills from this life transfer to the life to come?

    Or have you any thoughts that you chose to leave out of your commentary, which, from the little I’ve so far dipped into, I am enjoying?


    • Hi John,
      In the first chapter of Rev it says we are to be Kings and Priests. I take it the Kings who bring their wealth into the New Jerusalem are those who have conquered; the faithful. Our wealth is more precious than rubies; that which is not burned up. See Isaiah 54. We are the jewels in the bridal gown. I think of Revelation like a wedding in progress: We are presented with cameos, snapshots and anecdotes to keep us entertained while the ‘signing of the register’ proceeds in the vestry. Think of the angels as ushers, musicians, etc…. I could ramble on &on. 🙂

    • Hi John. I don’t think I say that I struggle with the identity and destiny of the ‘kings of the earth’, only that their final destiny is something of a paradox!

      I don’t agree with Steve; the phrase ‘kings of the earth’ comes 8 times in Revelation and it is a phrase from the OT (1 Kings 10.23, Ps 2.1, 89.27 and elsewhere) which is picked up elsewhere in the NT in eg Matt 17.25 and Acts 4.26 meaning those with authority in this world.

      I comment on the occurrence in Rev 17.2: 2. The kings of the earth were first mentioned in 1:5, where Jesus is their ‘ruler’, and are among those who hide from the ‘wrath of the lamb’ in 6:15. Three times we are told that they committed adultery with the great prostitute (here and in 18:3, 9) and (paradoxically in the light of 1:5) she ‘rules over’ them (17:18). But in Revelation’s most inclusive and surprising turn, we learn that the ‘kings of the earth’ bring their splendour into the holy city in 21:24. By contrast, the inhabitants of the earth (mentioned ten times in the book) describe those who follow the beast unrepentantly, and they do not feature in the New Jerusalem.

      Then I comment on 21.24: 24–27. John’s next statement offer one of the most important and challenging statements in the whole of the text. In the narrative so far, the nations have participated to an extent in the faithful people of God, in that they feature in every one of the seven occurrences of the fourfold phrase ‘people, tribe, nation and language’ (or similar) coming at 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15 which describes the diversity of the those redeemed by the blood of the lamb (see comment on 5:9; 7:9). And yet, taken as a whole, the nations seem to be constantly opposed to God and his people. They trample the holy city (11:2); they are angry with God (11:18); they were seduced by the great prostitute (14:8, 18:3) and deceived by the magical spells of her prosperity (18:23); they are deceived by Satan and make war with the lamb in the final battle (19:15; 20:8). And yet, from the beginning, Jesus is the rightful Lord over them (1:5; 12:5) and shares his authority with his followers (2:26) and God is ‘king of the nations’ (15:3). The same is true of the kings of the earth. They hide from the wrath of the lamb (6:15); they are ruled by the prostitute who is the great city (17:18) and ‘commit adultery’ with her (17:2, 18:3) and also make war on the rider on the white horse (19:19). Yet they too are subject to the rule of Jesus from the beginning (1:5), and the vision of the holy city makes true de facto on the earth what has always been true de jure in the economy of God.

      In other words, they represent the client kings of the empire, and we might expect them to be judged and excluded. Yet surprisingly they appear to be (potentially at least) amongst those who do in fact bend the knee to the lamb. This is Revelation’s contribution to the ‘universal’ vision of the victory of God that we find in eg Phil 2 ‘every knee will bow’ and 1 Cor 15 ‘he will put all things…’

      • Thanks Steve and Ian.

        Thanks Steve for your reply with which I have sympathy. I think it is possible to see the picture as essentially referring in its details to the one people.

        Thanks Ian for taking the time to give such a detailed response. I shall have to consider it more fully.

        A couple of quick points.

        1. I quickly scanned a few other commentaries, all of which were a little mooted on this point.

        2. The original image is clear, the application to the eschatological kingdom less so… though a dispensational approach which has converted nations on earth that are distinct from the church allows for a more literal interpretation. Clearly you are not a dispensationalist but are you at this point envisaging something similar?

        Are these kings/nations (ch 21) residents of the city (ie the bride) or are they a separate ‘redeemed’ people?

        In the OT, Israel and the nations are both judged and converted. This seeming paradox seems to be resolved by the NT through the present preaching of the gospel. Jew and gentile in believing give the King the kiss of allegiance and are the subjects/sons of the kingdom while those who refuse bow ultimately in subjugation and ultimate banishment… they mourn but not in repentance.

        3. You resist universalism but invite a (people) salvation that is larger than those who belong to the New Jerusalem.

        4. Regarding wealth and glory being brought to the city I’m chary of human achievement derived from an unsanctified source finding a place in the new human culture. Yet, I remember that unclean nations contributed to Solomon’s Jerusalem and temple and that the spoils of war were a legitimate prize.

        Mmmm. Not easy.

        PS. I was raised a dispensationalist…. became an historic premillennialist and now waver between pre and a mil position. Though I find the Anecdote by T Schreiner amusing and apposite:

        ‘I heard Corrie ten Boom in person before she died. She was in her eighties and such a joyful Christian. And she made a little joke, she said, “I’m asked what my millennial view is, and I think that is a-pre-post-erous question.” (Laughing)’

        • Hi john
          Your reply wasn’t visible to me until I posted my comment. It is for you too.
          Good quote from Corrie ten Boom! The more I read Revelation the more I change my mind. Reading is a great way to discombobulate one’s preconceptions. I’ve decided never to have a fixed position any more.

          • Time to test amillennialism, more thoroughly, perhaps? Neither one or the other. There are some strong theological voices is favour.
            Sam Storms chronicles his move from soaked-in dispensationalism to amillennialism moving through the OT to Revelation, in his book, Kingdom Come, at the same time giving consideration to pre/post.
            But that doesn’t necessarily resolve a paradox that Ian sees. Maybe testing that paradox against salvation by works, in whole or part, may bring some resolution.
            Otherwise, it is wait and see. For some that wait will not be as long as for others. Every year, a year nearer the Lord.
            All gold and silver, the cattle on a thousand hills are God’s, whether acknowledged or not.
            The new heaven on earth primarily involves God’s kingdom, God’s people, in God’s place under God’s rule, does it not?
            Bowing the knee in subjugation, to the Victor does not necessarily embrace bowing mind, will and heart, where rebellion could still reside. It, therefore, is not necessarily an indication of ultimate destination. Would they have joined in with “maranatha”?
            Jesus chilling words, ” I never knew you” come to mind.

          • Amillennialism does not mean not believing in a millennium, but as seeing it applying to all of history. I think that is not coherent as a reading of Revelation, and not plausible outside Christendom.

        • I think all your questions are good ones, but unanswerable as long as you take the symbolism literally.

          It is worth noting that the image makes no literal sense. What of the earth can there be at all outside the New Jerusalem if that now represents saved humanity and God’s universal presence? How can there be the ‘cowardly’ to be kept out if all the followers of the beast have experienced the second death?

          Rather, John is weaving a theological symbolic image which draws together all the strands of his earlier narrative, and in doing so all the strands of the narrative of Scripture.

          The primary narrative point is that these kings, whom Jesus truly reigns over, now recognise that reign.

          • Hi Ian

            I agree it is symbolism and I try not to take it literally. Having said that I think each aspect conveys a meaning and is not merely the colouring of a holistic whole. Nevertheless your point is well taken.

            I am dipping a bit more into your commentary so I may be back.

          • Thanks for the clarification Ian,
            I should have been clearer in expressing what amillennialism is: an undefined (by events) time or times when all that happens, in world history is not set out not in chronological sequence, but take place all of the time, with people and events all of the time over the course of history, in parallel as it were – the time after Christ, the kingdom inaugurated by him, until his second coming.
            That omission was based on an erroneous assumption that the position of Storms was known, without reading him!!!
            I was persuaded by him.
            Storms defines amillennialism as : “the millenium is now: the present age of the church between the first and second comings of Christ in its entirety is the millennium.”

            He expands on that – there are steams within the river of amillennialism. But one key factor is the “now but not yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God.
            Storms recognises in the summary that it does not clear up all questions that may be seen as loose ends.
            This may show that it is unwise to throw around categories, as they can generate more heat than light, without definitions and explanations and result in thinking that we are talking about the same thing when we are not.

      • Hi Ian,
        I’ve just got back from coffee with an old theological friend. He agrees with you. I’m an isogete I suppose. A similar problem occurs when the words ‘I stand at the door and knock’ are taken out of context. A good purpose can come out of sloppy theology!
        But still, We are told we will be Kings. I can not help feeling that one day I will be one of the kings bringing my wealth into the New Jerusalem. The thought that some oligarch will be pushing past me with his yacht into the kingdom seems absurd. What does the N.J. need baubles for? ‘Wealth’ must mean spiritual substance, true riches. I like your point about the client kings of Rome though. Historically all of them have submitted to Christ during the years after the first century.
        Jesus is the Father’s splendour. We reflect Christ. We are His splendour, his prize, The Pearl worth all the rest. We freely enter bringing in the train of Kings.
        By the end of Revelation all the dichotomy has been resolved. The first white horse is no more. It was a fake authority. It is replaced at last by Christ on a white horse. Likewise, just because ‘kings of the earth’ represented oppositional forces, by the end of Revelation all has been overcome and they are no more, replaced by the bride of Christ from all tribes, nations etc. Numbers are important. You say 8 times the phrase is used? 8 is the start of a new week. The last phrase has nothing to do with the previous 7 but sums up and replaces the former.

  7. Thank you very much for such a helpful and honest article. Maybe you could give a higher numerical priority to talking about Jesus, since as you say, so many seem to shy away from this? A wise friend of mine told me he’s only talking about Jesus to friends now ( and he is a gifted evangelist) and not God, since the name can put unhelpful pictures into people’s heads. (And he tries very hard never ever to mention ‘church’ or ‘Christianity’ for similar reasons) I would maybe also be wary of aiming for any key phrase to reiterate, since that is very close to the language of the soundbite, which we are quick to identify as the preserve of the politician and therefore potentially untrustworthy!

    • Thanks Damon. My list was really in order of activity, rather than priority.

      But the memorable sound bite was in fact offered by Jesus, long before politicians got hold of the idea!

  8. Well done! You were clear and concise and made your points. In fact I think you have done far more than any Bishop to place Christianity in the midst of worldly minds.

  9. Hi Ian – from Melbourne, Australia.
    Thank you for this post; I can’t disagree with any of your points about the prophetic, comforting message of the gospel (and the role of the church to proclaim it), and thank you for the wise, savvy interview preparation points. But, pragmatically, having lived through 6 months of lockdown here (most of it ‘hard lockdown)- in a context with far fewer covid numbers than the UK or Europe, it strikes me as naïve and dangerous to keep churches open, if by which you mean, for public worship. The nature of this virus is that is spread in super-spreader events and worship gatherings have time and again (with singing etc) proven to be super spreaders. The context I’m in (where churches have been closed for 6 months) makes me so surprised that 700 of your colleagues think doing otherwise is wise and sensible. Is it presumptuous to disagree? Possibly, but Australia’s death toll is ‘only’ 894 and England’s is 42,350. Surely that’s enough? That’s before taking into account the increasingly apparent long term health implications of the thousands who’ve recovered. And the fact that church communities are made up of much older, more vulnerable people. I guess it’s notable how our different contexts around the globe influence how we respond to this virus. From media here, the UK seems past being able to control infection much at all. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood, as I’ve not read the letter! And I also don’t want to minimise the very real challenge and stress it’s been to proclaim hope in the absence of physical gathering.


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