In my last post (I hope) on the Primates’ gathering, I want to reflect briefly on what has happened since in terms of public relations. Pete Hobson, Canon Missioner at Leicester Cathedral, commented on Friday last week:
So this is the actual final Communique. A clear and strongly-worded challenge to homophobic violence and prejudice. A call to action on climate change. A challenge to work against global violence and poverty. An encouragement to lively evangelism. And a lot more – even possible agreement on the date of Easter!!
Oh yes, and a consequence for one church that has chosen to act unilaterally on one issue against the expressed views of the large majority of the rest of the communion, (though clearly not a ‘suspension’).
What bit of that gets all the headlines and all the intense reactions?
The presenting reason for this was that Anglican Ink had leaked the Statement on TEC and marriage a day early, and it was decided to confirm only that, rather than release early the wider communiqué which put the statement in a much broad context. In particular, it meant that the statement about relations with TEC came before this important part of the communiqué when it was intended to come after:
The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.
The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.
The order you put things in makes all the difference.
Although the press would have you believe that the meeting was tense, and it was all a power-struggle not much short of an ecclesial punch-up (the media love to deal in binary conflict—it creates a story), the feel of the meeting is captured much better by other comments. Here are the reflections from Philip Richardson, Archbishop of New Zealand:
In the end, the 80 journalists and 15 TV crews who gathered for the final press conference looked for winners and losers. In reality, though, we were all losers – because we are still fractured, broken, still inclined to mistrust. But we are committed to staying with each other. We are committed to walking together, to trying to see through each other’s eyes, to stepping into each other’s worlds, and to keeping on keeping on until mutual understanding grows. … We were praying for their life and work and asking for the blessing of God upon them. We were archbishops from widely different worlds, some with views at extreme ends of a spectrum on various issues, serving and praying for each other.
Would that such humility were a constant in my Church and our world!
The comment from Mouneer Anis, Bishop of Egypt, echoed this profound sense of shared relationship:
Once we decided on the consequences for the actions of TEC, we started to discuss other issues. The spirit in the room had changed 180 degrees. It was amazing and tremendously encouraging to hear the passionate discussion about mission and evangelism, the challenge of refugees, religiously motivated violence, and environmental issues. It was a real joy for me to witness the different Primates sharing on how the Lord is at work in their provinces and how their churches are growing. I felt that this is the Anglican Communion I love.
Justin Welby’s own reflection also echoes this:
The meeting reached a point on Wednesday where we chose quite simply to decide on this point – do we walk together at a distance, or walk apart? And what happened next went beyond everyone’s expectations. It was Spirit-led. It was a ‘God moment’. As leaders of our Anglican Communion, and more importantly as Christians, we looked at each other across our deep and complex differences – and we recognised those we saw as those with whom we are called to journey in hope towards the truth and love of Jesus Christ. It was our unanimous decision to walk together and to take responsibility for making that work.
At one level, I am not expecting the general media either to understand this or to highlight it. After all, ‘agreement breaks out between nice Christians’ hardly makes a news story. But if you want to see how ill-informed, uncomprehending and downright biased some of the coverage was, then it is worth watching Channel 4 News from last Friday. The meeting was, in ignorant error, describes as ‘leaders of the Church of England’ and the focus was not on the substance of the communiqué or the press conference, but on the anger of protesters alone.
Cathy Newman: So, Alex, a pretty acrimonious day in Canterbury, then?
Alex Thompson: Yes, acrimonious indeed, and I suspect Justin Welby is a pretty frustrated man tonight. He wants to talk about other issues…but the same old issue, gay relations, gay marriage, keeps on coming up and grabbing the headlines.
Er, and who, might we ask, is writing these headlines? Channel 4 News! I was so shocked by the ignorance and bias that I have complained to OFCOM, and if you are able to see the coverage, I would encourage you too as well. I have no idea who Channel 4’s researchers are, or what kind of briefing they received or had available to them. But what followed was even worse. Jayne Ozanne, until recently Chair of Accepting Evangelicals, was in debate with Andrea Minichiello Williams, founder of Christian Concern—and both members of General Synod, so deemed in some sense to be representing the C of E.
Jayne made her points clearly, with passion but also with reason, talking of the the suffering of gay and lesbians Christians in Africa, talking of the inadequacy of many ‘traditional’ approaches to the issue, and talking of her own pain in confronting the issue in her own life. In response, Williams trotted out (not very fluently) a series of hideous platitudes concerning ‘what the Bible says’. There was no reference to the Primates’ communique, no expression of interest or concern, no concession of good points to Jayne. The issue here is not that the ‘revisionist’ arguments are so much more convincing, or even PR-friendly, than the ‘traditionalist’ ones. I think I have demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to defend the Church’s current teaching on television and sound reasonable.
So, here is the hard question for anyone connected with PR in the C of E: What on earth are you doing allowing Andrea Williams to speak ‘on behalf of’ the Church?
I can only envisage two possible scenarios.
- The news outlet did not ask for a spokesperson. I think this is relatively unlikely, as they usually need all the help they can get.
- They did ask, but no spokesperson was offered, so they had to rely on their own research.
If the first, why aren’t we being proactive in offering potential people to speak? Surely there is a briefing sheet with contacts that is given out to media? If the second—what on earth do we think is going to happen? I didn’t listen to it The Sunday Programme on Radio 4, but I understand there was ‘revisionist’ voice after ‘revisionist’ voice without any ‘traditionalist’ response. Now that I think about it, I cannot recall any other voice representing the ‘traditional’ position in any media discussion.
I guess many people, including many bishops, feel that talking about this issue is a no-win situation. But if there is never a better spokesperson that what we have seen, or if there is a simple absence of a voice explaining and speaking up for the Church’s teaching, then it is a guaranteed loser.
The question isn’t trivial. There are plenty of hearts and minds out there who are wondering what place the Church now has in civilised society. And if we cannot offer a reasonable-sounding defence of the Church’s teaching, we are hastening the day of decision. The current position is not indefensible—but it is simply not being defended.
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