Just about to go and open a new Children’s Centre in Redhill when I got the daily press briefing and spotted an article in the Telegraph about the church. Now, before I go any further, this is not me ‘having a go’ at the Telegraph or questioning the credentials of my friend Jonathan Wynne-Jones whose name appears at the top of the article. But it does illustrate the game we are in and it got me thinking again.
The headline proclaims:
Church of England attempts to broaden appeal with songs by U2 and prayers for Google
Christian services that feature DJs, songs of the Irish band U2 and prayers for the chief executives of Google and Wal-Mart are being promoted by the Church of England.
It seems from the article that follows that the Archbishop of Canterbury is launching a book from the Fresh Expressions stable that urges creativity in forms of worship that relate to people of different cultures. But what the article does is repeat the mantra that this is all an attempt to get younger bums on pews. This is the tired old lens through which any new initiative is seen by the media generally: pews are emptying (they don’t bother to look at the filling-up pews because they don’t fit the ‘story’), so any initiative is a sad but trendy attempt to ‘appeal’ to younger people – all slightly embarrassing and half-baked.
I have not read the report, but I bet it is not saying what the start of the article suggests it is. I bet it is saying that we need alternatives to the mainstream, not replacements for it. In other words, the traditional stuff also has its essential place and wears particular cultural clothing; but there is room for other creative and appropriate cultural clothing for worship, providing other ‘languages’ for worship. This is not new! Nor is it aimed at young people; rather, it is aimed at getting the church to think about the plethora of cultural ‘languages’ spoken in our society and trying to learn them. So, it is not ‘either-or’, but ‘both-and’.
This is obviously too difficult to grasp for some observers. When my last book came out (based on songs), the Sunday Telegraph ran a piece about it in which the same mantra was trotted out: bishop wants hymns replaced with pop songs in order to get younger bums on pews. I don’t believe that; the book doesn’t say that and the book isn’t about that in any way at all. But that was the line agreed with the editor and that was the story that had to be published. (It caused me endless grief from – mainly American – fundamentalists accusing me of all sorts of sins and using this article as an example of just how pathetic the Church of England has become. And all based on a headline and report that was fundamentally misleading.)
The article goes on to describe the Fresh Expressions programme as aiming ‘to boost church attendance with more relevant and exciting services’. This also is nonsense. ‘Relevant’ in the sense of ‘comprehensible’, maybe; but where does the word’ exciting’ come from? What I know of Fresh Expressions suggests that worship can be lots of things, but doesn’t have to be ‘exciting’. It might be profoundly moving, might involve silence and stillness, might draw a small number of people into deeper reflection on Scripture, and so on.
As with all journalism now, it is imperative to find someone who holds a contrary view in order to quote them and fulfil the ‘conflict’ demand. So, Prebendary David Houlding offers the following response: “”All this is tosh. It’s just a passing fad, irrelevant, shallow and pointless… There’s no depth to it and it’s embarrassing because it’ll make people think that we’re eccentric and silly.” I wonder if David has read the report and what question he was answering over the phone to the journalist?
My real problem is that the headlines bear little or no relation to the article beneath them. That is not the fault of the journalist who wrote the article, but of the sub-editor who has probably not read or even heard of the report being described. Once you get beyond the first couple of ‘conflictual’ paragraphs, the article makes all the reasonable points you might expect and is more nuanced in its coverage. But I bet – as with this post – some people won’t read that far; they will see the headline and blow a fuse over the Church of England… all based on a misleading (but prejudice-reinforcing) report.