Today brought me from Rome to Blackburn via Croydon and emergency root canal treatment by my wonderful dentist. The travel also afforded me the space to think about the communications conference in Rome that ended last night. The last few days demonstrated to me again what a gift the Diocesan Communications people are to the Church: committed, creative, professional and open to learn. Some are compelled to reactive roles (firefighting – ‘naughty vicar’ stories, etc) when they should be given the space to be proactive in telling the good stories of God and the Church.

Rome september 2009 023The last few days in Rome have seen them engage with intelligence, curiosity and professional articulacy in meetings, debates, discussions and conversations with a variety of varied and various people. Whether with media professionals, professional academics, clergy or church communicators, they have made the most of every encounter and the conference proved to be excellent in every respect. It also raised serious questions which will need to be taken forward now we are back in Blighty.

At the department of Social Communications at the Salesian University yesterday, I asked a question that goes to the heart of the matter for us in Rome and at home. It went something like this:

Any genuine encounter between two parties must leave open the possibility that each might be changed by it or by the other. The dynamic has to be two-way. The same must surely be true of our theology – it shapes our experience, but must also be subject to re-shaping by our experience. How, then, does a ‘controlling’ and dogmatic church (such as that of the Vatican) engage in genuine discussion and conversation if it sees the media simply as a one-way vehicle for conveying the truth to the world?

The ensuing conversation was very interesting. The media, we were told, are not simply to be exploited by the Church, but should enable the Church to listen, understand and then respond to the world outside. Not just ‘talking at’, but ‘listening to’. And that is why the Dean of the Faculty described communication as ‘an act of love’.

Via a discussion of communication as conversation, it was noted that:

  • communication cannot be a separate (or free-standing) discipline, but must be the lens through which everything else is seen
  • there has been a massive shift in society from ‘mass media’ to ‘individual media’ – the shared and common experience of watching a TV soap opera (for example) giving way to isolated interaction with media via the individual’s computer screen
  • the need to grow media-competent young people in order that they can grow up as persons of integrity, able to critically analyse media and negotiate the world they are in
  • the need for clergy to be ‘animateurs’ and not just catechists
  • the need for the Church to forge the connection between media -competence and good citizenship
  • the need for the Church to listen to/for the voice of God in and through the world to which it pays attention.

These weren’t the only questions – and it would take too long to expound them all any further. But we did discover the frustration produced by trainee priests who engage in ‘conversation’ with culture and theology generally, but, when it comes to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) simply say that ‘conversation’ doesn’t apply here because here we have ‘revelation’. Now, that rings a lot of bells. So, they will engage openly with everything else, but then close down the shutters when it comes to the Bible. This is the sort of impenetrable self-protection that emits a ‘don’t-blame-me-it’s-what-the-Bible-says’ disclaimer that releases the fearful from having to think.

Yet this was pointed out to us a number of times in relation to the Church’s understanding and exploitation of communication media: they exist to enable us to propagate our message. So, the Vatican website tells you stuff, but you can’t interact with it. The youth-oriented www.pope2you.net has a section called ‘Wikicath’ – but it isn’t a wiki bacause it can’t be fiddled with in any way.

Of course, none of this is unique to the Vatican. Similar questions need to be directed at the Church of England as well: just how do we understand the dynamic of our own communications functions? What is actually going on in our world? And is the messiness of the Anglican Communion precisely what happens if a Church takes the same risks Jesus did and gives the Gospel away to people who might twist, distort, half-remember or mis-remember what he was trying to tell them about himself, God, the world or us? Can the good news of Jesus Christ really be controlled by a Church institution without it being fossilised into a tool for the preservation of that institution and the elite who are served by it?

Or, to put it more provocatively, is the messiness of the Anglican Communion evidence of genuine risk-taking Christianity – compared with the controlled didacticism of a Church that cannot let go for fear of what might happen if the Gospel got out?

Change the names of the denominations, if you wish. But the questions won’t go away.