This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

What follows is the text of the Derek Hole lecture (in faith, society and ethics) I delivered at De Montfort University last night. It ends on the same question I posed in the St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral last year. It was merely coincidental that yesterday saw (a) the Prime Minister withdraw from negotiations with other party leaders on a framework for press accountability (post-Leveson) and (b) the arrest of four Mirror Group journalists for alleged phone hacking-related offences.

The big question still remains unanswered: why do those who own/run the press object to legislative underpinning of their regulation when they insist on it for everybody else?

Anyway, here’s the basic text:

The title ‘Faith in the Media’ is, of course, deliberately ambiguous. How the media represent and understand faith is a different matter from whether we should trust the media and the reality (or version of reality) they mediate to us. In this lecture I wish to address both questions, but in a discursive rather than purely analytical way. In doing so I am conscious of the limitations of time and scope, and so might well open up questions I then cannot address adequately here.

First, I will say something about who and what we mean when we speak of the ‘media’. Secondly, I will explore a little how the media work. Next, I will look at how the media handle faith and religion. And, finally, I will pose some ethical questions arising from our survey of media and faith.

Who are the ‘media’?

Did you hear about the Bradford Batman on Monday of last week? I was launching the new Dean of Bradford in the city centre before walking back to my car at the Cathedral. En route I was phoned by a freelance journalist who asked what I thought of the Bradford Batman. I am afraid I was correctly quoted in the Independent: “I think it was dead funny. But, look at the waistline and the tights – I don’t think he’s that fit.” He was later identified as a friend of the guy he’d handed in to police.

The fact that you heard about it isn’t very interesting in itself. It is just a story that is here one day and gone the next. Mere trivial entertainment and it didn’t exactly change the world. But, what is interesting is how you heard about it. I saw it on twitter. Others read about it in the local (or, subsequently, national) newspapers. Others saw it on websites as it flew through the internet’s synapses. Others saw it on the telly or heard about it on the radio.

In other words, the whole world now knows about the Bradford Batman… and they know it because of the media. Media are simply that: means of communicating information, data, opinion, image, analysis, etc. So, when we speak about the media at all, we are, in fact, speaking about the means of communication and not the content.

Yet, the media are not a ‘given’ in this world. Thirty years ago we would have heard the word ‘media’ and thought ‘radio, television and newspapers’. Now, however, some elements of print media – newspapers especially – are struggling to compete in a world of instant news, instant communication, free access to information via the Internet, and a lack of effective business models to enable such print media to survive. If they don’t make a profit as businesses, they must get cross-subsidised from other areas of the business’s operation or they cut back until they bleed to death.

Now, we might want to say “so what?” to this challenge. A good social Darwinian would just mouth ‘survival of the fittest’ and go back to his iPad. But, this change in the world has consequences that go beyond mere economic models and shape how we see the world and live in it. If you want to see what lies behind the events that gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry, you might well start here: to what extent does democracy require a properly-resourced independent press and what happens when profit becomes the ‘end’ instead of the mediation, analysis and comment on how the world is and who makes it that way?

In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Among some of the dramatic and often shocking scenes from the inquiry, it was salutary to see Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and of the nature of the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators ever critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the constantly emerging picture still begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation.

Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.

But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up. On Monday evening I was at a media reception at Lambeth Palace and the Guardian’s Andrew Brown described his profession as ‘dying’. Jerome Taylor, the excellent Independent journalist who was also there, tweeted on Tuesday the loss of a further 80 jobs at the Telegraph and pleaded: “Pay for the news!”

So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR – and it is reckoned that there are now more PR professionals and lobbyists than journalists – output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it, and there is a societal cost.

But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.

Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.

Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.

There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses. All serious newspapers are shedding jobs.

The deficit for society is that we run the risk of diminishing the importance of reflective and critical thought that has had the time and concentration to do the detail that is necessary if power is to be held to account – especially at local level. If, as some exponents of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere maintain, everyone is a journalist today, then pity help us. Information can come at us from any part of the world – and that is good – but who has the time, expertise and accumulated wisdom to order it, scrutinise it, think about it and then present it accurately as ‘news’, argument or interpretation? Again, the social Darwinian will shrug and say it will all just sort itself out; but try telling that to the people and institutions that have been shredded in the process.

In the brave new world of social media, the two keywords are: interconnectivity and interactivity. If the Telegraph stitches me up, I have recourse via my blog, Twitter and other media to argue and tell the truth; I no longer have to rely on having a printed apology or a letter printed with the goodwill of the editor. In that sense the media have become more democratic – more open to everyone. But, as I have indicated, openness is no guarantee of accuracy, reasonableness, truthfulness or wisdom.

So, just as, for example, newspapers need other media in order to maintain a voice, so does any organisation or institution now need to avail itself of print, website, social media engagement and interconnected communication. But, the hard bit is that such engagement now demands interactivity: not preaching, but conversation; not propaganda, but attentive dialogue.

A couple of years ago I was in Rome for a communications conference with the Diocesan Communications Officers of the Church of England. During one session at a pontifical university we were introduced to a new web portal called pope2you.com. This was presented as the Vatican grasping the potential of emerging social media in order to connect with a new generation of young people. Except, of course, that it was still the Vatican telling people what to think and believe, rather than an invitation to a conversation that involved the Vatican listening to anyone else. They understood interconnectivity, but didn’t quite grasp the interactivity that characterises social media today.

And at this point we might digress into some thinking about how the media work and where ethics fit in.

Looking through an ethical lens at the media

Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”

So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.

A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.

Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.

Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.

The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.

So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased. (And he wasn’t at the media reception at Lambeth Palace on Monday…)

This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.

When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”

Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here. Which is why I support the need for legislative back up of any new post-Leveson code.

Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.

In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.

I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)

Now, ‘truth’ is a difficult concept when discussing the media anyway. After all, it is not only the people involved that are complex, but also the technology itself influences and sometimes shapes content. For example, an important news story – and you have to ask who decides what counts as ‘news’ – might get dropped on the television because there are no good pictures; which suggests that the content only matters if it fits a particular medium. Which, of course, is questionable.

So, let’s try to pull some of this together and illustrate what actually goes on here. The notion that the media – as they are collectively known – simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set is at the same time both true and nonsense.

It is utter nonsense because any story or programme or article is written for a purpose and in a particular context; furthermore, it is written or presented or edited in a particular way, with choices being made along the way about what stays in and what gets left out. And these choices are largely driven by unconscious assumptions about how the world is, why it is the way it is, and why anything matters in the first place. In other words, the worldviews of the editors or makers shape not only the material, but also how the material is presented.

For example, a few years ago there was a short series of programmes about the church in Britain today. Every reference to black Pentecostal churches was set against film of a packed congregation on a Sunday morning, everyone dancing and singing to a classy band. Every reference to mainline churches was accompanied by pictures of empty or derelict church buildings. Why not film in a large and growing church instead? Well, the answer is that the visuals were intended to reinforce a particular line.

And context? Well, don’t expect the Daily Mail to tell a good story about the EU or good immigrants – such stories just don’t serve the editorial end to which the stories are the means.

So, if that explains the ‘nonsense’, how on earth can it simultaneously be true to say that “the media simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set”? Well, simply and rather obviously, because the uncritical assumptions that motivate editorial choice and shape understanding of the world and its events – that create meaning – are too often a reflection of that world and its dominant assumptions. And the way in which ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ is treated in the media – particularly broadcast and print media – too often betrays an ignorance about both faith as a motivating phenomenon and how faith works in shaping individuals and communities.

(I have long argued that RE in schools ought to include a compulsory component that deals with what worldviews are, how they are constructed, how they filter ‘reality’, and how they shape community. If the media betray ignorance of some basic tools for understanding how the world and its people operate, then this is not because media people are particularly thick, but because this prejudice-driven ignorance characterizes our society. And don’t get me started on politics.)

I make this point here because there is a rumour around that ‘the media’ are neutral and that certain views about the world and meaning are, therefore, also neutral. What I mean by this is that many in the media assume that a secular humanist assumption is neutral, whereas a religious world view is located somewhere up the loony scale where, being a problem, it needs to be confined to the realms of private opinion and not given space in the public discourse. Of course, this uncritically privileges the secular humanist worldview, but without any recognition that such privileging is the result of selective and uncritical thinking.

Now, I am not saying that all media representation of religion is negative; that, clearly, would be nonsense. And there are signs that broadcast programming, at least, is beginning to show evidence of more imaginative and adventurous coverage of religious themes. I chair the Sandford St Martin Trust and our remit is to promote excellence in religious broadcasting – actually, a rather narrow remit in a rapidly changing media world. Although we have seen a reduction by commissioning editors of programmes with religious or moral themes, this year the quality of such programming has been excellent.

Think, for example, of BBC2’s remarkable Goodbye to Canterbury on New Year’s Day in which the reputedly uncommunicative outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, effortlessly took his audience through history, geography, philosophy, theology, architecture, art, music, literature, languages, spirituality and poetry as he paid close attention to the building of Canterbury Cathedral – opening our eyes to how ancient stones and relics can become signposts in the modern world. And they say he couldn’t ‘do media’…

Or consider Tom Holland’s slightly repetitive and controversial exploration of the emergence of Islam in Channel 4’s Islam and Empire. What began as an attempt to make sense of the death-throes of antiquity ended up running an enquiring finger over the fault-line that reverberates through the contemporary world: between science and religion, between history and faith.

Or, finally, the guaranteed entertainment of watching Professor Richard Dawkins dig philosophical holes for himself as he enters discussion with people who have acquainted themselves with science, but who easily expose his ignorance of anything but science. BBC1’s Science v Religion, although assuming a conflict that most of us reject – on the grounds that science and religion address different questions – brought the erudite former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks into conversation with Dawkins, Baroness Susan Greenfield and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. Intelligent, searching, cultured. Mostly.

The point is that there are good examples of the media taking religion seriously. And part of the remit of the Sandford St Martin Trust is to encourage such programming, trying to persuade commissioning editors and programme makers that religion is fertile ground for good, interesting, entertaining subject matter.

Now, this matters today more than ever. Faith is not merely a worldview – a set of private beliefs that shouldn’t be given access to the public sphere because it will only cause trouble when it gets there. Faith is also about praxis – how people live their lives, shape their societies, order their priorities, work and play, build communities, and understand the value of how and where they live their lives. Faith is about stories of people and their communities, of living and dying, of love and loss, of triumph and defeat.

And some of us would go as far as to claim (which I haven’t got time to develop here) that even the atheists and secular humanists have worldviews that need examination and testing… on the grounds that even the fiercest rationalist lives to some extent by faith.

What I am arguing for here, however, is not simply that the media should learn to understand religion and faith and then privilege it with greater airtime, but that they should see religion as more than an irrational private belief system that is only interesting when it forms the backdrop for images of conflict. And what this reveals is the need for the media to be open to the need for intelligent interpretation of religion in the world. Hence, the argument put by Roger Bolton and others that the BBC, at least, should appoint a Religion Editor – just as they have a Politics Editor, Economics Editor, Arts Editor, Business Editor, Sports Editor, and so on. The role assumes the need for interpretation (not propagation) and we continue to press for this. This is not special pleading by religious numpties who want to protect Songs of Praise for ever, but a cultural argument raised by people who think intelligence matters. Much that goes on in the world cannot be understood at face value without an intelligent and informed understanding of the religious dimensions.

Well, that’s that, then, I guess. For society properly to be understood, we need media that take religion seriously and interpret the world in the light of it… as well as interpreting it in the light of world events.

So, we have identified briefly several ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business.

And this leads me to suggest that people of faith need to shamelessly look at, report on, interpret, argue about, represent and question the world as they see it… but always in ways that fit the medium they wish to work in and communicate through. During the Bush Junior administration in the USA, Americans worked through some of the inarticulable dilemmas of private and public life through the characters and contexts of The West Wing – which might be deemed better ‘religious broadcasting’ than Songs of Praise.

The commodification of people for entertainment is pernicious and morally dodgy. Which imposes on all of us who consume media output a moral responsibility for what we consume, how we consume it and what we do with what it does to us. A brilliant illustration of commodification is to be found in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.

If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.

The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.

In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.

There is nothing like coming back from Africa to realise how pathetic is some of the stuff that goes for ‘culture’ in England.

This morning the Daily Mail has a whole report on a total non-subject that illustrates only how the writer of it must be illiterate. Which begs the further question of how the editor let it through. Here’s the link. And here’s the header:

Church of England’s official Twitter feed sparks row after ‘offensive’ joke about gay marriage and Katie Price

  • User asked what Church thought of Katie Price marrying for the third time. Church of England replied it didn’t have an official policy on Katie Price. But added that: ‘Jordan gets quite a few mentions in the Old Testament’.

Can the reporter tell us who thought the comments were ‘offensive’? Who and what were offended? And about what? And where might we find the ‘row’ that has been ‘sparked’?

Unbelievable.

Then, just to show how reporters like this think how stupid and media-illiterate the audience is, he adds:

Apparently recognising that offence had been caused, the Church’s Twitter feed then posted to Just Skippy: ‘Glad we could be source of joy as well as – sadly – disquiet for you. Blessings.’

‘Offence’? ‘Recognising’? Good grief! Go back to school and learn how to read. Isn’t the response simply recognising that someone who disagrees with the Church of England’s stance on gay marriage isn’t happy?

This is actually a good story of how someone in Church House is engaged, has a sense of humour, and keeps things in perspective. It’s also a story of how crass the Daily Mail is in trying to make a story out of it.

 

A recording for a BBC Radio 2 documentary at 8am this morning in London. Then the Chris Evans Show Pause for Thought on 'imagination'. Then a keynote conference address on communications challenges facing the church (mostly posed by the digital age and social media). Then a panel discussion at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on religion and the media. A bit of a busy one.

My points at the communications conference were basically:

  • Churches need to (a) develop competence in understanding the particular media and the languages hat need to be spoken in order for different audiences to hear.
  • Churches need to move from a reactive to a proactive mind-set – shaping the agenda/discourse, not always responding to it.
  • Contemporary media demand (a) interactivity and (b) interconnectivity.

There is no longer any one-way traffic in terms of putting a message out there. We need to see what we put out as the first and not the last word. This demands the humility of learning and the confidence to drop defensiveness. Yes, we need to increase media and communications literacy – particularly with bishops and diocesan gate-keepers. 'Communications' is no longer what we do once we have done the business; communication is integral to our business. Therefore, communications professionals need to be at the heart of diocesan structures, around the table for any diocesan discussions, and looking at all aspects of diocesan life through a communications lens.

The challenge is to listen, learn, flex and be unafraid of risk or failure.

This evening's discussion at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was mediated by Michael Wakelin, former Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC. The panelists were me, Lucy Winkett, Abdul-Rehman Malik and Sarah Joseph. We covered a number of elements of religion and media and I tried to be more positive about (particularly) social media. We covered matters of religious literacy on the part of media professionals, but also the need for religious practitioners to master the media they wish to work in. Incompetence is not over-ruled by some idea of the vitality of any 'message'.

One woman had a bit of a rant after the event. I couldn't quite work out why such rudeness was supposed to commend her atheism to me. Funnily enough, I agreed with some of her complaints about the church, but couldn't see why she was telling me all this in such an aggressive way.

Oh well…

I came down to London last night for an early start today. While all the Jimmy Savile stuff gets worse and the political rhetoric about our economic 'challenges' seems divorced from the reality those of us on the ground see every day, I am feeling like a fish out of water at a conference on diocesan communications.

I recorded an interview for a BBC documentary at 8am, then met a friend for a drink before going upstairs to do Pause for Thought on the excellent Chris Evans Show. Then I hot-footed it (or, more accurately, hot-tubed it) over to the Royal Geographical Society for the webby techie comms gig. The opening session introduced us to how the excellent MyDiocese software stuff has been updated and improved. It all looks wonderful.

The problem is I wouldn't know where to start. I use social media and know what I am doing with what I use, but get into technical detail and my brain turns to mush. I am glad someone knows how to work all this stuff.

Division of labour. Let the comms guys do their stuff and I'll just keep banging out the content I can manage.

I did the keynote address (on the communications challenges facing dioceses), focusing on interactivity, interconnectivity and the need to put communications at the heart of any diocese: risking risk, proactively setting the agenda and going beyond simply 'getting our message across'. took me forty minutes to say all that…

Now I'm off to take part in a session on religious broadcasting at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this evening.

All good fun.

 

Every now and then (about twice a day) I think about giving up blogging. I think it is the enormity of it all and the capacity to get it wrong or say silly things that then stick with you for ever. I sometimes wonder if it is worth all the effort.

But then something comes along that gives new energy and renewed vision: the Pope tells us to do it. The Telegraph reports the Pope’s latest message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications on Saturday and quotes him as saying:

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audio-visual resources – images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites – which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelisation and catechesis.

Church Mouse picks up on this and comments:

…the Catholic Church seems to be getting the web and new media in a way that the Anglican Church hasn’t yet, and in his speech yesterday, the Pope was spot on.  You can engage with the Pope on Facebook, on your iPhone and the Vatican has a pretty natty website.

Oh dear. Several points to bear in mind once you have read the message itself through the link above:

1. The Pope didn’t actually write his message; I’ve got a shrewd idea who did and he works in the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. So, all the ‘he’s 82 and he can manage it, so why can’t we?’ stuff is a bit off the wall.

2. The Church of England is accessible on phones and web – that’s how I access its stuff most of the time. No, we don’t have the variety or range of access that the Vatican has, but neither do we have the cash to do it. (And, though this is screamingly obvious, the Vatican heads a multilingual but monolithic worldwide Communion – the Anglican Communion has a different (provincial) ecclesiology and a different approach to resourcing its work.)

But, the real point it this: naive (but understandable) appreciation of the Vatican’s operation ignores some pretty significant features which I reported on directly from Rome back in September 2009. (Go to the link and then read back for a few days to get the full picture.)

Vatican Radio (for example) has a budget of 23 million Euros: no one could tell us who set the budget, according to which criteria it was agreed and where it ultimately came from. The total communications budget for the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, but try getting that sort of operation through a General Synod containing (lay) people with views on accountability…

Secondly, what came out of our discussions in Rome was that however flash and wonderful the Vatican’s webby stuff might look, it is a one-way operation. The Church propagates, tells, informs and instructs: it does not need to discuss or debate. Indeed, when I specifically asked about the impact of ‘social engagement using new media’ – that is to say, how such engagement changes the relationship and sometimes means that the interlocutors change their mind as they learn to see from a different perspective – I was told that this is a way of getting people to then join a real community ‘where we can tell them the truth’.

Now, I am not criticising the Vatican for this approach. It is entirely consistent with its understanding of itself as a church (or, more precisely, the Church). It puts on a good show when it comes to communication, but that communication is intended to be one-way only. This became clear at a meeting at the Salesian University back in September which exposed a gap between the aspiration and the reality of Vatican communications.

Look at the wonderful Pope2you site aimed at young people, for example. I have just had a quick look at it and noticed a significant difference from when it was introduced to us in Rome: Wikicath has gone. The single defining characteristic of a ‘wiki’ is that it can be amended, edited, supplemented etc in ‘democratic’ fashion. You couldn’t do that with Wikicath – and now it seems to have disappeared.

I thought the whole point of new media was that it allowed for conversation, engagement and mutual learning. That is, basically, why I started blogging – and I have learned a lot in just over a year.

But, if we are going to romanticise the Vatican’s very impressive and hugely resourced operation, then we must first recognise the theology and ecclesiology that dictate its missiology and communications principles. Secondly, if we are going to compare this with the Church of England (or, even, the Anglican Communion), we have to ask who will provide the financial resources, who will set the priorities, who will dictate the boundaries of engagement and what will be the fundamental purpose of it all.

Incidentally, the connection between communications, Gospel and world is rooted in the priests. When reading such messages as the Pope’s latest, ask if lay people have any role other than to learn ‘the truth’ from the priests – who are the ones who really matter. The Anglican way?

I’ll probably keep blogging – for a while at least.

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.