The Media and Religion
‘Sex case dean blames Church politics’; ‘Bibles, bikinis and shimmering crosses’; ‘Church hit by new cult body blow; Rave priest confesses, "I am evil"’; ‘Gays forecast poll gains in divided Synod’; ‘Gay rights priests win victory in synod elections’; ‘Priests cleared in sex scandals’; ‘The bishop's secret son’; Betrayed by the bishop'.’
This is a selection of the articles which have reached the front pages in my eighteen months as Religious Affairs Editor of the Guardian. On a rough skim through my cuttings books in that time I have written the splash - the main headline of the paper - eight times. Five of those were sex scandals: two on the Nine O'Clock Service ‘rave’ youth church service in August 1995 which collapsed in allegations of a personality cult, and three on the recent scandal of the Bishop of Argyll and his mistresses. One was on the value of the Church of England's assets. Of the remaining two, one was a story on the Christian churches setting up feeding centres for asylum seekers - an unusually flattering article to the church - but it only got to be the splash because it filled a no-news Christmas season vacuum, and the other was, in my judgement, the only story of them all to warrant the prominence - a Guardian investigation into a campaign by a British Buddhist cult to discredit the Dalai Lama.
What has happened in the Guardian in the last eighteen months is not much different to the other newspapers. And, have no illusions, broadsheets and tabloids have a remarkably similar agenda when it comes to religion, although the treatment might differ slightly - of which more later.
The inescapable, most striking point is that the biggest stories religious affairs correspondents deal with always involve sex. I have a most appropriate job title, my editor quipped during the Bishop of Argyll case. There are bad and good reasons for this obsessive linking of sex and religion, and in the course of this lecture I will try to explain both.
What I think is unarguable - and the scandal stories which have achieved most coverage listed above is one illustration of it - is that there is an inherent bias in the media in Britain against religious institutions and religious expression. Much of this lecture will be devoted to exploring what lies behind this bias.
Most believers I've spoken to - of whatever faith - find the mainstream news media unrelentingly hostile. They are frustrated by the predominant tone of contempt and ridicule. Sometimes they are angry, more often, they are resigned. Few search to explain what lies behind the media's hostility.
Briefly, let me explain that I will be looking solely at the relationship between religion and the media - predominantly newspapers - in Britain. As the Christian churches are the main religious institutions in this country, I will be focusing particularly on coverage of Christianity. It's a very small part of a much bigger picture, indeed in many parts of the world this relationship is far more dramatic and influential. But there are two reasons for confining myself to newspapers, Christianity and Britain: as Religious Affairs Editor of the Guardian, I rarely, if ever, stray abroad. Indeed I rarely even cover religion in Northern Ireland since we have a specialist correspondent based in Belfast who incorporates it into his political coverage.
The second reason is that the relationship between religion and the media in this country is a rather neglected subject which, I believe, holds up a fascinating mirror to our cultural preoccupations at the end of the 20th century.
I will apologise in advance for what many will see as dragging your attention ‘down’ to the level of scandals about bonking bishops. The stories I want to look at are usually dismissed as illustrative of the media's worst characteristics - its prurience and trivialisation.
I would attribute the bias against religion to five causes:
1 . Loss of deference
The religious stories which attract the most attention from news editors all involve scandal - preferably sex, because you then have a strong human interest element, but if not, money or power. The best stories have all three. The ongoing infighting at Lincoln has attracted thousands of column inches because it had sex, power - as in the intrigues of the cloister - and money - as the Church ratcheted up thousands of pounds conducting a medieval style church court. The Bishop of Argyll story delighted news editors - look how the BBC's Six and Nine O'Clock News devoted about ten minutes to the estranged mistress, Joanna Whibley, and her son, in her dramatic revelation. The human interest element was gripping, there were immediately questions about money - where had the Bishop got £2,000 to pay Ms Whibley. And of course, at its heart, this was a story about power, a man in a position of respect and authority in the Church hierarchy who had been living a lie for fifteen years.
These stories and the titillating detail with which they are reported are symptoms of a much more widespread phenomenon: Loss of Deference. The treatment the Christian churches receive is similar in kind, though mercifully different in scale than that received by that other ancient institution, the monarchy. ‘Loss of deference’ characterises the media's approach to politics, legal system and police. There is a deep, pervasive cynicism in our culture towards any institution which projects itself as having, and/or has inherited, a position of authority.
Firstly, there are clear and incalculable advantages stemming from this loss of deference. It is harder to cover up corruption. To give one specific example, the attempts of the Catholic Church finally to acknowledge and tackle child abuse by priests must be due in large part to the role played by the media in exposing and campaigning on this issue.
Secondly, this loss of deference is also destructive.
Two aspects of this phenomenon particularly affect the perception of religious institutions:
(i) We have developed an obsession with individual autonomy. The individual's judgement is all. No collective institution has the ‘right’ to say how any individual should behave, particularly in their private, personal life. There is a deep resentment of exterior sources of authority which profoundly clashes with the Church's traditional role as instructor of private morality and agency of moral control through Divine sanction of good and evil. The result is ridicule of the church's authority, and delight in sex scandals which fall short of church teaching and therefore cause such embarrassment to the claims of the Church.
(ii) We have developed a curious intolerance of hypocrisy, and I chose my words ‘curious intolerance’ carefully. One can see the quite legitimate roots of this current obsession in a world where facades, appearances had more meaning than the seamy reality which lay behind them. That led to a sickening hypocrisy which brutally victimised those who challenged the disjunction between appearance and reality.
This crusade against hypocrisy has had many, many benefits. For example, looking back over the history of the Church of England, it has frequently allied itself with the ruling establishment: ‘the meek shall inherit the kingdom of heaven’ being understood as strictly for the next life. Partly under pressure from secular critics, the Church is increasingly identifying itself with the poor and marginalised.
But it seems to me that an element of hypocrisy is inseparable from the human condition. It is inevitable that if we have ideals, aspirations, we will fall short of them. But this is perceived as hypocrisy and in our late 20th century lexicon there are few sins worse than hypocrisy, and it is better to give up ideals altogether than fail to live up to them. A misunderstanding of the relationship of ideals to human behaviour in my view! The consequences of this perception are all too obvious in relation to religious institutions. Any time Christians don't match up to Jesus Christ, they are a bunch of hypocrites. Christians, by virtue of their impossibly high ideals, are sitting targets. The mirth occasioned by Lincoln was at the disparity between ideals and the reality of feuding canons who loathed each other. The stories of Catholic priests in relationships with women which emerged during the Bishop of Argyll scandal was just this gap between the ideal of celibacy - self-denial for more complete dedication to God and service to the church - and what was perceived as the reality of sexual frustration and hidden relationships.
There is a subtext to loss of deference with which other institutions do not have to grapple. This subtext lies in the fact that the roots of our culture are Christian, and most people in this country have a direct experience of Christianity from their upbringing and the continued faith of relatives or friends around them. Media coverage of religious affairs in this country is, at a profound level, a dialogue of the secular/vestigially Christian present with its Christian past.
A brief anecdote: A prominent Anglican bishop wrote me an extremely rude note about my coverage of religion. I invited him to tea to discuss it. Apologetic for the note, there was no hiding his fury and frustration at a hostile media over the last twenty years. We talked a bit about loss of deference and hypocrisy and he said that it was almost as if the sins of the fathers are being visited upon their children; i.e. that the rampant hypocrisy of generations of churchmen are being visited upon the present incumbents. It's like a crucifixion, said this bishop and added sadly, no generation of churchmen have so little warranted this kind of treatment. He's probably not far wrong, in terms of the general standards of disinterested commitment of the vast majority of churchmen to serving others, commitment to the most marginalised etc...
I think this point can be applied more widely. For many people, their past experiences of Christianity have been predominantly negative with a harsh judgmental God preoccupied with matters of sexual morality.
The astute Christian recognises this: in the media blitz of scathing comment and sensational revelation following the Bishop of Argyll's resignation, Father Brendan Callaghan, Jesuit principal of Heythrop Theological College commented in the Guardian:
Christianity is part of the cultural fabric of this country. Like it or dislike it, believe it, disbelieve it or remain agnostic, we cannot ignore the scale by which Catholic Christianity has shaped our country. Much of our public debate has been and continues to be shaped by ideas and arguments that inevitably relate to the Christian tradition, while much of our personal discussion and questioning, to say nothing of our participation in the arts takes place in a cultural context shaped now as in the past in implicit or explicit dialogue with Christianity.
I think this concept of ‘implicit dialogue’ goes a long way to explaining why sex bulks so prominently in religious coverage. Christianity had a particularly repressive attitude to sexuality, and Anglo-Saxon Christianity a particular Puritanism. We have kicked over those traces and sex is now viewed as one of the main driving forces of our lives. Our culture revels in the juxtaposition of sexual and religious images - that was the secret of Madonna's attraction. In our obsession with sexual expression, a successful fulfilled sex life has come to be perceived as an essential ingredient of the fulfilled, balanced life. In the middle of the Bishop Wright case, a Catholic priest/press officer asked me, genuinely puzzled: "Why is everyone so fascinated in the question of Catholic priestly celibacy?" The answer lies in this ‘implicit dialogue’. Celibacy raises all those old questions about whether sexual appetites should or can be controlled, questions about which for all its brash sexual self-confidence our society is deeply uncertain - just look at all those articles on marital infidelity, marriage breakdown, date rape etc...
Is the church getting a rougher time from the loss of deference than, say, the political institutions? Well, no and yes. No, because religion is not a central preoccupation of the media - it receives much less space than politics. But yes, in that I would say religious institutions are particularly vulnerable to attack, and particularly ill-suited in structure and values to defend themselves in the way that, for example, the political parties or members of the Royal Family have done, by hiring spin doctors and learning to manipulate the media.
2. Conflict between the values of the news media and religious faith
That brings me on to the second cause of the bias against religion. There is an inevitable conflict between the values of the news media and religious faith which is being exacerbated by the tabloidisation of broadsheets.
The structure and values of religious institutions bring them into what the Jesuit, Avery Dulles, described as a 'necessary tension' with contemporary media. Dulles' analysis is full of insight - and some special pleading - and worth quoting at length: I paraphrase: every medium is predisposed toward a certain type of message and resistant to messages of other types. It will tend to twist the message to suit its own communicative powers.... a necessary tension between the Church' s message and the communicative powers of journalism ... seven points of contrast:
(i) The Church's message is a mystery of faith. The press is investigative and iconoclastic, it revels in exposing what is pretentious, false and scandalous ... the Catholic Church with its exalted claims is a particularly tempting target.
(ii) The message of the Church is eternal, seeks to maintain continuity, cherishes stability and shuns innovation; the press lives off novelty, thrives on the ephemeral, it accents what is new and different, giving the impression that the Church is in continual turmoil.
(iii) The church tries to promote unity, the press specialises in disagreement conflict. A story needs a struggle between contending parties and the press gives the impression that the church is divided into warring factions.
(iv) The main work of the church is spiritual, which gets overlooked by the press who concentrate on more tangible phenomena. Church teaching is selectively reported so as to leave the impression that the Pope is chiefly interested in sex, politics and power.
(v) The press in a democratic society imports democratic criteria into its assessment of any organisation. It has great difficulty in appreciating a hierarchical structure. The press have a built-in bias against the authoritative teaching of popes and bishops. The disobedient priest and the dissident theologian are lionised as champions of freedom.
(vi) The teaching of the Church on matters of belief and moral practice is complex and subtle. The media are hungry for stories that are short, simple and striking. They slur over nuances and subtlety.
(vii) The Church believes in the truth of revelation. Media reports facts in such a way as accessible even to unbelievers...
Dulles is absolutely right to identify that the values of a newspaper are first, to emphasise what is new; second, conflict; third, to make it simple. We journalists always have to remember the strap-hanging test. Whatever we write will be read by someone, probably hanging onto a strap in a crowded tube, bleary-eyed with sleep at 8.30 am on their way to work. To catch and keep their attention, your story has to be saying something new, it has to have drama and it has to be simple. The need for drama means that conflicts get enormous coverage and stories are frequently massaged to fit the template of A attacks/condemns B. Take, for example, the issue of the ordination of practising homosexuals in the Church of England which the press cover in detail; this has the ingredients of both sex and conflict as two committed minorities battle over the tops of the majority who aren't terribly interested. Or take the coverage of Islam in this country which focuses disproportionately on extremists such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the sort of love to hate category of stories, turning Muslims into mad bogeymen. It has to be simple. As people's lives have got busier and busier - broadsheet papers' readers particularly so - more women working, both sexes working harder, our attention span has become shorter. The news-bite television, the telly advert has shown how a message can be communicated in 30 seconds and we grow impatient of things which cannot be communicated in that timespan. Dulles also identifies the complete omission of the spiritual. The media reduces any religious story to terms even the non-religious would understand. This leaves a strange lopsidedness to religious coverage; we cover the institutions and how they work and the people who run them but we never, or very rarely, talk about the beliefs which motivate them and the faith which inspires them. We assess the churches as institutions not much different in kind to any other institution yet, as such, they make no sense.
I would add one more point of ‘necessary tension’ to Dulles' list which is that the media increasingly focuses on people as a way of covering stories. For example, in politics a difference over policy is translated into a battle between two politicians. It is people, not issues or an institution which grab the reader's attention. What motivates that person? What kind of person are they, what is their family background - our media shows a deep and increasingly invasive curiosity about the person. The media likes nothing better than a news story which essentially has the plot of a soap opera. That's why the monarchy over the last five years has been such a huge story; man is unfaithful to wife with old flame; woman is unfaithful to husband and is betrayed by lover .... this is Brookside but with the added thrill of being real-life. Joanna Whibley's story moved thousands of women around the country: this was that soap opera classic: the betrayed woman. It made compelling television. This presents a particular dilemma for the Christian churches which believe their message and purpose overarches the fallibility and dwarfs the significance of the individual personality
This inbuilt conflict between media and church is being exacerbated by a development in the former. The values of sensation: novelty; conflict; scandal; simplicity and human interest used to be particularly evident in tabloids, but a major characteristic of the print media in the last ten/five years has been the tabloidisation of the broadsheets.
It used to be the tabloids which were in a fierce circulation war which drove their editors to push the boundaries of good taste further and further. Now it is the broadsheets. The arrival of the Independent in 1986 broke up a cosy oligopoly in which the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Guardian had settled and loyal readership. More recently, The Times with its massive price cut, which is reportedly costing Murdoch's News International £50 million a year, initiated an even more vicious battle. Running a profitable broadsheet newspaper has never been more difficult. That fight for readers has led all the broadsheets in the same direction, adopting the news values and tone of tabloids. In 1995, the four broadsheets devoted 1,752 column inches to Hugh Grant's dalliance with a prostitute. In August, Anthony Sampson, a member of the Scott Trust which owns the Guardian wrote in the British Journalism Review that the ‘frontier between qualities and popular papers has virtually disappeared’. He cited the shrinking of foreign news, parliamentary reporting and investigative journalism and the replacement by columnists wittering on about insignificant trivia of what happened on their way to Sainsbury's.
Increasingly broadsheet journalists, consciously or not, are involved in the business of ‘infotainment’. Sober analysis is out, drama, sensation is in. That leads to an element of trivialisation, prurience, voyeurism, titillation and a disproportionate space given to the peculiar, the bizarre, the freakish - the latter being fertile ground in religious coverage. There is a difference still between broadsheets and tabloids in how they might treat a story, even if the space and prominence - what we call projection of the story - is comparable. So for example, in the Bishop of Argyll case while the tabloids might report salacious gossip about drawn curtains and giggles in the bedroom of the Bishop's hideaway love nest, the broadsheet analyses the history of celibacy, the prevalence of priests' relationships with women and what the Church is doing or might do about it.
But that difference is sometimes dangerously and disturbingly slender. To give you one example which was something of an eye-opener for me: BBC Scotland reported, about six weeks ago, the existence of a secret Channel Island insurance fund for payouts for victims of abuse by priests. It was a sensational story which immediately got to the top of the national BBC news' running order, ahead even of conflict in Israel. (The story had all the essential elements - sex, secrecy and the appearance of a tax-dodge immediately conferred by a Channel Islands connection.) The story broke without warning and the Catholic Church media office was reeling; taken totally by surprise, they, understandably, knew little about the finer details of the Church's insurance policies. By 11 o'clock in the morning the Guardian's editor had decided it should go on the front page. As the day wore on, the story looked increasingly shaky - the Church and the insurance company insisting it was a standard insurance policy with no specific reference to abuse and BBC Scotland were not convincing in standing the story up. But despite my attempts to persuade the news-desk that the story didn't stand up, it went on the front page as the ‘Catholic Church flatly denied BBC's allegations’. After the first edition, it was decided the story needed ‘jacking up’ - it ended up with heavy innuendo as ‘Catholic Church admitted existence of an insurance policy which could pay out compensation to abuse victims’. Inside, an enormous headline, ‘Abuse cases stun Catholics’ which bore almost no relation to the article. The page looked sharp, dramatic, sensational - exactly what the news editors wanted. The fact that the story had no truth in it didn't bother anyone.
3. Ingrained hostility of a secular media elite
I now want to turn to analysing another aspect of the coverage of religion: in John Birt's useful phrase, a bias against understanding. By this I mean there is a bias in the media against understanding, even trying to understand, or allowing the possibility of the legitimacy of religious belief or spirituality. The media is dominated by a secularised elite whose scorn, contempt, derision of belief is an unquestioned orthodoxy. Believers, of whom there are many, and some in very powerful positions (the editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Chairman of the Scott Trust, to mention just two), seem to make no or little headway against this dominant tone. Faith is presented as essentially absurd. I think the media which serves up this message firmly believe it's what their readers and listeners/viewers want to hear. It is part of a post-Darwinian consensus that the truths of Christianity are utterly implausible, that the Bible is a collection of tribal myths and the proposition that it is the revelation of divine truth is ludicrous. The development of cultural relativism, as anthropologists and comparative religion have opened up the enormous sophistication of other belief systems, makes of Christianity's exclusive claims on truth an appalling imperialistic arrogance. Religion is like a dinosaur, is a widespread perception, the decline in belief in this country is evidence that in time it will wither away altogether. Belief has been discredited and along with it, the whole idea that human beings might have a spiritual capacity, that it might be possible to know something called God, is belittled. At the risk of slightly exaggerating the point, I quote from George Orwell's original 1984 which contained an appendix called ‘The Principles of Newspeak’ in which he said that Newspeak was ‘not only to provide a medium of expression for the world view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsox (English socialism) but to make all other modes of thought impossible’. The secular media achieves virtually achieves this. It prides itself on its challenging, questioning, taboos, no sacred cows but its intolerance and/or lack of interest towards religion reveals a deep prejudice in which both editors and readers are steeped.
4. The fundamental clash between religion and the nature of modern media.
Religion is and has always been about participation. Religare, the Latin root, means to tie together. Religion was and is about ordering the relationships between individuals within the context of an ultimate reality - God. Religious rituals express those relationships and place them in the context of God. By contrast, the principle of the modern media is that it casts the consumer as spectator. We sit in our armchairs watching the world's conflicts flicker across our television screens: Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda, Afghanistan. We absorb information - but for what? What can we do with all the knowledge modern communications heaps in our laps? We are overwhelmed by it, exhausted by it. It is agony to be the impotent passive spectator of other people's agony, day after day after day. How can we begin to process intelligently, respond thoughtfully to everything we learn about. So we have all, at different levels, learnt to switch off, to develop a passivity, to let it all roll over us and watch it like some great drama which doesn't really affect, or only occasionally, the day to day details of our lives. Seen from the perspective of a spectator, religion makes no sense. Attempts to use the media as a way of drawing people into participation - programmes such as Songs of Praise etc - will only ever have a limited audience. Otherwise this split between participation and passive spectator means that religion and the media are in direct conflict. The media serves up the scandalous, simplified, conflict-ridden tales with a peppering of the bizarre and freakish on the endless information carousel. The only result can be alienation.
5. The clash with the illusions of the consumer culture
The wealth of information delivered by the media could be terrifying to the consumer. The sense of impotence on the edges of this vast sea of human suffering in the world could overwhelm the consumer. That can't be allowed to happen because it might lead to a drop in circulation, or ratings which results in a loss of advertising revenue. So the media has to ally this saturation. of information with forms of reassurance to the consumer. Different reassurance is suitable for different consumer markets.
In broadsheet newspapers such as the Independent, Guardian and to some extent The Times and Telegraph, I would identify the reassurance as a tone of knowingness: it is irreverent, cynical, sophisticated. It has few, if any, articulated ideals, it scorns naivete, prides itself on being fast-moving and au courant. It has no concept of the sacred or of holiness; in fact it delights in confounding exactly such concepts. I think of Benetton's advertising - a baby being born still with umbilical cord and blood, a man on his death bed surrounded by family. Birth and death are used to shift jumpers. A trivialisation of the most profound points of human existence. The proliferating newspaper supplements are redolent of this. To the predominantly AB readership, it is implicitly saying, you are in control of your life. Control, a key word. Because being in control of your life is the litmus test of meaningful existence. Having control in your relationships, in your career, having control over the quality of your life to achieve the maximum possible amount of happiness. Control, is essentially a consumer concept, it means making informed, intelligent choices about consumer products and it is advertising driven, but it has seeped into the way we view every aspect of our lives. It is also a fabulous deceit. In an age of unprecedently high job-insecurity and marriage breakdown, control is a fond, cherished illusion, a sort of sugar coating - if we believe ourselves to be in control we feel better - to the pill of reality. There is a gap here, between appearance and reality, between how people perceive themselves and reality. A gap which newspapers carefully negotiate around, rather than expose.
Religion falls into that yawning gap. Religion recognises the limits of an individual's control over their own life; at its most raw, it is about encountering and confronting on a daily basis the limits of human existence, our own unpredictable mortality and frailty. Religion challenges the cherished illusions of control, and critiques the purpose of life as a consumer experience; with the collapse of Communism, it is the most powerful and most extensive critique of consumerist society - and thus finds itself silenced. Such a challenge is unacceptable to the hegemony of consumption, and the culture spawned to facilitate it, legitimise it, expand and develop it, continually in a restless search for ephemeral perfection of a particular consumer good. This search is what has replaced the wider questions of the purpose of existence, the meaning of death. What other culture in the known history of humankind has so marginalised death, tidied it away and sanitised into insignificance?
There comes a time in every individual's life when the illusion of control runs out, but since ‘other modes of thought are impossible’ the individual is painfully thrown back on the inadequate resources. At the moment the only concession to this gap is the religious column in newspapers, is the ‘God slot’ tucked away in the Guardian and virtually impossible to find. Otherwise, it is left to publishing to fill this gap with a strong market in religious/spiritual books.
For the last part of the lecture I want to look briefly at a completely different aspect of the relationship of religion and the media - the response of churches to this hostility and the fact that Britain is fast becoming religiously illiterate. The response of believers ranges from frustration to contempt of the media. Catholic monsignors and Muslims hang up on me, the Church of England as an established church feels keenly its responsibility to engage with secular society and finds itself continually buffeted, ridiculed, criticised and misunderstood. Let's go back to the concept of an ‘implicit dialogue’ between the late 20th century and its Christian past as represented by the churches. This is a dialogue - a two-way communication. And despite the hostility of the media, its impact on churches is not entirely negative. The preoccupations of secular society do contribute powerfully to the churches' own moral agenda. Take environmentalism for example: secular society has clearly had the initiative and the churches are only belatedly, and rather unconvincingly, catching up with this issue. You can say the same for racial equality; the Church of England's record in this area when the first Afro-Caribbean immigrants were arriving in the 1950s is not a glorious episode. They were so marginalised in the Church that the Bishop of Willesden saw fit earlier this year to make a formal apology for the treatment. Equal opportunities in relation to women is another area - and a very controversial one it has proved - where the morality of secular society has put the Church under huge pressure. There is a powerful voice in secular society which has exacting standards of how the churches should be matching up to the Gospel, and the Sermon on the Mount. That has contributed to revolutionising the churches in their attitudes to social justice and war. Ian Hislop's recent television series, Canterbury Tales, showed how the Church of England got involved in the Tithe War in the depression - forcing impoverished farmers to pay their tithes or face the bailiffs. Contrast that with the Faith in the City report. The identification of the churches with the poorest and the most marginalised in society continues to gain stronger ground. Earlier this year, Cardinal Hume appeared on a platform with a prostitute whom he referred to as his sister. It's hard to imagine that happening a hundred or even fifty years ago when the boundaries around respectability were so tightly drawn and so clearly identified with the churches.
But there is a significant body of churchmen in all denominations - the traditionalists - who see the influence of secular society as dangerously corrupting. They have no wish to participate in the ‘implicit dialogue’. Their response is characterised by withdrawal, reaction and contempt. This is particularly strong in some sections of the Catholic Church and even amongst some conservative Protestants. Lord Habgood in his valedictory address to Synod warned against the danger of an introverted sub-culture - the holy huddle - and the emergence of mutually uncomprehending and hostile camps.
The alternative for the churches is to become more astute at dealing with the media. This has happened and is happening - churches are investing more money in press offices, press officers and media training. They recognise the importance of the media. But if you compare the sophisticated media manipulation undertaken by the political parties, the churches are amateurs in comparison. Lord Habgood, in the address I've just referred to, interestingly called for greater expertise at dealing with the media; he urged the equivalent of ‘sniffer dogs’ to check Church of England reports for phrases which could provide the media with a stick to beat the Church with. His example was the report on the family, Something to Celebrate, which provided journalists with the perfect headline "‘Living in sin’ is no longer a useful phrase".
The question of greater media expertise brings all sorts of questions in its train. Just look at the hostility which Peter Mandelson, the Labour Party's communications guru, attracts. There is a public perception that an institution with ideals doesn't need image makers and spin doctors. There is resentment from within the institution about the degree of power such media manipulators acquire. Look at Clare Short's outburst earlier this summer when she criticised the men in the dark.
There is also resentment both inside and outside the institution about how effective media manipulation imposes strict controls on an institution - everyone has to sing from the same song-sheet or the media can jump on differences as ‘conflict’ in the ranks. There is already
evidence of this amongst the Church of England bishops who assiduously toe the party line now, producing a sort of indistinguishable bland corporate niceness which we journalists excoriate as dull but which is the effect of our activities. The reform plans for the Church of England in the Turnbull report are, in part, a response to some of these issues raised by the media. One of the aims behind the Archbishops' Council is to help the Church present a coherent, cogent message in the media - and it has prompted fears of centralisation.
So media manipulation presents churches with serious problems because a) it brings centralisation in an institution, and b) it creates a new power centre within the organisation: an effective press officer/spin doctor has to have access to information at every level of the organisation and sometimes very, very quickly if he/she is to scotch a rubbish story effectively. For a church both centralisation and the new power centre are deeply problematic issues at a theological level.
The ‘implicit dialogue’ between churches and contemporary culture sometimes feels like two colossi clashing and the battle is becoming increasingly unequal as the media grows more and more powerful and the churches lose numbers and clout. No place for the tender consciences of a religiously inclined Religious Affairs reporter! Given this lecture, you must be wondering how and why I do my job - well, I certainly have scruples of conscience myself from time to time, but there are two possibilities for the future which intrigue me and leave me half hopeful. I suspect this conflict between media and religion is part of an historical process which is far larger than any of us can quite envisage, in which the traditional institutions which have passed down the message of Jesus Christ are being revolutionised and by the middle of the next century will not exist in the form we know them today, of male hierarchies with their rigid distinctions between priest and laity. Some view this with alarm as the erosion of one of the pillars of social stability, and fear that the message cannot survive without the institutions which have historically conveyed it. Others view this as an extraordinary opportunity for a reinterpretation and a refinding of the Gospel.
There is another dimension to the future which I think is. even clearer. There is going to be an enormous revival of interest in spirituality - it may take two or three decades to establish itself, but our secular culture neglects and belittles this aspect of human nature to its own serious detriment. Christian institutions have had a monopoly on spirituality for 2,000 years in this country. That has ended: the spiritual supermarket is here - blue plastic pyramids through to Buddhism and Hare Krishna are now firmly established in this country. When the revival in spirituality comes there will be the most astonishing diversity of options and cross-fertilisation of faiths. As one colleague said to me, it's only a matter of time before we arc editing ‘spirituality supplements’ full of advice on the best tarot card readers, the best Buddhist meditation masters and the finest recordings of Gregorian chant.