Where the Buck Stops

SINCE RADIO FOUR’S Thought for the Day decided to ‘rest’ some of its pithier contributors some months ago, the programme has rather lost its edge. A succession of anodyne offerings from rabbis offering mild humour well past its sell-by date, exhortations from well-meaning members of other faiths and politically correct vapourings from thoroughly modern ladies have all contributed to a fare lacking in authentic biblical content and real gospel challenge.

That was until the morning of 10th October when a vicar’s wife from London burst into our bathrooms and kitchens over the airwaves to jolt us into consciousness, in much the same way as the little boy in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. “Why hasn’t the Emperor got any clothes on?” he asked.

Anne Atkins had the temerity to criticise bishops “supporting a cathedral event celebrating twenty years of gay sex”. The members of the organisation behind the event believe, according to a document they distributed at General Synod, that “it is entirely compatible with the Christian faith not only to love another person of the same sex, but also to express that love fully in a personal sexual relationship.”

She also referred to the Numbers in Ministry report which notes that the number of candidates for ordination in the Church of England is steadily declining. “Surprise, surprise,” she observed, “if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound ….”

At that, the Communications Unit sprang to life and strongly protested to the BBC that they had made a serious error of judgement in transmitting Mrs. Atkins’ Thought for the Day and asked the BBC for an apology. Press releases flew in all directions. Now even if the Church of England at large had taken the same view as the Communications Unit, that would have been an over-reaction, but members of the General Synod were by and large supporting Mrs. Atkins, as the Question Paper for Synod’s November Group of Sessions showed.

Twelve of the 124 questions related to this broadcast and Mrs. Atkins had a ringside seat in the Public Gallery, as the Bishop of Wakefield, Chairman of the Committee for Communications faced the prospect of the drubbing he clearly deserved.

“On whose authority was the protest made?” several members wanted to know. “Who did the Director of Communications consult before making his protest, and given that many members of the Church of England would wish to agree wholeheartedly with what Mrs. Atkins said, in what sense does the complainant represent the Church of England?” asked another questioner. “Will the Standing Committee consider offering an apology to Mrs. Atkins for what was perceived as being an attack on her by the Communications Unit?” asked a Diocesan lay chairman.

So, did the bishop apologise for the Communications Unit exceeding their authority? Did he seek to placate the indignation of Synod members? Did he offer the apology that was sought? Did he offer any assurance that steps would be taken to ensure that the Communications Unit would not make such crass statements in future?

The short answer is that he did not. He resorted to a procedural ploy, “With permission, (whose permission? certainly not the Synod’s) I will answer all eleven questions together.” The answer that followed was vague, incomplete and insubstantial. What a pity no-one had the presence of mind to ask the obvious supplementary, “Who drafted your answer to these questions?” All the Synod learnt was that the Director of Communications may consult any bishop or Synod officer who happens to be available before making press statements. Not much of a procedure, – more a way of ensuring that no-one can be held responsible for anything.

The bishop lamely sought to defend the protest that had been made because the Church of England had been attacked for allegedly not giving a moral lead, when there was no right of reply. Pretty breathtaking really. Of all the accusations I have heard levelled against the Church of England, I cannot recall one where the Church has been accused of actually giving a moral lead – even in the Missionary Diocese of Wakefield.

Several members sought to press their points in supplementary questions, but they were stonewalled. That was not a very clever response, particularly with the press gallery full of reporters with their pens poised. The CEN caught the mood of the moment with its banner headline, “Synod supports Atkins broadcast”.

I thought it was very sad to see the genuine concerns of Synod members brushed aside in such a fashion – because I am in publicity and public relations myself and I am convinced that the Church of England needs more resources to package the Christian message better. However if the good bishop bites the hand that feeds him, he could well run the risk of jeopardising next year’s budget for the Communications Unit. Synod members will not find it easy to persuade people in their Dioceses, Deaneries and Parishes that they should come up with their Family Purse payments to fund the kind of nonsense the Communications Unit issued in October.

There are times when we need to eat humble pie and say, “We’re sorry, we goofed, but we’ll make sure that it doesn’t happen again.” It would be regrettable if an unwillingness to do so were to imperil the Public Relations activity which the Church surely needs to nurture.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.