Press Mess

A PACKAGE THUDDED on my doormat while I was eating my Weetabix one morning last month – must be nearly Synod time, I thought. It was actually quite a small package as Synod mailings go – the postage only came to 80p. The major item in the mailing (certainly the major item, by weight) was a 100 page booklet entitled “marriage in church after divorce”. The absence of capital letters may have been a device employed by the designer of the cover to signify some esoteric mystery, but no matter.

In times past, reports from working parties have often appeared in upmarket glossy covers. They have masqueraded as policy documents of the Church of England – and the enthusiasts for whatever a report was proposing often made little effort to correct such misapprehensions. The fact of the matter is that a report “has only the authority of the working party that produced it” and that precise statement is usually to be found in the smallest type-face available sandwiched between the copyright claims and the acknowledgements, or in some other equally obscure position where the average reader is unlikely to notice it. This report is no exception.

A report to Synod is a bit like a Government White Paper. As everybody knows (or should know), it sets out some proposals, which will be discussed and argued about – and may perhaps (if there is any merit in the proposals) result in some draft legislation. This will have to go through general approval (first reading in parliamentary terms), the mauling of a revision stage (usually in committee) and final approval on the floor of the house. Only then can something happen.

There was a covering letter to this report containing some sales promotion blurb from the Bishop of Winchester encouraging me to order additional copies of the report from Church House for £5 +£1 postage. There appeared to be no discounts for Synod members. The letter also asked me to “please note that this is embargoed until 11.00am on Tuesday 25th January 2000.”

Well you can imagine my surprise (or there again perhaps not) when I switched on the radio (it was about half past seven on Tuesday 25th January, just for the record) to hear the Today Programme on Radio 4 in the middle of a discussion about the report’s contents. Why was I to be muzzled for another three and a half hours, when millions of people had already been informed about the contents of a report I had not yet had time to read?

Well it wasn’t just the BBC. Clearly the Bishop of Winchester does a good impression of King Canute, and never mind his strictures about “embargoed until 11am”, it was all over the front pages of the daily papers. As usual, the powers that be had ensured that Synod members would be the last to know.

I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for some of the reporters. Ruth Gledhill of The Times, for instance, had made a good attempt to report what the document actually said. She had reported that the proposals would have to be debated by parishes (always assuming Synod takes note of them) before coming to the Synod in 2002.

Sadly, though, she had suffered at the hands of the headline writer who, obviously not wanting to allow mere facts to get in the way of a dramatic headline, had emblazoned “REMARRIAGE IN CHURCH FOR DIVORCEES” across the top of three columns on page 1. He may be prophetic; but misleading banner headlines like that are bound to raise expectations of change by the next weekend, which the Church of England is simply not equipped to fulfil.

The story ran over on to page 2 and here the headline writer abandoned any pretence at veracity for mere hype. “DIVORCEES GET RIGHT TO MARRY IN CHURCH” he trumpeted. True enough that in two years time that may be the end result of the discussions and debates that will now take place; but it is not what the report says. If my reading of the report is correct, it advocates arrangements whereby some but not all divorcees might be offered the option of a wedding in church. There is certainly no suggestion that anyone other than a spinster of the parish has a right to be married in a parish church.

So once again, the Church is wrong-footed before the debate has really begun. The report has a businesslike cover . It is clearly marked “A discussion document from a Working Party commissioned by the House of Bishops of the Church of England.” – but still it is misunderstood and misrepresented.

What was the fabled Bill Beaver up to, I wonder? Were press releases issued that provided the facts in a measured way – releases that the press simply ignored? Or were the press releases such as to encourage the press to assume that the changes proposed would be implemented as a formality at an early date?

He had clearly arranged for the Bishop of Winchester to write an article for The Times, which appeared on the morning the report was published, but where were the spokesmen to speak to the media? I had the BBC ringing me up at my office before 10am desperate for quotes – and the researcher told me that they had found it very difficult to get hold of anybody. Is Bill not up to the job, or is he hamstrung by Church worthies who are far too busy to make themselves available to put the Church’s point of view to the media when the media are begging us to tell them? I suppose the fact that the Communications Committee was a casualty of the reorganisation when the Archbishops’ Council was set up speaks volumes.

As we enter the twenty-first century, an age when people will read less, and information will be King, are we going to take media seriously in the Church? The mindset that ticks the “no publicity” box really has to go – or the church will shrink even more in the next ten years than it did in the last ten.

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