William Beaver replies to Gerry O’Brien

FLYING BACK from a chapter meeting in Chattanooga, I picked up my favourite fanzine in the aeroport and realised I really must begin replying to some of the articles which lay all the credit for the Church s growing confidence at my door.

Let’s start with Mr O’Brien, whom I have at least met. I can understand his frustration at hearing advance discussion of further marriage after divorce on the Today programme on the day the report was published, but I do reject the criticisms he makes of Church House communicators, and by implication the bishops, in this matter.

What happened was this. The report (free, not discounted) was posted to Synod members over the weekend in the expectation it would arrive before the press conference on Tuesday. Then, as per our standard practice, the Bishop of Winchester prepared a general scene setting article for The Times on the day.

However, The Independent on Sunday ran a story on the report the Sunday previous to the launch. Turning our telephones back on in the vestry following mass that morning, the Communications Unit press officers found the rest of the media was more than poised to speculate publicly as to the likely contents of the report. This would have been disastrous: an ill-informed discussion veering off into precisely the realms of improbability and lurid headline speculation that Gerry O’Brien feared.

The Bishop of Winchester therefore made himself more widely available and we were able to extend the context setting exercise into other organs using material that was already in the public domain from Marriage: a teaching document from the House of Bishops published the previous September.

A bright reporter could, therefore, have had a stab at setting out the problems surrounding the question of divorcees marrying in church in exactly the same way as the Bishop did. Which is just what the likes of Ruth Gledhill, in The Times, and Victoria Combe, in The Telegraph, did. Comparing their articles on the 25th and 26th January, and it becomes obvious that the first were based on the September teaching document and the second on the detailed Winchester report.

The conference went well and by Wednesday evening, we were looking back at four days of almost wholly accurate front-page news and lead item broadcasting. Admittedly we lost on the headlines. Yet if reporters as conscientious and meticulous as Ruth or Victoria cannot persuade their own newspapers to avoid those attractive, sweeping and misleading generalisations in headlines, the rest of us are likely to have far less success.

Nevertheless, we achieved the coverage thanks to a great deal of hard work by the Bishops Winchester and Guildford. Between them they gave more than 40 national, international and local television, newspaper and radio interviews. In this they were supported by articles and broadcasts given by other bishops to their local media, all of whom were well briefed by their own communicators and others. As far as we can be certain, we met every request for radio and television interviews.

Coverage yes, but our aims? When we began we had three messages: That this is not a new debate; that it will be years rather than days before anything changes if it does; and that it was the need for consistent guidelines that was being addressed. When it was all over, we were encouraged to see that, judging from the coverage we got, we achieved our aim. Now the debate moves into the parishes, deaneries, dioceses and Synod where it properly belongs.

William Beaver is Director of Communications of the Archbishops’ Council