Christopher Smith celebrates the art of writing to the press,
and wonders whether he should buy some green ink

I see that last month’s New Directions included a revival of the letters page, with four letters, all on different subjects. I must admit that the letters page of the daily paper gives me more pleasure than any of the rest of it, and I rather enjoy those controversies that rumble on for several days, with new correspondents picking up the thread each time.

I also enjoy that cheeky little letter that the editor often squeezes into the bottom right-hand corner of the letters page. Some years ago, I was delighted to spot one from my former English teacher, obviously picking up a thread on the subject of punctuation:

‘Stern resistance to the apostrophe is on view at a high-rise block in
Birmingham where a notice reads: “Residents refuse to be placed in

It was the perfect bottom right-hand corner letter, from the man who once corrected a spelling of mine by writing in the margin, ‘Éclair, but declare’. I’ve got that one right, at least, ever since.

My own efforts at writing to the national press have rarely made it to print, although the Church Times has been kinder. A Sunday broadsheet once printed a garbled version of an email I had sent direct to one of its contributors which they changed so radically it almost lost its point altogether.

The ‘readers’ editor’ of one of the dailies once quoted in his column from a letter of mine complaining about bad language in the paper, but where I had quoted the swearwords directly, he chose to put ‘examples provided’ in square brackets, which seemed to suggest he took my point! But you may have noticed that a far more important person has been writing to the Italian press.

Many readers will, I am sure, share my frustration at the quality of religious affairs coverage by the media in this country. The hacks are only interested in religion when there is a controversy in the offing, which is why the women bishops debate is almost the only thing we see reported from the Church of England at the moment, although evidently the decision of the Church in Wales was of little interest to the English media!

It struck me forcibly some years ago when I was in France for a summer holiday at the time when the then Pope was making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. He was there at Assumption-tide 2004, and that year was the 150th anniversary of the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

The French paper I picked up not only reported the visit, but carried a long article about the theology of the Immaculate Conception. When I returned to England, the only report I could find was one on the BBC website saying how ill Pope John Paul had looked.

But in Catholic Europe, it is apparently still possible to enter into a meaningful national discussion about the Christian faith, and, in July, the founding editor of the Rome-based newspaper La Repubblica published an open letter to the Holy Father in his journal. Himself an atheist, he had evidently been studying the recent encyclical Lumen Fidei, the Light of Faith, which had been published a few days previously.

The encyclical, which is mainly the work of Pope Benedict, and which is the third of his three on faith, hope and love, deals with that very Benedictine theme of the interaction between faith and reason. It is not possible to reach faith through reason alone: the journey requires love, ‘vision through
the eyes of another’.

The journalist had written about it twice, seeking to raise questions about how those who have faith might enter into dialogue with those who, like him, do not.

And the Pope replied. Pope Francis is clearly going to continue to surprise us, and, in early September, La Repubblica received and printed, a long letter signed ‘With brotherly love, Francesco’. Indeed, the paper led with it on its front page. Now I may be wrong, but I simply cannot imagine the editor of any British newspaper even reading an encyclical, or a report of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, and writing about it in his publication.

The Pope’s response is warm, and speaks not of religion or religions in general, but about the person of Jesus Christ. This isn’t messing about on the margins, trying to get an atheist to admit the possibility of the existence of God.

This is about ‘the teachings and the figure of Jesus’. Maybe there is a lesson in that for us. Maybe we should be more inclined to ask atheists to meet us half way, and put the question, ‘If there is a God, what sort of God is he?’ Otherwise, perhaps, we will never get out of our respective trenches. As Pope Francis says:

‘a lack of communication has arisen between the Church and the culture inspired by Christianity on the one hand, and the modern culture of Enlightenment on the other’.

Rather than engage in a dialogue of the deaf, maybe we should have a bit more confidence in what, after all, we believe to be the truth.

In an important way, that will help us to respect one another. As the encyclical puts it:

‘The believer is not arrogant; on the contrary, the truth makes him humble… Rather than making us rigid, the security of faith makes it possible to speak with everyone.’ ND