Tony Delves explains why we must counteract the forces of spin by making our presence more visible in the CofE

We ought to be more visible, like others. We should show that we are passionately committed too’. The feeling expressed in these words led to a small group of us, lay and clerical, gathering outside Church House Westminster on the day the General Synod debated the Manchester Motion. It was bone-chillingly cold! But the group was cheerful, positive and polite, with a good number of younger men and women there, ‘flying the flag for fairness’, as one Synod member said.

The spinning wheel

The need for this presence reflects the way in which Synodical government now works. Regrettably, if you are not visible you are on the back foot, for what happens outside the Synod chamber is as crucial as what is said within it. It is subject to highly organized interest groups, just like Westminster, on which it is modelled. The weapons are intensive lobbying, demonstrations, e-technology and, crucially, media coverage.

From one point of view this merely reflects how decision-making takes place today, and the same tactics are available to all. The bigger issue though is that in the ensuing PR contest, the only sure ground on which we stand, theological discernment, is infected by spin.

Enter Dr Spin

It may be said that, as regards ‘spin’, it is new only in name, if by spin we mean presenting your case in the best light. However, today it has come to mean something more than this, namely an economy of truth, so as to obscure it, coupled with heavy partisan pressure, so as to promote it. Dr Spin forces the priority of issues and orders the argument. Sometimes you have to cry Foul! Let me give three current examples.

Firstly, the activity of the Parliamentary lobby. The role of Synod is to propose and of Parliament, through its Ecclesiastical Committee, to scrutinize, in that order. This does not preclude free expression by MPs, but it should inhibit them from trying to exercise improper influence on the work of the Synod. The present intensive lobbying of Synod by certain MPs is clearly out of order. But they do it because it works.

Secondly, the appeal to ‘public opinion’. We are frequently told, notably on Thought for the Day, that for most people the whole issue of women bishops is incomprehensible and corrosive of the church’s reputation. It is far more likely that, outside a limited circle, everything to do with church is incomprehensible and that most people couldn’t care less! The really pernicious aspect of this argument though is its appeal, over the church, to ‘the people’. Vox populi = vox Dei. Thank goodness this isn’t Germany in the 1930s.

Making us disappear

Thirdly, the manipulation of facts. We all know the jibes about statistics. Everyone uses them to advantage but in the church one would hope with a greater care for truth in their interpretation. In the February Synod there was some highly partisan presentation of the facts. Yes, the great majority of Diocesan and Deanery Synods support the draft legislation, but there was scant regard for at least one-quarter of voters in Diocesan Synods who rejected the proposals. That is a lot of people to be airbrushed away. The effect is to make us disappear.

It is clear that wherever our case was presented strongly it drew support, including from those who want to see women bishops. But in many cases we simply did not have enough people on the ground. Hence the results do not simply reflect an overwhelming majority but rather how fairly each side was represented. Sam Margrave put it well in the debate: we need to talk about consensus, not majorities. But spinning is about winning, not agreeing to differ.

The wages of spin

The moral is clear: if spin makes us invisible we must work at becoming more visible, to be seen as positive, principled people, loyal Anglicans who stand by inclusiveness. There are a lot of us, many of them women, but often too anonymous.

And what is to become of us? The assumption seems to be that, if the draft legislation passes unamended, we will simply move over or move off. The wages of spin is to end up believing it yourself! We may inadvertently encourage these assumptions by failing to make our presence felt. But what if most of us do a Gandhi: sit down and graciously decline to move? Our compliance is the one major issue that so far we have not cared to raise or our opponents to seriously consider.

You cannot force people to act against their conscience or accept, even grudgingly, what is unacceptable. This is planted deep in the folk memory of Anglican Catholics. But it is not a desirable place to be, and, for everyone’s sake, and not just our own, we must continue to press for that honoured place we were assured was ours. ND