Martin Hislop takes issue with the distribution and communication of the recent Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops
In Faith in the Public Square, his last book as archbishop, Rowan Williams calls the Church a `political seminar … God transforms society and not just human individuals: This theme characterized his decade in office. In one of the speeches included in the book he stated, its not a matter of the Church binding its vision to the agenda of this or that party, not a matter of the Church creating a political party to embody its vision and its priorities. Much more, it’s a matter of the Christian gospel motivating a grass-roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality
These sentiments could have been written as a Preface to the much criticized Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops in the run up to the General Election.
It is not with the contents of the Letter, let alone its political construction, that I am concerned, but rather the manner of its publication, distribution and overall communication of which I am critical.
I find it extraordinary that a document that in its own words is addressed to the parishes and people of the Church of England was not actually distributed to the parishes. For days it could not be easily accessed on the Church of England website.
When accessed, the Letter (through an odd choice of font size) was the length of an Epistle or rather pretentiously that of a Papal Encyclical. No summary was provided and no guidance given as to how the Letter might be used in a parish context.
In publishing such a document one presumes the bishops were seeking to exercise their collective responsibility to act as chief shepherds to the flock and provide guidance for individual church members in how they might foster `a grass roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality envisaged by Rowan Williams above. In addition, one presumes the House of Bishops were seeking to exercise a legitimate role in the fostering of considered debate in the marketplace of ideas and policies.
That being the case then I would respectfully submit that despite serried ranks of professional communications staffers, assorted policy advisors and ecclesial civil service mandarins the delivery of this exercise in public engagement was woefully executed.
Not only were the parishes and in particular the clergy ignored in the document’s distribution but no strategy appeared to be in place to equip the front line workers with the direction and resources to make effective use of what is clearly a document that arose out of much considered and prayerful consideration. A lost opportunity.
Media and politicians
In addition two significant public institutions, the Media and the Parliament, appear to have been inadequately briefed or utilized in the publication and reception of the Letter.
Surely someone within the Communications cadres of Lambeth Palace and Church House undertook an assessment of just how this Letter would be received by the media and politicians?
An elementary first step in communications or marketing is to evaluate the risks and maximize the strengths and opportunities. The Church of England has been here many times before. Every entry into public policy debate has aLLIacted accusations of ideological obsession and/or party political bias. The Church of England has been characterized as the Tory Party at Prayer in one century to the hot bed of Marxists in another. So why was this Letter released without any apparent anticipation of its reception and strategies in place to minimize or counter predictable reactions?
What steps were taken to provide all MPs and Lords with a comprehensive briefing ahead of its publication? What steps were taken to provide known practising Christian MPs and Peers with the necessary backgrounders so that they were in a position to provide constructive comments and support for what the Bishops were seeking to encourage?
Lack of strategy
Various Christian charitable agencies ranging from Us to Ekklesia and the Christian Institute exist, but little evidence can be found to establish that they were adequately briefed and enlisted as active friends to encourage a constructive reception and consideration of the Letter and its important insights.
In a society where social media is so important in effective communication and political debate it is surprising if not negligent to find that no strategy appears to be in place to harness Twitter and Facebook, especially in reaching out to opinion makers and the young.
The Church receives a bad press. As George Pitcher, a former Archbishop’s Secretary for Public Affairs puts it, the Church `needs to engage a media milieu that increasingly doesn’t want complexity in its reporting of the Church. It wants boxes. It wants the UK to be like the US. It wants liberals and conservatives, or liberals and evangelicals. It wants `nice Christians’ and `nasty Christians’.
There may well be a difficult, indifferent if not hostile media milieu but the Church of England must lift its own game if it is to communicate effectively let alone proclaim the Good News.