Thursday 8 July 2010

Gossip: cancer of the community

Earlier this year a new Bishop of Chelmsford was announced. I can’t be bothered to go through all the steps in the process of the appointment, which started last summer and hasn’t finished yet, but want to make some general comments in the light of recent publicity over the appointment of the Bishop of Southwark. If you want the details of the process for appointing a diocesan bishop go here. I ought to declare an interest; my godfather Roy Williamson is a former Bishop of Southwark so not surprisingly I’m interested to see how things turn out the other side of the Thames.

Anyway, what I want to say is that the process for appointing a diocesan bishop involves a great deal of consultation but is also confidential. I was one of over 140 people who met individually with the Prime Minister and Archbishops’ appointments secretaries as part of the consultation and there was also an open meeting that anyone could attend. Because of complaints about lack of publicity for this part of the process, which coincided with the school holidays, the consultation period was extended to ensure anyone who wanted to contribute had an opportunity to do so. By the end of this process no one could complain that they hadn’t had their say.

Then the Crown Nominations Commission began its series of meetings to consider possible candidates. Two things need to be said about this part of the process. Firstly, I have no doubt that those serving on the CNC committed themselves to prayerfully seek the right person, guided by the Holy Spirit. Secondly, these meetings were confidential and those who served committed themselves to keep that confidence. In the case of Chelmsford I believe that confidentiality was honoured. I happened to meet two members of the CNC on the train after what turned out to have been their final meeting and they said not a word about their deliberations.

However, the confidentiality of the process didn’t stop the gossip. I remember sitting in meetings where someone would declare that they knew who had been appointed. Bit of a surprise really as I happened to know that the CNC hadn’t finished meeting at that stage. Try as one might to point this out some were insistent that they knew what was going on and what the outcome was. Others intimated that they had the inside track from other ‘sources’ about who was still in and who had been ruled out.

The process ran its course and I turned up to work in the Diocesan Office one morning to learn that there was to be a press conference an hour later at which the new Bishop of Chelmsford would be announced. That was the first time I was aware an announcement was to be made; those  who of necessity had prior knowledge maintained the confidentiality. I was delighted to attend the conference where Bishop Stephen Cottrell was introduced as our new bishop. I blogged about his appointment here.

And so to Southwark and the process of appointing another diocesan bishop. Over the last few days we have been treated to a constant stream of press reporting based on leaks and speculation. Bloggers, Twitterers and other commentators have picked up on these stories and shared their opinions on the basis of what they have read. I have a general rule with press reports like this; if they are based on a leak or unattributable source I ignore them because they are likely to be even more inaccurate or slanted than the less publicised speculation that did the rounds over the Chelmsford appointment. If someone has been leaking from the CNC then they will have to answer to God for their dishonesty and to their colleagues on the commission for their betrayal of trust.

Some brief reflections:
The press do not appear to have the best interests of the Gospel at heart. They have a story to tell and the more salacious the material the more likely they are to get it passed their editor and into the pages of whichever chip paper they work for. Even the more respectable are not averse to sinking to the despicable. If they depend on gossip, the breaking of confidences and title tattle for their information then that speaks volumes about the quality of their work.

Too many Christians have been quick to dash to comment on the basis of gossip and speculation. I am particularly dismayed with the comments of some clergy, so quick to judge without the facts and in some cases quite clearly with little knowledge about the processes. Of all people they should know the damage that rumour mongering causes a Christian community. They will have been on the receiving end of it enough in their own ministries; if not yet then they will be in the future. The process may not be great but that’s no excuse for some of the bile that has spewed forth.

No one has been well served in this story. Certainly not Jeffrey John whose life and ministry have been hijacked as a cause celebre by some and used as the excuse for ecclesial infighting and point scoring by others. Certainly not ++Rowan Williams. I have only spoken to the Archbishop briefly, though I have heard him speak on quite a few occasions. When I read the stuff that’s written about Rowan, I think of how Jane and the children must feel. I’m sure they feel the same as any of us would feel when witnessing their loved one being lambasted on the basis of innuendo. What is even more galling is that some of the vitriol is piled on by the very same people who on Sunday will lead prayers for the church and for her leaders, including the Archbishop. How can we pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ on Sunday and then slag them off mercilessly on Monday?

As for the Gospel of Christ. Well we can’t expect the press to treat the precious Good News with respect when we are so poor at doing that ourselves. In what way has what has been said and written on this affair commended the mission and ministry of the church to the wider community? The press have every right to turn round and say to us ‘don’t complain about our splinters when your chucking your own logs at each other’.

Update: Excellent article in The Guardian by +Nick Baines on the process of appointing a diocesan bishop.

Update 2: Very poor article in The Guardian claiming that Bishop Stephen Cottrell could be the next Bishop of Southwark. Difficult as he was appointed Bishop of Chelmsford back in April. A sad refelction on the quality of journalism covering religion in the national press.


Alice Smith said...

Phil, thanks for this. After a week where I have been witness to an inordinate amount of 'Christian' gossip under the guise of 'honesty' I really hear what you are saying. However, I suppose I always wonder whether the secrecy of the process and the fact that it seems so 'behind doors' in our culture of equal opportunities in employment (supposedly!)is what leads the media to speculate so critically? Not sure what you think of that?? Does it all need to be so cloak and dagger??

Song in my Heart said...

I wonder whether the leak or speculation that arose had anything to do with a member of the CNC disregarding confidentiality, based on what you've said about the rumour-mongering regarding Chelmsford. Is it possible the press got their information from someone who said they "knew" but really, really didn't?

I think a lot of the vitrol toward the current Archbishop of Canterbury is understandable, though not justified. It is very difficult for me to see how his actions and recommendations in some areas line up with some of his more theological writing. It is deeply painful and frustrating to see the church shy away from mercy, and to think that if he chose to behave differently things might be so much better. I know that his position is not an easy one, but at best his behaviour baffles me.

In my peer group, the gossip over Jeffrey John doesn't make the church look anywhere near as bad as the continual exclusion of homosexuals and females from various levels of ordained ministry. The media response was hugely heightened because Jeffrey John is gay; when that becomes a non-issue I'm sure people will still speculate and I'm sure people will still gossip, but it might not sell as many papers.

(duplicate to correct misspelling of a name, will delete other comment after I post this one.)

Philippe de Paris said...

Personally I think Jonathan Wynne-Jones who broke the story is guilty of what Private Eye would rightly call pisspoor journalism. First he breaks a story that turns out not to be a story at all and then huffs and puffs about its untruth claiming that's some anti-liberal plot - as if he cares about such things. Result a media feeding frenzy. I hope the leak on the CNC has the courage and decency to resign. 'We have renounced secret and shameful ways' - or not, apparently.

Philip Ritchie said...

Hi Alice, thanks for your comment. I agree the process isn't ideal but it's the one we've got at the moment so we need to operate it with integrity and that means respecting confidentiality and no leaks. Haven't yet seen a reasonable alternative suggested.

Song in my Heart, thanks also. I agree that it may well be a case of people claiming to know more than they do, in which case we should ignore the press speculation rather than get caught up in it. In this particular case there does seem to have been some serious briefing from someone. As for your comment about ++Rowan, we'll just have to disagree. For me the women bishops issue is a no brainer and I hope it is finally resolved at synod this week. It will be for the Archbishops to explain the reason for their amendment.

The gay issue is much more complex and isn't the focus of my blog so for the moment I'll just say this. If Jeffrey John is committed to abiding by the church's teaching on the matter as it stands, as he has publicly stated he is, then I don't think his sexuality should be a prohibitive to him becoming a bishop. What dismays me about the Southwark debate is that many people on both sides seem to have made this the issue based on rumour and speculation, which does neither Jeffrey John nor the wider church any good. However, as I said this blog is not about the sexuality issue but about the process for appointing a bishop.

Philip Ritchie said...

Phillippe, exactly. Thank you.

Song in my Heart said...


I don't think the vitriol towards ++Rowan Williams is justified. I do undertand where some of it is coming from. Similarly, I understand that a journalist might be more interested in selling papers than in accurate reporting, even though I do not think that this should be so. So I'm not sure what we're disagreeing on.

Without wanting to get into a debate about homosexuality (which will always be complicated while views are polarised), I think the point still stands that the media coverage would have been very different if Jeffrey Johns weren't gay or if homosexuality were a non-issue within the church. I am not saying that can justify the gossip in any way.

Philip Ritchie said...

Song in my Heart,
I think where we may disagree on ++Rowan is that I believe what he is seeking to do is consistent with both his theology and the leadership he is offering to the church.

You said in your first comment 'if he chose to behave differently things might be so much better. I know that his position is not an easy one, but at best his behaviour baffles me'. By this I assume you mean if he had done what you want him to do.

As I said in my piece, I don't know Rowan personally but I am very reluctant to judge him on the basis of the distorted reports of what he may or may not have said and done as mediated by the press. At times, in the face of great personal abuse, he has modelled a depth of grace that I find sadly lacking in many of his critics.

Regarding the homosexuality issue I am sure you are right; if homosexuality weren't an issue for the church then the media coverage would have been different. But it is an issue for the church and the media and society do not dictate the churches theology. However, I do believe that even if homosexuality wasn't an issue many in the media would soon find another issue to use as a stick to beat the church.

Our challenge is to make sure that the way we conduct ourselves, even in situations of disagreement, will commend the Gospel rather than undermine it. That is something we have to model in our local situations of ministry and also nationally.

Song in my Heart said...


Thanks for taking the time to address my concerns so thoroughly.

An important part of my understanding of the Gospel is the idea of God's love being unconditional and of everyone being welcome. From some of ++Rowan's writing I think he may believe the same. It is extremely difficult for me to see how that is reflected in initiatives such as the Anglican Covenant and in the way these are being presented. I accept that I don't know all that goes on, that I can't have all the details, but it is hard. All too often I am acutely aware that the welcome I have received from the church is not, in the most practical of terms, one that is extended to some of my nearest and dearest friends. And when you get right down to it, I'm not welcome in some parts of the church, either, simply because of my gender.

You said in your first comment 'if he chose to behave differently things might be so much better. I know that his position is not an easy one, but at best his behaviour baffles me'. By this I assume you mean if he had done what you want him to do.

Not necessarily. If he explained what he does in a way that I understand, I think I and many others would be much happier with it even if we disagree. If I knew for sure that whatever my understanding of the gospel I am not in fact welcome at church, it would be easier (though still intensely painful) to walk apart.

But those of us with questions haven't had an explanation (or not one that I've seen)... instead mostly we are confused, baffled, and frightened. I think that goes for people who are unashamed liberals, as I am, and for people who are traditionalists or conservatives. We're even mostly frightened of the same things -- of rejection, of being told we are unwelcome or unwanted.

Frightened humans, like other animals, tend to lash out. I do not think this is right, and I try not to do so myself (and often fail), but I absolutely understand it. ++Rowan is a beloved child of God and as such should not be the target of vitriol. I also believe he is doing his best to navigate a very daunting and challenging situation, with a good deal more grace than I would manage. It will be impossible for him to act in a way that pleases everyone all of the time, however valiant his attempts. But none of those things mean his actions don't cause pain and fear, and I can understand why some people react hurtfully.

"But it is an issue for the church and the media and society do not dictate the churches theology."

The media and society do not dictate theology, but they can and will comment and criticize. I think the church has a remit to listen to those comments and respond to them. I appreciate that things will be difficult while the church is working out what that response will be.

"However, I do believe that even if homosexuality wasn't an issue many in the media would soon find another issue to use as a stick to beat the church."

This is a fair point. It does remind me a of a student of mine, who, having mastered an exercise, was disappointed to find that there followed another, more difficult than the first.

"Our challenge is to make sure that the way we conduct ourselves, even in situations of disagreement, will commend the Gospel rather than undermine it."

In this I think it is safe to say that we have much to learn. Lord, have mercy on us all.

David Keen said...

It's probably unworkable, but I wonder if there can be some kind of blogging standard agreement not to indulge or repeat or take note of the speculative stirring which we've got from the Telegraph last week. The original piece effectively set up a boxing ring with liberals in one corner and traditionalists in the other and said 'go on you two, have a fight about the bishop of Southwark'. This despite the fact it was pure speculation. And many gladly jumped into the ring.

If Anglican bloggers could agree to ignore speculative stories from the media until they're based on obvious facts, maybe these stories would do a bit less damage, get a bit less publicity, and journalists might stop writing them. There's always hope.

Philip Ritchie said...

Hi David, many thanks for the comment. As you know we have looked at some blogging guidelines in another forum and I agree that it would be good but suspect it will require a self discipline some of us are not able to observe. I particularly like the Sojouners website policy e.g.
But I suspect such a code for Christian bloggers would be like the PCC code of practice; fine in principle and then when soemone wants to ignore it, they do.

It wasn't just blogs but instant quick fire tweets and comment on articles that were part of the problem with the Southwark story. People do sometimes speak on line as if no one can hear what they are saying. They certainly say things that they wouldn't say in public conversation with a dog collar on (or at least I hope not).

The other problem with the Southwark story was the way the other religious correspondents, including Ruth Gledhill at The Times and the journos at The Guardian, seemed to recycle the story from the Telegraph and thus gave it added credibility and apparent substance. It was then picked up for two days running by the Today programme. This was a clear case when the idea of a response forum to inaccurate religious stories could have helped; though sadly some of those I would have expected to be involved indulged in some of the recycling of the story.

I guess the only place to start is with ourselves and I am going to look back over my blog to see where I have failed to implement the sort of discipline you are suggesting.