The Press Saturday, March 28th 1998
Two stories about modernisation dominated the week, and they make an interesting contrast. Pete Broadbent's memo describing the Synod as "terminally tedious" might not seem front page news, and only the Guardian used it at all as a news story. But it did make the splash in the Guardian , followed up by a leader, an inside piece when he came out as the author, and a number of letters. All of these tended to confuse different forms of modernisation. As far as I can see, the memo does so too. There is the cultural age of the synod, which is "light years" behind the culture outside — a light year being apparently some figure less than fifteen, since the synod appears to most observers about thirty or forty years behind the cutting edge of yoof culture. On this reckoning, the first safety pins should appear in synod members' noses around 2007, and Ecstasy use should not become commonplace in the tea rooms until around 2020. We can wait. The sort of people who find themselves drawn to synodical government may never have been very close to the cutting edge of yoof culture anyway. By the time the reach the heights represtned by alternate membership of the Policy sub-committee of the Standing Committee long years will have been consumed in trek to the summit. Of course they will be thirty or forty years out of date. But why worry? One might hope that this had given them some proportion on the whole business of being in or out of date.
There is also the question of liturgical or doctrinal modernisation, which, so far as I can see, the memo does not address at all. It does not need to: the antithesis between "liberals" and "traditionalists" is now so firmly established in the popular mind that when the Guardian's leader writer came to consider the matter, they saw it as simply analogous to Tony Blair's efforts to modernise the Labour Party: "Tony Blair found it hard enough, seeking to reshape party policy which many regarded as holy writ — how much harder for George Carey, dealing with core beliefs that actually are Holy Writ."
Being a leader writer on a national newspaper is money for old rope. Actually, that's not entirely true: it requires certain paranormal skills to divine the profound insights at the heart of every briefing from the editor, even those which appear to contain nothing but confused banalities. A modest command of the English language helps, as does an iron self-control to prevent you ever once asking whether anyone could read this stuff with a straight face.
The argument of the Guardian leader depends on a confusion between the General Synod, 28 years old, and the Church of England, which is rather older however you count. It is assumed that if Pete Broadbent wants to modernise the administrative mechanism of the church, he must also want to modernise its product line. But what it has to say about modernising the delivery of the message is perfectly true: "equipping bishops with electronic pagers and sending vicars on media-training courses" won't reverse the decline in attendances.
It is entirely true that the image of the Church of England in the media is poor at the moment, and an ignorance of the processes of journalism is partly responsible for this. But it is easy to overlook the fact that most of the damage has been done by Christians, and Anglicans at that. It was not for the most part agnostics who denounced David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham or travestied his views in so far as they could be understood. The Crockford's preface was written by a member of the Synod's standing committee. The "terminally tedious" quote which will from now on always be attached to all background press pieces on the General Synod was produced by another Standing Committee member, this time complaining about bad publicity.
To dream in these circumstances of spin doctors who will make the pain go away is just infantile. The New Labour spin doctors can do their work because they represent a powerful organisation, which newspapers wish to keep on the right side of.
Part of the reason that the epithet "terminally tedious" it will stick is that it is true. But much administration is necessarily tedious. And the synod does represent a principle of lay government, and of consent in government, which will become increasingly important as the church becomes less able to rely on traditional authority and more dependent on financial support from the congregations. It does look as if the modernising party dreams of a streamlined polity in which it will be easy, when the people fail us, to elect a new one. Perhaps the answer is not better organisation, but less of it.
The contrast between doctrinal rigidity and administrative flexibility could not be better pointed up than by the Pope's visit to Nigeria. Hugo Young sits on the board of the Tablet and is thus an archetypal Catholic of the sort who believes that the greatest service this Pope could do his church is to die. None the less, he mounted a spirited defence of the Pope's autocracy in the Guardian on the grounds that it enabled him to say things that no one else can. "Regrettable though it is to say so, there are certain messages of transcendent wisdom that only an unaccountable autocrat now seems able to utter He told the dictator. General Abacha, to his face that Nigeria must 'strive for honest efforts to foster harmony and guarantee respect for human rights.' He railed against 'intimidation and domination of the poor' every speech and sermon he gave, before enormous crowds, was of this stamp. One would call them fearless — except that the Pope has nothing to fear."
This last point was brought out by an extraordinary report in the Times , which revealed that this 77-year-old man with Parkinson's, preaching for three hours in 40 degree heat, had a medical team consisting of one retired GP and an assistant, and no special equipment. They did not even have mineral water laid on for him to sip while preaching. This shows a remarkable and admirably unmodernised attitude to the threat of death. Perhaps the old man is coming round to the liberal Catholic view.