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Press Column

Does it matter who a spin doctor fools? It does no particular harm if they mislead journalists: thatís evolution in action. But itís not journalists who pay their wages; the people they are really employed to bamboozle are those who employ them. No one can guarantee that the outside world will believe your propaganda, but that, of course, is because journalists are reptiles, with vitriol where their blood should be, who are determined to twist the simple truth to suit their bossesí agenda. Trust me on this. Iím a journalist. The real danger comes form people who want to believe their own propaganda, and are prepared to pay highly for anyone who makes this possible. It is in this light that we should examine the Revíd Dr Bill Beaverís efforts with the church attendance figures.

He was the man who stopped their being published; and it is greatly to the credit of Christopher Morgan, at the Sunday Times that he realised this must meant that the Usual Sunday Attendance Figure had fallen below a million, though I doubt that even he thought it would hit 850,000. What I find interesting about Beaverís reasons for suppressing the figures was that itís motivation appears to be simple, clinical denial. He could not believe they were as bad as they are, so work was set in train to find better ones. The fact that it took two years to publish the figures from October 1997 suggests that he cannot entirely have fooled himself and realises that they are not quite as they should be.

An example of what he would like the figures to be appeared in the Observer at the end of August, when the "Society Editor", briefed by Jonathan Jennings, wrote a piece that started "Internal Church of England research in three areas - Wakefield, Ripon and Canterbury - has led senior Church figures to argue that the real level of attendance is actually over two million, compared to the official figure of one and a half million. Following decades of apparently dwindling congregations the prospect of boosting attendance figures by around 40 per cent at a stroke is delighting bishops." Iíll bet it was, especially as the official figure, less than three months later, turns out to be not 1.5m but 816,500. It is onto this base that Dr Beaver has now officially added 27% (rather than the 40% the Observer was sold) to reach a figure of, er, um, something less ghastly than the old one.

Everything possible was done to spin away the figure of 815,600, which is lower than even Christopher Morgan had guessed. There was no press conference to announce the figures. Instead, special briefings were arranged for the daily broadsheets, some of the trade press, and the Sunday Programme. This kept away the vulgar people form the Sundays, the Press Association, and the Daily Mail. The point about the specialist correspondents is that that do not want to report year after year that the Church of England is shrinking. This is quite independent of their own views as to the desirability of the Church of England or the truth of its teachings. It is simple professional self-preservation. No one wants to make a living from writing about something that grows less important and prestigious ever year. So in a case like this their professional instincts tug them two ways. There is a fair chance that they will report the excuses first and the facts last. So it must have been rather a disappointment to find that the Daily Telegraph put the story on its front page on Saturday with the heading "Anglican churchgoers fall below one million". The other papers put the story deep inside, though in a more friendly fashion; presumably because it wasnít news that attendances keep falling.

Perhaps the nicest comment on the whole thing came form the Dean of Wells, writing to the Times which has been urging the wider use of churches by the public, for largely non-religious purposes. "Although it would be a betrayal of my entire ministry and of my understanding of the holy, and of mystery, and of place, I wonder if, in this ĎPeopleís Paradiseí in which we now live, a more radical solution might be sought. The Church of England has faithfully kept these churches for the peope of England. Perhaps the peopleís Church, for that is what it is, that has long seen its resources poured into the maintenance of Englandís heritage, should lock its churches and cathedrals on January 1 2000 and post the keys through the letterbox of the local council."

From time to time when I write about attendances, people write in to say that the new method of counting is more accurate than the old one, which only represents a fraction of churchgoers. But this is not the point at issue. Any figure represents a fraction of the real figure (sometimes these fractions are much greater than one, as when the Anglican Communion, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, claim there are 25m Anglicans in the UK as part of the 80m world wide). The question is whether the fraction you choose to measure stays the same. It doesnít do the outside world any harm if Dr Beaver thinks he can magic another quarter of a million churchgoers into existence. But it could be a silly mistake if the church were to start planning on the basis that his figures were real.

The genuinely interesting figure would be the number of covenanting givers. They represent the people on whom the planners can rely and increasingly must. But the Church Commissioners tell me that these figures are not kept. Anyway, their spokesman adds, they will not be much help because so many of our regular attenders are not taxpayers. I hope they are not Daily Telegraph readers either. "Bishops are a bargain at £23m a year" is one of those headlines that looks less than self-evident, even when Dr Beaver assures readers that "The efficiency, effectiveness and economy of the bishops is deeply impressive." These are the men whose average mobile phone bill is £3,000 a year. Again, who is he trying to fool?

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