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Press Column

It doesnít really matter that relations between the Sunday Times and the Church of Englandís press office have virtually broken down, except that it gives the rest of us an infallible test for truth: if both are telling the same story we know it must be wrong. But when they disagree itís by no means obvious which one should disbelieve. In any case, the ructions over last weekís Sunday Times about failing attendances roll around the heavens like thunder after an illuminating shaft of lightning. The background, of course, is the enveloping darkness produced by the refusal of the press office to publish any average Sunday attendance figures. All this tells us is that theyíre going down, since if they were not there would be a press conference with fireworks and specially commissioned music. But how far down? This is where matters become controversial. The Sunday Times claimed that in the diocese of Exeter they were down by 36% in the last two years and in Ely by 18%; also that Peter Brierleyís survey of church attendance showed a catastrophic fall over the same period. On the basis of these figures, it concluded that fewer than half a million adults were regular communicants, and fewer than a million regular churchgoers.

So where did these figures come from? Though the piece was bylined Christopher Morgan, at least two reporters helped out on a freelance basis with the phone calls, as is customary when every diocese in England must be rung. One has a respectable past and didnít want it known that he does this work; the other was Luke Coppen, a young man on the Catholic Herald, who was the person who actually spoke to Sally Kimmis, the press officer at Exeter. He got it wrong. They had two conversations. In the first he introduced himself as from the Herald (since he was in their office) and asked for detailed statistics on attendance in four different years of the decade. He says that she didnít have them handy, and when he rang back the following day, she still didnít have the 1997 average Sunday attendance, which is what all the fuss is about. He had, he said, a figure of twenty thousand and something in front of him, and asked her whether that was correct. She said, he says, that it sounded right. That is where the 36% decline comes from. But the figure was wrong; and Sally Kimmis has no memory of agreeing to it. She thinks she didnít have the figures at all. The actual figure for 1997 attendance is 24,818, not a 36% drop, but an increase of about 2% on the 1996 figures.

I have some sympathy for both parties in this transaction, having frequently made both their mistakes myself. My own notes are notoriously unreadable by anyone else, and frequently by me too. The numbers I have collected while chasing this story down are spread over three or four bits of loose A4 paper and mush together three quite separate interviews: examining them, I see that the figure for 1996 attendance in Exeter is "241208" and itís not obvious from the manuscript which digit is wrong or superfluous. And it is also the case that when rung by the Catholic Herald I have been less than completely conscientious about ensuring that they had all the information they could possibly need. None the less, itís clear that there was a mistake made and that the figure from which the Sunday Times derived its most eye-catching statistic was false.

I havenít been able to chase what happened at Ely. The diocesan figures there, supplied by Tom Ambrose, also show a small rise between 1996 and 1997. But the Sunday Times talked not to Tom, the press officer, but to the diocesan secretary, who is on holiday for a fortnight. Until we have his side of the story thereís not much point in speculating. Meanwhile, the paper is negotiating with the Bishop of Wakefield about publishing a letter putting the record straight. I donít think it can hold out forever against publishing anything but if Iím wrong I wouldnít be the first journalist to make a mistake.

The moral of all this is not entirely clear. It doesnít entirely knock down the Sunday Times story, because that also had Peter Brierleyís opinions and the fact that, since the attendance figures are being hidden, they must be discreditable and worth hiding. Two facts out of four is pretty good going, by that paperís standards. It wonít make relations worse between the Church House spin directorate and the Sunday Times because that would be impossible, short of a law suit. It will, however, deepen the bunker mentality that seems to be spreading in the press department. This is a pity; there will always be rivalry and a degree of hostility between press departments and journalists because they are both contending for the power to tell the story, but normally there are certain rules observed by both sides.

Perhaps I exaggerate the importance of propaganda, but this seems to me also a symptom of something more serious. The official view of the Church of England and the view in most of the press, even such sympathetic papers as the Times, are now almost irreconcilable. Membership figures are only the most obvious part of this. The official stance of the church is one of unrelenting optimism, whereas the press as a whole sees it as an institution in terminal decline. It is simply impossible to believe things at once; and most of the priests I know in civilian life are far closer in their assessments of the situation to the press view than to that of the Archbishops Council. From their perspective, as from mine, the real danger of spin doctoring is not that you may fail to convince the press but that you will end up believing your own propaganda. If, at the end of the Decade of Evangelism, church attendances turn out to have declined by only 100,000, let this fact be published honestly.

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