Lambeth: the triumph of Communications

We tried, we really did try, to find things for the conference to discuss that were not homosexuality. The best place for this was outside the Gymnasium where the debates were held, around the pond which ten years ago had been a place of full of variegated reflections and tranquillity where chubby little carp jostled under the surface and ducks busied themselves in the margins. This time the pond was suburbanised and almost completely overgrown in bulrushes, so much so that I didnít see the water at all it at all when first I walked past it. But the oak trees around were still there, and I could still stand beneath them with a theologian and talk. Rowan Williams, the bishop of Monmouth, is liked by almost everyone in the Church of England, an affection only partially reciprocated: he declined the offer of the diocese of Southwark because he did not want to get drawn into the civil war there.

"Wittgenstein said that the most important thing a philosopher can say to another is Ďgive yourself timeí. The question is whether we can in some sense bear to keep talking to each other" he said to me as we stood beneath the trees. He cultivates a slightly shamanic look: sweeping black eyebrows sheltering deep eyes that have green glints in them like the marble you find on the island of Iona, and an intermittently exuberant beard. He is one of the few bishops who had an interesting failure at the conference: he gave a keynote talk on making moral decisions. It was a lecture of considerable subtlety and some substance which, for all the effect it had, he might as well have delivered in a motorway food court. The argument demanded concentration even in the temperate quiet of the television room in the press centre. His audience can have made little of it in the sweaty echoing heat of the converted gymnasium where the plenary session was held, especially as English was for many of them a second language.

The dominant temper of the conference was not interested in how people reach moral decisions. The method and mannerisms of an Oxford philosophy lecture were as alien to the bishops of the South as they were to the news agencies. The missionary Christianity that came back from the south no more wanted to know how Northerners reached moral decisions than the missionaries of the last century had wanted to know how the religions of the South worked. Yet without some kind of common understanding of what it is to be a human being, any attempt at a global religion is doomed. The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an important and wonderful essay in the 1970s called "What is it like to be a bat?" in which he concluded that as human could never know this; but it is a strange thing for Christians to conclude that it is not worth answering or even asking the question "what is it like to be another Christian".

When he asked me what I made of the conference I said ó for I was still fairly optimistic then ó than it seemed to be a geological catastrophe. All the ages of Christianity were piled up here like beds of rock pushed into mountains. There were Copts from the fifth century, Romans from the fourteenth, Calvinists from the sixteenth, Latitudinarians, Arminians, Nineteenth Century fundamentalists, Twentieth century liberals, Pentecostalists, Anglo-Catholics of several generations ó and all of these people were calling themselves.

He liked this. But, he said, itís important not to think of them all as being the same as they once were. Each style of Christianity has changed or weathered since it first appeared in the rock. I thought this made the analogy more biological: that what we had was a family tree, all descending with different modifications from the original stock of Christianity ó and now, of course, we get distinct species, and, I rushed on into the analogy, populations that canít interbreed. He winced, and asked me not to mention breeding. Instead, he talked about an American poet and Benedictine oblate, who had written about rediscovering meaning in traditionally religious language; and about the way in which theology could not be understood as a set of propositions. You had to act on it to understand it, and each fresh act of obedience brought new understandings. We were silent for a moment. He smiled. "But still I wonder sometimes why I donít just give up and become an Orthodox."

Itís possible that the thing would have been different had it been Dr Carey who lectured them on moral philosophy. But he couldnít. and in a managerial style, he shouldnít either. His job is leadership, not metaphysics. The churches have always drawn their models of organisation from the world; the chanceries of the Vatican bureaucracy are still known as "dicasteries", the name of their equivalents at the court of Constantine. The traditional titles and structures of the Church of England were more nearly feudal than anything else left in the British constitution: until 1832 the bishops of Durham kept their own armies to keep out the Scots; and the constitution of Lincoln Cathedral has resisted reform since the fifteenth century..

In his rush to get away from all this, Dr Carey has attempted to remodel the church as a modern, well-managed corporation: GodCo, perhaps, something "which has very great potential as a player on the international scene." This is the language in which soap or software can be marketed. It demands "logos", "mission statements", "evangelists": terms which, once specifically Christian, now refer to any sort of salesmanship. All they have lost in this evolution is any suggestion that they are concerned with truth. Above all, GodCo demands "Communications": for in the language of power you are never wrong, you have simply failed to get your message over effectively. It was a nice illustration of this that the stage setting of the conference was done by Creative Realisations, a firm which also does the Labour Party Conferences.

The benign incompetence which usually distinguishes the press operations of the Church of England had been replaced for this occasions by a busy malevolence, mostly directed at other press officers. Dr Careyís communications team, his personal press secretary Lesley Perry, and the "director of communications" for the Church of England, an American named Bill Beaver, briefed assiduously against the nominal head of the operation, an elderly, self-important American named Jim Rosenthal. "Mostly celibate" was how one of them described him to me. At the meeting of the Church of Englandís General Synod a month before the Lambeth Conference, they told the press that they had taken over all the press relations. When I printed this story, Rosenthal was on the phone shouting at me within 24 hours. That may not seem like a lightning rebuttal but it was the only time his office had ever returned any call of mine on any subject at all.

Once the conference got under way, there turned out to be 50 "communications officers" whose duties were divided between lecturing the bishops that the press were not to be trusted and telling the press that they were here to help us. It canít have been an easy job: the journalists at the conference were quite extraordinarily bad-tempered and miserable, almost as if they had been bitten by a passing theologian. Some of the press were happily rabid themselves. Of the eighty or so journalists registered with the conference, only around eight were full time professionals, while 35 or so were lobbyists for one side or another in the civil war. Most of these were auxiliaries of the Southern forces: the Lambeth Directory, for example, which was a book that had been published before the conference even opened, had seven staff accredited. On the list of registered press I counted 25 full-time lobbyists for the South registered as journalists, opposed by eight professional gays also there as journalists, including a couple of retired bishops who hung around the press centre looking mangy.

There were press conferences at ten oíclock every morning, held in the lecture theatre of the business school. Beaver had been a reserve officer in the American army, and these, with their atmosphere of fervent unreality bore a resemblance to "five oíclock follies": the daily press conferences that the Americans held in Vietnam. Instead of statistics of hamlets pacified, and VietCong killed, there were announcements that the press department had received 180 or 243 requests for information. These stopped after someone asked how many had resulted in any information emerging or interviews being granted.

Beaver would open each dayís proceedings with a callisthenic untruth, as if limbering up for greater ones to follow: "Good morning. I am Dr Bill Beaver, working under the supervision of Canon Jim Rosenthal". He stood at a lectern directing proceedings ; Rosenthal sat in the front row, occasionally able to fetch a glass of water for the bishops on the podium. When I wrote about this during the conference, Beaver approached me and said "I really like your column. Really funny. But thereís one thing I donít understand. Why do you say that the communications team are briefing against each other."

I didnít quite know what to say. I tried "Bill, have you noticed the things that you and Lesley have been saying about Jimbo?"

He looked at me with bulging eyes. "Oh that", he said, waving one outstretched arm like an agitated triffid as if to flap the whole thing away. "Oh thaaaaaaat. Thatís nothing." He beckoned me over to a corner and came close: "And besides; have you noticed whoís actually running the show here?"

This would be trivial except that it was so completely typical of the conference in its mixture of vanity and dishonesty and in its preference for power over truth; and also in the minute amount of power that he was squabbling over.

Once or twice people would come to us to talk honestly. The day after the debate on homosexuality, it was the turn of Richard Holloway, wearing a pale blue windcheater, and slacks. His face glistened with fatigue. He flopped on a chair and talked as if he really wanted to be understood about what it had been like stifling on the floor in the debate: "I canít forget hearing the hissing and the laughing and the sheer sense of rage. It was a supreme exercise of unbridled, unintelligent male power."

"I felt lynched yesterday," he said. We could hardly believe our luck. By this time there were five or six journalists around him, hardly needing to ask questions, he was so eager to speak. What he really wanted to talk about was not sex but the Bible. He felt he had been mugged by fundamentalists. Earlier in the conference, he had been careful to call them "Biblical literalists" but by this time he had forgotten his manners: "Of course fundamentalism is attractive. But so was fascism.

"We have seen a new prevailing attitude to scriptural interpretation which I do not recognise as historically Anglican. Bible verses say any number of things. We should have been debating and having a running seminar on how we interpret scripture."

This was supposed to have been the point of the Bible Studies with which the conference spent its morning. But none of the bishops who talked to me about them seemed to have learnt anything about the Bible from them. There were memorable personal stories: one American bishop told his group that he had had to turn his own son over to the police for drug dealing; a Sudanese, that his wife had been shot dead by his son-in-law. He found this bearable because he was convinced that the Lord would soon return. But none of this sharing of anguish led to any meeting of minds, as the liberals had supposed that it would.

Someone asked Holloway what he thought of Dr Careyís speech at the end of the homosexuality debate, in which he announced his support for the evangelical motion. He ungangled himself from the low armchair and leant forward: "I thought it was pathetic. I understand he was trying to add a kind of nice fluffy epilogue but I think it would have been better if he had said nothing."

The next morning the press department handed out xeroxes of a hand-written apology for these remarks to anyone moving at less than a full run.

On the last evening there was a reception of sorts on the ground floor of the business school. Wooden Bowls of crisps were laid out in the television lounge along with white china saucers with salted peanuts with a slightly greasy shine. Several of the communicators manned a table fortified with wine: glasses appeared, bottles of plonk, and cartons of orange juice. At last, completing the scene, the Careys walked in, accompanied only by a chaplain and a press secretary. They had not been expected so early, so, for a while, the Archbishop stood in a corner by himself, radiating confidence quietly while Lesley Perry bustled in front of him.

I had wanted to ask him a question at the morningís closing press conference about divorce. Two of his children are divorced and remarried. One of these, Andrew, is a journalist who was present throughout the conference, and I had wanted to ask whether, when Andrew announced he was getting divorced, it would have been a bigger shock if he had announced he were gay. The reasoning behind this was scriptural. Jesus condemned divorce unequivocally and never said a word about homosexuality. On a biblical basis itís not obvious why homosexuals should be cast out and divorcees remarried in church except that many Christians today are divorced and few are gay. But at the last moment, I drew back, and asked something else. Perhaps this was cowardice, but it felt more like disgust. To have returned to the subject would have been like kicking dogshit.

So when I approached him in the lounge, it was with a different, more thoughtful question. I wanted to know how it was possible to unite so many different ways of reading the Bible. How could the Christians for whom it all happened yesterday, and might just as well happen tomorrow, ever be taught to talk with the Christians for whom this was a collection of very ancient documents, written for people long dead. He didnít answer this question at first because he didnít hear it. In the best traditions of Communications, he has learned to give the answer he wants to hear rather than one which has any relevance to the question. So he told me how balanced the resolution on homosexuality had been, and how it had united the Communion.

I asked again how he could possibly unite the different ways of reading the bible around the world to the point where people could talk to each other about it. This time he heard. I have been thinking a lot about theological education as I travelled around Africa, he said: I see a new generation of Christian leaders rising there. He was calm, benevolent, completely at peace with himself. His pale blue eyes shone at the thought of all those leaders. The party was highly successful: over the next forty five minutes . I watched him work slowly towards the door, talking to thirty or forty people, his eyes always apparently fixed on that future full of Christian leaders: a manager on the move, Christian enough to be totally confident.

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