The danger with playing the media game

Earlier this week, we were asked to sign a letter to the Government written by other church leaders.  The letter expressed support for appropriate measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, expressed concern about the way some measures might be affecting the most needy and vulnerable, explained why churches play an essential role in our community and asked that the Government refrained from closing church buildings again in any future lockdowns.

I explained here why although I sympathised with the sentiments felt by many signatories, I could not sign it as it stood. For balance, here is the Wee Flea,  David Robertson explaining why he did sign it.

One of my concerns was the way in which our signatures can get used as part of a different agenda to what we believe we are actually signing up to. There is a narrative being pushed by some ends of the media that COVID-19 is now a political matter and that there are lots of people spoiling for a fight to defend freedoms against unnecessary measures.

 The risk is that as churches we will get pulled into that fight. There are two implications for this, first of all, that we will be seen as unquestioning allies of a political agenda which is about more than the practicalities of how we combat coronavirus. Secondly, that many people within the community who remain fearful about the disease and who have themselves complied with strict measures, will see the church pulling away from its connections to society and instead of seeing faith will see defiance, not against an authoritarian regime but against the community themselves.

So I was saddened but unsurprised to see that this was exactly the narrative that the Sunday Times had gone with.  Their headline says “Churches vow to stay open this time”[1]  They then open the article with these words:

“Church leaders have vowed to defy the government by staying open through any lockdown, with 700 signing a letter urging the authorities not to suspend services.”

Now, I suspect that a fair few of those who signed the letter will have choked and spluttered on their cornflakes reading that this morning because when you go back to the letter written, it was a request not to unnecessarily close buildings not a statement of intent to refuse to comply.  This is important because whilst there genuinely are some leaders who see this as a choice between obeying Government and obeying God’s law calling us to gather, I think the majority do not see it that way. They either see the need to protect people’s safety as taking priority here or, like me view other measures such as outdoor events, smaller clusters and online services as fulfilling the requirement to gather.

This does not mean that we want to close buildings again.  My view is that whilst online provision makes gathering possible, it is less than ideal.  I also happen to think that the current measures mean that churches where people are socially distancing and wearing face masks should guarantee an acceptable level of protection against the virus.  I recognise too that there is a question of conscience here and different churches will take different views on where to cross the line. However, I do think that as far as possible, we should seek consensus between churches and show solidarity for one another.

Now, I am not blaming the authors of the letter. I believe them to be well meaning, though It was not great to read this further comment.

“One of the letter’s four authors, the Rev Dr Matthew Roberts, of Trinity Church, York, said many were prepared to defy the government.

‘Would we be willing to continue to gather people and call people to come together to worship God in a safe way even if the government says we’re not allowed to? The answer for many of our churches is yes, we would,’ he says.”

That doesn’t look great because it is a significant departure from what the 700 or so people were being asked to put their name to. However, I can understand how this happens. The media are looking for a much bigger story. Remember that what the original letter gave them was

  • We want the vulnerable to be protected
  • We are concerned about the other negative affects of social isolation
  • We would like to stay open and think we can do this safely.
  • We cannot support authoritarian measures.

All well and good but given that the Government will not consider their measures authoritarian, that it does not look like there was any intention on the part of the authorities to shut down churches again at this point in time and that we all share the concerns about protecting the vulnerable, there is not much of a story there.

So what happens? Well the journalists start asking the authors for comment, questions that will push them to say something more controversial.  “What do you think about this singing ban thing?”  “Will you defy the Government if asked?” Before you know it, the authors, who are not used to media messaging have given their own personal opinions and the journalists have a far bigger story, “Church leaders will defy the Law” and the story is big because they can refer to the 700 signatures, not just the couple of leaders interviewed.[2]

So, some lessons to learn.

  1. Be aware that the media are usually looking for a different story than the one we want to share. Like it or not, the normal and shared everyday opinions of Joe Bloggs pastors like you and me just aren’t that newsworthy in the big scheme of things.
  2. Resist the temptation to respond to this by “sexing up” the story. This might be what the media wants but we have other responsibilities to another authority.
  3. When asking people to support and sign up to a message/agenda that everyone is clear about what the message and agenda is. 
  4. Remember that once you are holding a letter with other signatures on it that you are now seen to be representing and speaking for them. Stay on message. Make sure that what you say is something that all those who signed can agree with.

I think it would be helpful to encourage more conversations among church leaders. There are some real concerns about the direction that the response to COVID-19 is going and the more we are able to speak with one voice the better.

We probably would benefit to some media handling lessons too!


[2] Also, 700 church leaders sounds nicely like 700 churches because the media thinks in terms of the vicar speaking for his congregation when in fact the letter includes people who have signed as individuals not as church leaders and sometimes multiple people from one church.

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