In a little over two hours time it will be formally announced that Justin Welby, currently the Bishop of Durham, will become the new Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Rowan Williams as the next occupant of Lambeth Palace. Of course, we all know this already because gradually over the past few days through leaks, rumours, stories of betting syndicates and other malarkey we have had the name revealed to us. Arguably John Bingham and Jon Wynne-Jones in the Telegraph were the first to officially confirm it, but others also told stories of the “speculation” that the new Archbishop would be the current Bishop of Durham. In the last few days when the race to confirm the news was at its height and Number 10 confirmed that the announcement would be made on Friday, I heard tell of some journalists trying to track down the movements of Welby’s family (because if they were all converging on London that would be a clear indicator something was afoot) and also working through every other possible candidate to see whether they were about to leap on a train and head towards Lambeth.
Many in the Twittersphere have been moaning. As it became clear that the rumour wasn’t speculation but in fact was veracity, several people complained that all this frenzied inquiry was not “Christian”. How dare we try and “guess” or “leak” or whatever. Well my dears, the reason why several people did that was because Lambeth Palace shot itself in the foot with how it dealt with communicating the process of selecting the new Archbishop. Take yourselves back to those dizzy days at the end of September, just a few weeks ago, when the Church of England was officially asking us to pray for the work of the CNC. They even issued a specific intercession to help us in our task. This was followed by three days of media briefings which included telling us what the media themselves were saying about the process. All good, because this was an important process and needed the support of the people in the pews in the way that they were able to help – on their knees.
And then we had the extraordinary events of that last weekend in September. The final day of the final meeting of the CNC came and went. No news. What was going on? Speculation mounted and the Church of England press office was bombarded by journalists wanting to know the truth. What they got instead was this wonderfully illusive press release.
This week’s meeting of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) has been accompanied by much speculation about possible candidates and the likely timing of an announcement of the name of who will succeed Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury when he steps down to become Master of Magdalene College.
The CNC is an elected, prayerful body. Its meetings are necessarily confidential to enable members to fulfil their important responsibilities for discerning who should undertake this major national and international role. Previous official briefings have indicated that an announcement is expected during the autumn and that remains the case; the work of the Commission continues. There will be no comment on any speculation about candidates or about the CNC’s deliberations. Dr Williams remains in office until the end of December.
“The work of the Commission continues.” What kind of statement was that? Instead of dampening down the media frenzy it simply increased it. Why had the CNC failed to come to a decision? Where was the deadlock? Over the next day or so it became clear (through leaks once again) what the problem was – the Commission were deadlocked in choosing between two candidates and had had to retire and postpone their final decision until that deadlock could be overcome. Why couldn’t that have been communicated in the first place?
Well, here’s why – despite having appointed the formidable Revd Arun Arora as the new Director of Communications for the Church of England (a bold progressive choice to help move the Comms team forward into the 21st Century) by all accounts the Commission decided to sidestep him and write their own press release instead. Indeed, some people have told me that Arun was kept completely out of the loop, to all intents and purposes being handed the press release on a piece of paper and being told, like the lowliest office junior, to send it out to the journalists. It was the employment equivalent of hiring a high flying accountant and then getting her to do the photocopying. The reason why you hire Communications Experts is because they are experts at communication. The clue’s in the title. Communications Experts don’t write press releases that say nothing and only serve to continue to stoke the flames of speculation – they produce media briefings that help to put an institution’s point across as succinctly as possible.
Perhaps a much better press release would have been something like the following.
The Crown Nominations Commission met this week to continue the work of selecting the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Although we had hoped to have chosen a successor to Rowan William during this meeting we were not able to do so at this time. We will convene again in a few weeks time to continue our deliberations and we value your prayers for us both before and during that next meeting.
There – nice and easy. Doesn’t say anything that the actual press release didn’t, but says it in a way that doesn’t seem to be hiding anything. It seems to be more truthful because it shares facts (the failure to reach a decision) rather than avoiding that fact and it offers honesty (“we were not able to do so”) rather that hiding behind the excuse of “well, we never said how many times we would meet, so why are you getting so worked up about us not choosing someone this time”. Of course, such a press release wouldn’t have stopped people asking why they had failed to reach a decision, but then a good Director of Communications, being trusted and therefore informed by the CNC as to what was going on, could have simply answered “Well, they’re down to just a few names, they’re all high quality candidates with lots to offer, and they can’t quite make up their mind between them”. Anybody who would have then asked who the names were would then simply be told “Well you can hardly expect me to tell you that”.
Simple, easy, honest, open as far as possible.
Here’s the thing folks. Yes, the work of the CNC is by it’s very nature confidential, but if you ask your Church to be involved (open consultation, telling people dates and times of meetings and asking for prayers) then you need to keep them informed in the proper way. For example, don’t tell everyone when one meeting is happening, then complain when people ask what happened and compound the error by meeting a fourth time without ever telling anyone that it’s happening. For what it’s worth, it’s pretty easy to work out when the CNC met the final time just by looking at a few of the participant’s public diaries, seeing where the events are that cannot be skipped and filling in the gaps. Why try to hide something that can be identified anyway?
This whole debacle is a lesson to the Church of England in openness and honesty. Time and time again we are told that the heart of personal mission and evangelism is openness and transparency, sharing not just the truth of Jesus with your audience but the truth of how Jesus has impacted you. Down in the parishes we are encouraged to share our lives and to build real open relationships with those around us. Many of us know through bitter experience that being as truthful as possible when faced with any form of conflict or query is the best solution. Compare this to the reports I heard in the last few days of journalists being snapped at down the phone by Lambeth Palace officials for daring to ask the questions that the same Lambeth Palace officials have prompted by not giving any clue as to what was going on. It’s no good blaming the journalists for trying to find out the truth when the Church hierarchy seems to have tried its utmost to conceal it, despite at the same time trying to get as many people as possible interested in this whole process.
Today we will have the formal announcement of our new Archbishop, and I hope that Justin Welby’s tenure will see some exciting developments. There are lots of great missional opportunities at hand, not least of which is helping to articulate the Church’s clear response to the Government’s attempt to impose gender-neutral marriage on the country. There are also some major challenges like the £500 million and growing shortfall in the clergy pension fund (and anybody hear the magic words “money”, “purchase” and “scheme” in the distance?) and a general issue with falling numbers. Finally, there is the issue of how the Church does communications. At the moment Lambeth Palace and Church House run their own operations and that needs to stop. Fantastic people like Arun Arora are in place and they need to be utilised to their fullest extent, not treated as some junior employee. The Church needs to really begin to engage with social media and work proactively to nurture online communities that are by their very essence highly relational and therefore speak about the unique way God has made humans as loving inter-acting creatures to reflect his eternal Trinitarian relationship. Perhaps that’s something the Twurch can help with?
Justin Welby’s appointment is the signal of a new start. Let’s get it right this time.