News Analysis: 'Passion' highlights Church PR task

Media interest in the reactions of religious groups to The Passion of The Christ has helped church organisations to infiltrate the national news agenda, but Simon Ellery discovers that their PR challenge is more long term

Mel Gibson's blockbuster The Passion of The Christ has given this Easter fresh religious energy. The controversial film, which has been attacked by some Jewish groups as anti-Semitic, is tipped to become one of the highest grossing films of all time in UK cinemas. That success will be due partly to the block-booking by churches of thousands of tickets. Other religious leaders have issued stern warnings that the film damages inter-faith work.

But comms chiefs at the Church of England and the Catholic Church face challenges beyond Gibson's film. The priority is arresting the decline of church attendance - both churches claim a headcount of around one million on Sundays - and prompting renewed media interest in Christianity without relying on Hollywood.

According to the churches that block-booked tickets, The Passion, which offers a violent depiction of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus, has boosted church numbers. St Luke's Church in Kent, on behalf of ten local churches, block-booked £20,000 worth of tickets, which it gave to non-church-goers to give them 'the opportunity to see the reality of the suffering of Christ' and 'rethink the Christian message'.

Harnessing media interest

According to Coast Communications, which co-ordinated the initiative, church leader Ross Hughes offered a canny explanation behind the rationale: 'With (media coverage spanning from) 9/11 to Kylie's bum, the church has to do more than hold a jumble sale to compete.'

Coast Communications and the church admit to being surprised by the avalanche of media interest. Coverage is ongoing and has included BBC TV and radio, ITN and Sky, while newspapers such as The Guardian, The Times and the Daily Mirror ran the story. Coast Communications founder Matt Baldwin - who as a St Luke's parishioner offered his services for free - helped devise the media strategy with the church's vicar. 'The film has had some impact. St Luke's had between 20 and 30 extra people attend this Sunday (28 March),' Baldwin claims.

St Luke's has handed out 2,000 books answering questions raised by Gibson's film and has created a website - www.whydidhedie.net. It is also exploring holding regular services at the local cinema and opening a pub.

Hughes adds: 'Whether or not you agree or disagree with the film, it is extremely encouraging to see the press discuss the main tenets of the Christian faith in a positive way rather than gay bishops and such like.'

The Catholic Communications Service has had a flurry of telephone calls about the film. Acting comms director and head of news Oliver Wilson says: 'It is vital that we are sensitive to the feelings of the Jewish community but the film has got something going for it. It is a fairly accurate account of what is in the Gospels.'

The film was also discussed at the Strategic Communications Committee (part of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales), with briefing papers sent out to bishops and their comms officers providing key points about the film.

The CE has taken a more aloof stance. 'The Church as an entity does not have a comment on the film. We had more calls about The Last Temptation of Christ and The Omen,' says head of media relations Steve Jenkins. He points out that the CE, comprised of 16,000 churches, encompasses views from across different sects, including Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical and Liberal.

Jenkins says it is impossible to reach a single view about the film so the CE press office has been busy providing the media with a variety of differing views. Synod vicar David Butterfield says: 'I welcome the film in the sense that it has got people talking (about Christ) in their pubs and workplaces in the run-up to Easter.'

The PR challenge for churches

Arch publicist Mark Borkowski, founder of Borkowski PR, thinks the film 'is a fantastic opportunity' for the Church: 'The long-term PR challenge facing the Church is the same as that which every brand faces - capturing new adopters.' He thinks the film refreshes an old brand without alienating its 'traditional purchasers', adding that the film has an 'attitude' about it that appeals to people young and old.

'The Church has been bogged down with issues around gay bishops and the ordination of women priests - this film puts Christ on the news pages and on TV. At times, a brand has to be shaken up. Within the Church there have not been enough people using this as a talisman for the future,'Borkowski says.

Baldwin thinks the main challenge the Church faces is simply one of becoming more relevant. 'For a long time it has been its own worst enemy. Going to a younger church that is more vibrant would make (Christianity) more interesting and relevant to the lives that you, I and others lead,' he says.

He suggests local initiatives are needed to target young and old people, pointing to a church launched in a warehouse in Chichester that is regularly 'packed to the rafters'. Dubbed 'Revelation', it includes a cafe and business units for Christians.

'PR may have a role to play but it is the actions that the church takes that matter,' Baldwin adds.

As the furore over The Passion of The Christ subsides, church leaders will need to generate initiatives to boost attendance numbers. Actions by churches such as St Luke's, although controversial, are certainly worth closer examination by religious comms chiefs of all faiths.

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