Within days of launching a new communications strategy, the Church
of England was the subject of yet more media debate last week when a
memorandum written by the Archdeacon of Northolt urging the Church to
adopt a spin doctor was leaked to a national newspaper.
Views within the Church are divided over whether it should stick to
communicating the gospel, or try to compete for media attention and a
voice in national debate alongside political parties and large
corporations, with their centralised structures and messages and
The architect of the Church’s PR drive, which has just been passed by
its governing body, the General Synod, is the Synod’s director of
communications, Rev Dr Bill Beaver. He wants the Church to lead on
debates, such as those on homosexuality and single parenthood, which
have in the past threatened to engulf it, rather than adopting a passive
or reactive role.
He says: ’We need to manage our debate intelligently. I am trying to
define the ring in which the debate is being held so we can take
people’s different views in rather than the debate being held on the
Beaver hopes his plans to forge an inclusive, agenda-setting role for
the Church will avoid the need for errant members of the clergy to speak
out independently. He plans to appoint ’lead bishops’ - spokespeople on
issues like marriage and sexuality. He also aims to direct the press
towards good clean news.
This is not the first time the Church of England has sought to revamp
its image when faced with dwindling congregations and an increasingly
scandal-hungry media. Beaver’s predecessor, Rev Eric Shegog, attempted
to cement relations between parishes and the public and the higher
echelons of the Church by launching an in-house magazine, producing tape
recordings of the Synod’s meetings and an annual report of the Church’s
Yet the problems besetting the Church do not seem to have abated.
The solution, according to Pete Broadbent, the Archdeacon of Northolt,
is a for the Church to employ a Peter Mandelson-like figure: ’We get an
incredibly negative coverage in the press because we’re boring and
journalists go around the margins and find scandal.
’A spin doctor is needed to cultivate journalists and point them towards
the exciting things that are happening in the Church. Church people are
not good at explaining themselves and we live in a media world where we
are competing with other institutions,’ he comments.
Therein lies the nub of the Church’s communication problem: it cannot
compete with Government or business, at least partly because of a lack
of resources, a decentralised structure and a breadth of opinion which
do not make for effective communication.
Beaver’s annual PR budget is pounds 8,000, excluding salaries, a drop in
the ocean compared to the millions spent by Labour’s Millbank media
machine, and he has no control over what messages are issued at diocesan
or parish level, not least by loose cannon members of the clergy who
often end up as fodder to a frenzied media.
A wide-ranging internal reform programme, known as ’Working as One
Body’, which is now in the process of being approved by Parliament, may
go some way to easing the Church’s communication dilemmas. The measure
will unite its many national arms - the Church Commissioners, the
pensions board and the staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury - under a
single Archbishop’s Council which will have unprecedented power to
decide the Church’s priorities and how to fund them. One of those
priorities may be PR, but more importantly on a day-to-day level, the
reform will give people such as Beaver a more accessible subject to
communicate in the first place.
Having a united structure at national level will not necessarily result
in a unified Church view. Andrew Brown, media columnist on the Church
Times, stands at the opposite end of the communications debate to
He likens Beaver’s role to a press officer for Parliament, a fictitious
and untenable position responsible for presenting a single united view
across party divides.
Brown says: ’The Church of England is handicapped by its breadth of
The reason it gets such bad press is because of what people within the
’They definitely shouldn’t have a spindoctor. They should be honest and
admit there are deep divisions, but they can’t because they are
pretending to be an organisation,’ he says.
Taking his argument further, he claims the Church’s PR operation should
limit itself to the basic non-controversial duty of communicating facts
and figures about the Church.
Fuelling the debate further, and offering a perfect illustration of the
Church divides which Brown sees as its presentational downfall, some
members of the Church believe communicating the gospel is what it is
best at, and what it should stick to.
Rob Marshall, former head of communications for the Diocese of London
and now an account director at PR agency 33rpm, believes that: ’the
Church should communicate the Good News and get over its internal
problems.’ But this ignores the point that, without the Church
participating effectively in national debates, the word stands little
chance of being spread.