I was brought up in the small market town of Newton Abbot in Devon. In truth most people have just about heard of it, because in decades gone by, when Midlander’s holidayed on the English Riviera, a change of trains was often inevitable at Newton Abbot. The town really developed because of the coming of the railway in the mid 1800’s. When I was growing up the old town began to fade into mediocrity like most other small towns in the mid 1980’s. One place that has always stuck in my mind was the wonderful old chemist shop called Bibbin’s on the high street. When I was growing up I was fascinated by the brightly coloured bottles, and the vast number of tiny mahogany drawers with glass labels inscribed with strange Latin names. As a teenager I collected old Victorian chemist shop bottles (which had to have their original contents), and tins and vials of various Victorian potions. When Bibbin’s eventually closed, I was able to buy all sorts of bits and pieces from the shop, including bottles moulded into the shape of a coffin lid to warn Victorian householders (who lived in dimly lit conditions) that the bottle contained a poison. I was, and still am fascinated by the claims made by quacks in the Victorian era, and I still possess a number of Victorian wonder potions that claim to cure a mind numbing number of conditions.
Later, among a number of weird and wonderful jobs I did as a student, I worked in the laboratory of a well known (though now defunct) cosmetics company. Naturally I found this fascinating, and I gained quite a considerable insight into the world of lotions and potions. The long and short of it, is that face creams, shampoos or bars of soap might bear the name of a high end fashion house or designer, but they are all made in a factory somewhere. Whether something costs a pound or one hundred pounds, the industrial process is the same. Raw chemical ingredients arrive at the factory in metal drums or large plastic containers, or in an oil tanker. However expensive a product might be, shampoo for example, they are almost all (there are a few exceptions) made from the same chemical ingredients. The other interesting thing is that products that contain extracts of this or that, for example herbs or some kind of fruit or flower, actually contain only a vague trace of said ingredient, to the extent that it’s presence really makes no difference at all, apart from the marketing appeal it might have. Another myth is that a product is ‘new and improved.’ It is actually very difficult to improve the formula of most of the products that we buy. Last year a great deal of publicity surrounded research that suggested that the homeopathic remedies we spend millions on every year, are never likely to have any effect because the ‘active’ ingredients are so diluted. The placebo effect is a whole other thing.
Advertising and spin really took off in this country in the mid to late 19th century, the ‘age of advertising,’ And it has been developing ever since, and now encompasses almost every aspect of our lives. In the world in which we live, we are all of us only too aware of how media and communications are used to influence are thinking and the decisions we make, sometimes consciously other times unconsciously. From the things we choose to buy, to the newspapers we read to inform our thinking, there is no doubt that we are all influenced by advertising and the media. Whether we like it, care to admit it or not, we are surrounded by it, immersed in it. Almost everything we engage in, has in some way been touched by advertising or branding, which has influenced the way in which we will perceive it. More often than not to enhance reputation or the way in which it will be perceived. From politics to the charities we can be persuaded to give money to, all have been given one sort of media or communications treatment or other, to make us believe, make us buy, encourage us to follow.
Organised religion certainly hasn’t escaped this. Indeed within the Church of England there is a whole department dedicated to helping us “present the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in an ever changing communications environment.” I think it is right that we present ourselves in a manner in which the modern world finds accessible and engaging. Every Diocese now has a communications advisor, who can help with everything from website design to the make-up of a church notice board. We now know quite specifically what makes a church or activity appealing and what doesn’t.
To my knowledge though, there is no comprehensive national communications strategy for encouraging the general population to attend church or to engage with the possibility of following Jesus, or even perhaps to contemplate Christian faith. Before anybody corrects me, I know there is a national youth strategy, and of course every diocese must have a mission platform or mission tool, which all clergy must love and embrace without question. I wonder what a comprehensive national strategy would look like though? Part of our strategy would have to be creating disciples. Perhaps every Diocese would be required to mobilise a road show in every town and city in the country, giving out free bibles with a team of clergy to talk to passers by about faith. Of course that’s what our Muslim Brothers and Sisters do now with their literature, as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a fair degree of success. Good for them.
How else might we engage the nation in thinking about Jesus? Social action would have to be on the agenda in some way or other. Actually the amount that churches and church based charities do for the poor and needy up and down the country is not to be underestimated, but in actual fact, we have the skills, manpower and resources to do a lot more. In Birmingham for example, we could eradicate homelessness on our city streets if we were really determined to do so. In truth The Church of England could mobilise free debt advice, hot meals for those in need, and a whole lot more in every town and city in the land. ‘By thy deeds thy will be known.’
We talk a lot. Church leaders, myself included, have opinions about contemporary issues and we are always keen to voice them. From childhood poverty to corporate tax avoidance, our voices join the ‘conversation’ as the debate is now called in social media. There is a subtle difference though. When our Bishops take a firm stance on something, politicians and journalists sit up and take note, even if they immediately try and discredit what has been said, as ‘out of touch’ or ‘ideological.’ When Archbishop Justin has spoken out on contemporary issues over the last few years, more often than not, whoever decides to make a story newsworthy on the television or in newspapers runs with it, and there is debate.
The tabloids hope that when the Church speaks on an issue, it will take the stance of ‘right wing middle England’, indeed comment is often sought on that premise. When the church speaks out against this group or that group not being treated fairly, or about the plight of people who are financially disadvantaged, great dismay is voiced by those journalists who claim to speak ‘for the people.’
Maybe the church is now so media savvy that it knows how to work the system to make its voice heard? Or just perhaps, the voice of faith, however counter cultural or ‘out of touch’ (as it is so often portrayed), still has a very real resonance in modern Britain. Perhaps the voice of our faith leaders is perceived as worthy of consideration because it comes from the perspective of faith conviction and not spin, not particularly what people want to hear, but nevertheless carrying a moral thread that is difficult to ignore. I don’t know, but what I do know is that our voice can still be heard, unlike in most of Western Europe where religious opinion counts for less and less. As a church it is essential we engage with contemporary forms of communication, but we must have the courage and conviction to speak with a voice of faith and not spin, which hasn’t been worked over by communication and media consultants to make it more palatable. We must know the speak, and when to speak, and sometimes when to remain silent, empty platitudes help nobody, unless we are willing to really grapple with, and try to solve whatever issue is at stake.