Monday, 28 July 2008

Fishing, guided by Narcissus...

...a fruitless activity, because all the lad can see down there is himself. I haven’t seen a paper all week, but finding myself in Darwin on Saturday, I thought I'd get a look at a Church of England Newspaper. I opened straight up to the middle. On the right, an intelligent article by Douglas Alexander, secretary of state for development, about reducing poverty. It told the government story, of course, but it was basically well informed and gave background to last Thursday.

The other side of the page was Ruth Gledhill’s, expressing frustration about the way the media are being handled. She couldn't get into an indaba group about the media. But hang on there aren’t any indaba groups about the media. And to think there could be reveals a complete misunderstanding of what an indaba group is. I tried the sweeping statement that “Indaba isn’t working” out on a table of people who have actually been in such groups for a week, and all 16 strongly disagreed, although they had differing views about how it was working. Groups that felt they wanted to press on were using the liberty in the process to do so. Some bishops, inevitably, are better listeners than others. We are all anxious to get a substantial result. The views of the senior bishop she quoted are very different from those of most younger bishops. Perhaps she hasn’t spoken to any of those.

Perhaps the view from Fleet Street is rather self-absorbed. Riazat Butt had a forty year old scoop, that the architect who designed the University of Kent had also designed prisons. Her point being that if this were taking place in a campus designed by an architect who had never designed a prison, er, this would be taking place in a campus designed by an architect who had never designed a prison. And... ? The fact this hides, apart from the way university staff have gone out of their way to be welcoming, friendly and efficient, is that the campus is a public space — the whole thing is open anyway, apart from the Big Top with all the gizmos in that had to be fenced to be insurable.

I turned to the Guardian blog to see if I’d missed something, there to find a hilarious piece built around the fact that bishops were stuffing themselves at breakfast with £1·95 waffles (waffles, geddit?) in the canteen. Hang on, I thought. Bishops’ food is all free, and in the place we eat they don’t have any waffles. What on earth this is suposed to have to do with anything that matters beats me, but the premise of the whole story is simply wrong.

Back to the Church of England Newspaper where I learn on page 23 “blogging bishops are causing the organizers most nightmares.” Now that one’s easy to check out. I collar a few organizers and ask them whether any blogging bishop has caused any organizer they know any anxiety whatsoever. They can’t think of any. It’s flattering, though, to be told the Bishop who has taken best to blogging is the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Smith. Alan Smith?*

I don’t know if people are being paid to produce this stuff, but to someone who is part of this event, it all seems rather trivial and factually off piste. Many reported facts are misunderstood or less than half true. Some are just plain wrong. It’s a comlex and subtle event, and the journaists understanding of what is going on here is, to put it kindly, rather limited. The value of generalisations built on their limited grasp of what is going on is questionable. If anyone really wants to know what’s been going on in indaba groups, my advice is to click round a few blogs from people who have actually been to one, or at least know what they are.

Catching up this evening with some acidic press comment about bible study groups and their materials, I cannot echo them. I am in a fantastic group, largely African and African led. Compared to conventional Western studies, I’ve found ours direct and easy, with our different cultures, contexts and educational backgrounds, to be personal about. There’s not much opportunity to show off academic notions about the text, but that’s not what this is about anyway. My advice to anyone who doesn’t like the material is to go back to the text.

So my general impression from a trip to the media centre is that, sadly, you get more reliable information from people on the inside than from journos trying to be clever about information they don’t really understand, without the time, perhaps, to check their facts. Sadly, because I rather like the people concened and usually enjoy their stuff, this all rather bears out the Flat Earth News hypothesis.

Alan Smith is my highly esteemed colleague the Bishop of Shrewsbury. Me, I’m Alan Wilson (another bog standard name, I’m afraid). Time was, checking names was something journos learnt how to do on day 1 at the Snodsbury Chronicle, when they covered their first flower show. Flat earth hacks can’t be bothered, or aren’t up to it, apparently.


nlnh said...

What do you think of this article?

If it's accurate, then I think it's time to bring on the schism: I have no desire whatsoever to belong to a church with a fundamentalist college of cardinals declaring who's in and who's out. That approach combines the very worst features of Rome and Geneva.

On the other hand, the corporate press really have done an awful lot of sensationalizing where Lambeth is concerned, and this is, after all, The Torygraph.

sam said...

The waffles can be found in the Gulbenkian cafe up until 10.30am each morning. I can recommend the bacon rolls - they are very good.

Having spoken to one of the groundsmen, he tells me that the bishops are a welcome change as you are all so polite and there is very little litter. It is lovely to have you all on campus and we were saying how we wished we could have you with us every year.

Erika Baker said...

While I agree with you that there is much silly reporting and that some journalists seem to be rather miffed at not being allowed into the centre of things, this is priceless:
"It’s a comlex and subtle event, and the journaists understanding of what is going on here is, to put it kindly, rather limited."

Well, yes. If you keep them out, how can their understanding be deep and informed?

It's the price you pay for having the privacy of indaba groups.
If the groups turn out to be successful the price may have been worth paying. But there's no denying that it comes at a cost and ill informed reporting is just the most obvious one.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for perceptive and helpful comment — glad to know there are waffles on campus, but sorry to hear bishops have to pay! I always find the pre-cooked sort rather sugary, but I remember a waffle shop in ca,bridge to die for, run by a Canadian photographer who has now, sadly, retired.

Ninh, so sorry I haven’t seen the teegraph article but will try and have a look and get back to you because it sounds interesting.

Erika. I think you've got a point. I don't actually know the media managers here, let alone the policies about these things, but I'm sure they can't have got evertything 100% right; whilst also needing to say that this indaba thing needs cooking gently and slowly to work. People want the answers because they cae, but the only answers there can be need time to cook. I can see where that leaves a jobbing hack, paid to churn out stuff by the yard, without any straw to make bricks, perhaps. Having said which there is a fair amount of accurate info out there on the internet compared to, say the last Lambeth. It would be good to see a higher standard of truthfulness in the stuff coming out from Fleet Street. "Whereof I cannot speak, thereof will I be silent" was great for Wittgenstein, but he wasn't being paid to come up with angry trivia in his cabin!

Anonymous said...

Ruth Gledhill writes: Bishop I like your blog generally but we really cannot report what is going on in groups we are not allowed to observe, as the commenter here says. We have been very good and restrained in the media room in respecting boundaries and not trying to gain access where we are not wanted. But it does make me laugh when bishops subsequently complain we are not reporting what is really going on. I love you all dearly, but you are such idiots sometimes. Really, what do you expect? Thank God for the intelligence of the Sudanese. May I suggest also you read your programme properly? Self-select indaba group, last Tuesday afternoon, titled: 'Never say no to media.'
(ps this is Ruth Gledhill, but I post anonymously on blogger because it takes too long and is too difficult to sign on. Check if you like:

Erika Baker said...

Bishop Alan

Yes, you're right, there is a lot of accurate information on the Internet.
But when you say "So my general impression from a trip to the media centre is that, sadly, you get more reliable information from people on the inside than from journos trying to be clever about information they don’t really understand...." we on the outside could turn this around and ask how much you on the inside know of what is happening on the outside.

Your initial suspicion that Archbishop Deng's interview was manufactured by The Times is only one example. As Simon Sarmiento posts on TA:
"More generally, and more worryingly, the bishops did not seem to be aware of the documents being issued by official bodies like the Windsor Continuation Group to the conference and also to the press. I am left wondering how such information is being disseminated INSIDE the conference itself."

A little less suspicion on both sides would be helpful. And as for me, being neither on the inside nor the immediate outside, the mix of reporting from both places is essential. Puns about waffles notwithstanding.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Erika,

To be honest we are very busy in here, and we all have sackfulls of official documents. Some bishops work better with that kind of information than others. You are quite right that we don’t have access to the pressers and briefings and quite honestly I can't see I'd have time if I had. Our job isn't, actually to take an interest in the media, but to try and build relationsips within which we can live our faith fruitfully.

Simon is right that is quite a gap between official documentation and realities on the ground. On the few occasions people see UK media, they are pretty appalled by what they perceive to be much spiteful, trivial and ignorant reporting, compared to what they would expect back home.

I don't know anything much about how the media have been handled in detail. I would have been delighted to share in worship with media people, for example, but it would have been very offensive to see what has been a beautiful and positive part of our life together sneered at and belittled in the way, e.g. the Thursday march was in sme quarters.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Ruth — please don't worry, Im sure it's you!! And I appreciate your taking time to comment. I am disturbed by the whole model of naughty journalists being restrained by media rottweilers — I'd love to feel things could be otherwise. I know everybody's under various pressures, though.

I wonder whether anyone has briefed you accurately about how things work. The event on page 25 is not in any way an indaba, and therefore the word doesn't occur in that listing. It's a self-select. These are one off meetings, in which people can show the spirit of indaba no doubt but there are basic structural differences.
(1) No rapporteur or trained facilitation
(2) Indaba groups are made up of bible study 8's — these are open access (to particpants, apparently)
(3) There's no linkage through to the reflection process
(4) The process of the meetings is up to the organisers, not the indaba one
(5) Because they are ones off (one offs?!) they can't have the cumulative effect which is integral to the indaba design.
(6) Because of (2) there can't be any linkage in from the Bible Study process — scriptural input into indaba.

I am aware you may have had a full briefing, though if anyone told you this was an indaba group, they were just wrong.

It strikes me that something isn't working out ideally for journalists here, and that's a shame. But I also got an impression from your CEN piece that you were saying the particular people working with you here were doing their best. Personally, I would have welcomed sharing in worship more with you and others on site. But I can understand the arguments against.

As Mrs T used to say, it's a funny old world. Please be assured of my prayers and good wishes...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...


I've now seen the Telegraph piece. I feel for the bloke writing it, in that he's trying to string together soundbites from across a very broad range into some kind of coherent story. It doesn't quite work for me, sitting here with the paper on my lap during the second Lambeth continuation hearing (very hot!).

I can't see any evidence that the suggested pastoral forum (not quite the holy office?!) is all about kicking liberals out. Intellectually anything it was about would apply as much to cross-border conservative breaches of the Windsor report's requirements as to anything TEC bishops did.

The paper is also concerned about a structure to follow up the commitments of Lambeth 1.10 for listening and pastoral, sensitive listening, and protect against victimisation of gay people.

It just isn;t as developed or one-sided as the Telegraph is trying to make it sound — successfully, I see!

Tim Chesterton said...

As an outsider listening in on this process, I find this a fascinating conversation. Lambeth 1998 was a mystery to me - despite all the plenary sessions and votes et al, I had very little idea of what was actually going on. By contrast, Lambeth 2008 is thoroughly open, precisely because of all the blogging bishops. Alan, I love your right-hand column with the links to all the blogs; every day I can come here and check in and see what everyone is saying. I feel I have real sense of what the event is like from the inside, because of all this. And when I'm praying for you all, I'm not just praying for the few that I've met, but for all the ones whose blogs I've been reading as well.

So I find it rather amazing when Ruth and other journalists complain that the process is closed and they can't find out what's going on! Of course, I'm jut a simple parish priest, so perhaps there's some subtlety about doing interviews and getting documents and so on that I don't understand, but I feel I have a very good grasp of what's going on. Can it really be that hard to surf a few blogs and get the flavour?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Tim. I think all episcopal bloggers here are anxious to maintain a sense of accountability and openness about this process, and I'm delighted it's proving helpful.

Anonymous said...

Ruth Gledhill writes:
Thank you Bishop Alan for that comment. I would just like to add that the complaints we made were early on in the conference. We haven't complained much since Weds pm or Thurs, or at least I haven't. I did a CEN piece that came out on Fri but was written first thing Weds. Things are actually good here now, there is a great atmosphere and there is no comparison between this and the last conference. Peter Crumpler and his team could not have been more helpful and we are getting more documents thrown at us now almost than we can handle. We even got a draft of the final Reflections document this afternoon, which astonished me. So things are starting to go really well, at least for us. Not so sure about the bishops ... but it will take a miracle to solve all this, so that is no surprise.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks Ruth — especially for the point about the timings which I could have worked out, but hadn't appreciated! I'm glad things are coming together for you. I think for us it is a bit like a sit down meal, where some of the quality of the experience depends on whom you get in your group, but I was with half a dozen English bishops earlier this evening who were having a ball in Bible Study groups especially. I think the clunkiness for some was a cultural strangeness about the way African bible notes work — there's a directness and interweaving of story, plus a structured style that can offend the sensibilities of some Western theologically trained people. The guys I met after dinner were, like me, really finding it refreshing. There's a very strong sense of closeness developing in general — but I reaise there must be some hot spots and cold spots to it.

Thanks for all you're doing — all best.

Matt Wardman said...

Good job it isn't Aaronovitch, Bishop Alan:

"The Bishop of Cairo is living in Kent. What can he possibly know about the problems that they have in Egypt?"


At least the Religion Correspondents are trying to find out what is going on, rather than pour vitriol on you all.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Matt. I'm glad things are looking up all round for the correspondents. This is a genuinely hi-risk way of approaching our problems. We don't get many papers round here, but the few that have surfaced elicit wry smiles and ”We thought ours were rubbish” from some overseas visitors.

Lizzie said...

With regard to the University buildings being designed by a prison architect, it's one of a number of facts about the University that are rather interesting. If you can get in to the Library and have some time to spare, have a skim read of "From Vision to Reality" (in classmark LD405). Some of the pictures from it (including the ones from when part of the Uni collapsed into a railway tunnel) can be found here.

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