Magazine article The Spectator

An Almighty Spin

Magazine article The Spectator

An Almighty Spin

Article excerpt

TRAYS of Belgian chocolates on doilies appeared at the last big Church of England press conference. The religious affairs correspondents, accustomed to dry biscuits, were clearly being sweetened up before writing stories on the new Bishop of Liverpool, whose appointment had been clouded by delay and rumour. In their peculiar way, the chocolates signalled the advent of the Church of England's entry into undisguised marketing and public relations.

The Church has before it a paper entitled Communications and Promotional Strategy for the Church of England 19982000. Unsure of its place in the millennium, it seeks to transform its public image by 2000 by resorting to spin doctoring, marketing and straightforward PR. To this end, the Church has recruited an ordained version of Peter Mandelson to do its spinning. The Reverend Dr Bill Beaver, a 52year-old American who has worked in commercial advertising and marketing for 20 years, was headhunted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Wakefield to do the 'job'.

He has drafted a 12-page strategy document, not yet made public but given full approval by the bishops. In his preface, `Operating in a welcome environment', he undertakes to build a `confident Church' by the millennium. The strategy includes: plans for the Church's first market research, with focus groups across the country; branding every parish church with a C of E 'badge'; training bishops and their spouses in media relations; and providing crisis management and emergency response teams for bad news stories.

No one has directly assaulted Dr B.'s great plan yet, although the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, has made it clear that he is unhappy with the fashion for marketing the Church. In an Easter Sunday interview, Bishop Chartres said he regarded marketing strategies which `deal in a commodity called God' as a `terrible blasphemy'.

God's newly appointed spin doctor has his own office in Church House, Westminster and the bewildering title of `Director of Communications'. He is probably the only modern-day clergyman who wears a bespoke black suit with a white dog-collar and highly polished shoes. Although exuding confidence, as all spin doctors should, Dr B. has never previously scaled such a steep cliff. Trained at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, he did good things as marketing director of the charity Barnardo's and the Industrial Society. As global group director for corporate affairs for National Westminster Bank he had a less happy time. `My reputation is about getting things done, and not going overboard,' he declared. `The Church is determined to be a whipping boy no longer. There is a good story to be told and it is not being told. We need to manage our debates more effectively.'

It is this last sentence which underlines the predicament of a Church in which bishops constantly speak their minds, often in conflict with each other. One has to admire Dr B.'s courage for entering such unruly company. He served in the Vietnam war in military intelligence, and remains a colonel in the reserves of the US army. He casts a soldier's eye over a Church which finds itself in turmoil over such issues as homosexual rights and women's ministry. Alas, applying principles of military strategy to church folk is a doubtful gambit. Clergy rarely conform and Dr B.'s plan to have the bishops `hunting like cats in packs, together' staggers the imagination. Dr B. would love to see clergy displaying the qualities of soldierly obedience, but he is dealing with Anglicans, who live to differ and have an unending enthusiasm for slugging it out in public. …

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