Justin Welby has been well advised by his predecessor for the challenging role he is about to take on. But as with all such advice he will still need to exercise careful judgement. For example, what is the balance between the documents in each hand? Many of those shouting loudly in the Church of England today would claim to be drawing on those same publications, but one wonders sometimes whether the newspaper has been given precedence when it comes to shaping their judgement. For example, the world echoes Scripture when it demands equal rights and freedom of information, but distorts both when it exercises them beyond their proper limits such as in salacious and intrusive journalism. If we are God’s people, surely God’s word should determine our outlook more than whatever is considered politically correct. And in a fallen world, we should expect strong echoes of that fallen heritage in the press. As advised by the originator of the expression, Karl Barth, we need to be conscious of what is secular in source, and be biblically critical in our appraisal.
Having considered ‘which first?’ between Bible and newspaper, we could go on to ask, ‘which newspaper?’. The answer depends on the purpose of reading the newspaper. Is it just to be on an equal footing with the rest of the public, to have access to the same information and so to empathise? If the reader’s goal is to understand the people to whom he is ministering and the world in which they live, the answer could be ‘read all of them’. Someone with a background in business might want to adjust that with a ‘weighted basket’ in proportion to their readership, or even market-directed as ‘local to the congregation’. You can almost hear the Archbishop gasping as he disappears under a mountain of paper!
Another purpose of newspaper-reading is to be aware of what is going on in the world. But do newspapers just inform of events? Or do they go further to reveal an interpretation of those events? A third alternative is that they can actually change the interpretation and outcome of events. I expect all newspaper journalists would (openly or otherwise) agree that their aim in writing is to shape the ideas and outlook of the reader. Let’s not get embroiled in a discussion of the benefits or weaknesses of particular newspaper publishers. Suffice it to say, a part of the critical appraisal referred to above has to be an awareness of the existence of this underlying agenda, and an evaluation of what is read against the litmus test of God’s standards. That way, the reader will be able to correct imbalances or errors, as well as to empathise.
My final question is ‘What next?’ - in other words, is the Bible and a newspaper enough for the Archbishop of Canterbury? What else should he have tucked under his arm? If this were ‘Desert Island Discs’, what reading material would Justin Welby choose to accompany his Bible? Writing on behalf of a book publisher, you would expect me to argue for him to be given something more substantial than the newspaper. As an Anglican, I would want to make a strong case for the Book of Common Prayer. Justin Welby is to be enthroned on the date of Thomas Cranmer’s martyrdom, March 21st, and the BCP’s 350th anniversary year has stimulated a number of publications. Our own ‘Anglican Foundations’ Series is designed to help all Anglicans to understand what is unique about our heritage, what motivated the people who set it up the way they did, and what – in this time of upheaval and change – should be held on to. Change is not necessarily a bad thing, but our concern is to avoid losing the baby with the bath water. So, there is much to be learned from looking more closely at the Book of Common Prayer - whether it is the overall call to The ‘Very Pure Word of God’ (title of a study by Peter Adam), or unpacking the purpose of Morning and Evening Prayer to build up the Dearly Beloved (a study by Mark Burkill), or understanding the value of the calendar, collects and lectionary as they flow Day By Day (a study by Benjamin Sargent). At risk of over-burdening his hands as he juggles Bible and newspaper, I could at least recommend these booklets and Thomas Cranmer’s inspiring source document to the Archbishop-elect’s bedside table.
Margaret Hobbs is Business Manager of The Latimer Trust
This article was first published in the CEN in March 2013
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