Only communicate: how the church addresses the world (or not)

By Simon Barrow
May 21, 2013

Given that the Church of Scotland, like all major Christian denominations, conducts a good chunk of its internal business in public these days (with the boundary between what is 'internal' and what is 'external' increasingly stretched), media and communications can no longer be thought of - if it ever could - as a specialist function alone.

To put it bluntly, everything that is said and done at the Kirk's General Assembly this week (18-24 May 2013) will be an series of acts of communication in relation to the wider world as well as different parts of the Kirk: ones that either connect, or do not; create interest, or do not.

The fact that the language and procedure of the Assembly is long in tradition and often archaic in language is a matter of pride for some participants. It anchors them in history, and history is a good thing. Rightly received, history makes us less forgetful. It reminds us that our neurotic 'now' is only part of the story's flow, and that it will pass. It urges us to consider that the wisdom of this age would benefit from listening to, and learning from, the different wisdoms of our ancestors, and so on. This is all key in a self-absorbed but forgetful world.

But the arcanery and archaism is also a big problem, given the speedy, impatient, instant and intensely mediated world we live in -- one where, in Scotland as in other parts of these islands, many people are losing touch with the language and assumptions of the Christian story, let alone the particularities of the Kirk or of other churches. (This is what we at Ekklesia speak of as post-Christendom: not the end of the Christian story, but its entering places of unknowing, lack of control and disconnection.)

All this presents a big challenge, both to the institutions of the church and to those whose particular gift and requirement is to enable the Kirk to communicate within and beyond itself.

On the matter of custom, language and procedure, I am an unashamed reformer with traditional intent. Archbishop William Temple was right to observe that, because of the intention of the Gospel to connect people with the life of God and each other, rather than to gather them into a separate institution, the church is (or ought to be) an organisation that distinctively exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members. It should be, in other words ec-centric... not inherently self-centred, but oriented to those margins and beyond where the God of Jesus is at work outwith 'religion'.

If that is so, then we Christians are permanently in the translation and re-expression business. That doesn't have to be a zero sum game, of course. There is a place for the archaic, because it is the difficulty as well as ease of language that enables us to benefit from it (challenging ready assumptions and presumptions, or the too-ready avoidance of intractibles).

Nevertheless, when we are in public, it is incumbent on us to try first of all to be comprehensible to the guest, stranger and onlooker. That might not be easy, and it might involve suspending or witholding certain long-held customs and words. But its benefits will far outweigh its losses if the aim is extension and not just preservation.

So perhaps one of the tasks that can be taken up by the Kirk's theological commission, in dialogue with its communicators (both reserved and assigned), might be to rethink the Assembly's language and presentation - because, believe me, it is hard to underestimate how strange and off-putting a church gathering like this can seem for those who are not initiates. Can this be done without sacrificing essential meaning, and while recognising that language has specificity as well as flexibility? I believe it can.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote of the need to render biblical language in non-biblical form. His was not a casual or naive suggestion. He understood the risk of loss, and he was not in any way denying the centrality and particularity of the biblical message. Rather, he was recognising the coming into being of a world that simply did not think in biblical categories, or retain the capacity to understand them at more than a surface level.

In such a situation, dynamic equivalence, dramatic example, personalisation and re-rendering are essential if the message is not to be lost. To 'stay with the programme' in a changing environment we need to move it forward. This involves immense risk. But surely no greater risk than that involved in creation (calling into being a world not tied to divine apron-strings) and redemption (calling into wholeness that which is fractured)? Moreover, if we believe in God, it is not a task that finally depends upon us... and if we don't, let's be honest and pack it in.

All of which brings me, by circular route, to the Church of Scotland's communications team. Those of us from what is still oddly called 'the press' are both reliant on them and (I hope) aware of just what a challenging job they have. Messengers are in the firing line in a variety of ways, and it isn't difficult for frustrated people, including journalists, to pull the trigger against them.

I've been on both sides of the journalism and 'church PR' game, as well as in between, around the side and (no doubt) over the top... so I know what it's like from a variety of angles. This is also my third Kirk Assembly. Having been formed in the Church of England and helpfully reformed/deformed by a curious concoction of Anabaptist theology and Catholic spirituality, as well as deep engagement with secular scepticism, there are a whole series of ways in which I know myself to be coming at GA13 'from the outside'. But that can be a useful experience and perspective from which to comment, as well as a difficult one.

From that peculiar point of view, it is gratifying to see the new Kirk Head of Communications, Seonag MacKinnon, and her team of staff and secondees, in action ( They are briefing, connecting and assisting admirably, with relatively slender resources and across an unwieldy event of variable news interest from the punter's perspective.

What particularly strikes me is the lack of fear. The media is not seen here as the enemy, a pack of potential wolves to be pushed, pulled and spun in the seemingly vain hope that they will either behave or lose interest. That, I'm afraid, as how it can sometimes feel in church gatherings, to nobody's lasting benfit. Not at GA13, thankfully. At least, not so far.

There is a background to all this, of course. In the 1970s and '80s church media and communications work (I speak generally, I had no contact with the Kirk then) was often painfully amateurish or non-existent. Then in the '90s churches started to catch up with worlds of media management and spin... but the results were little better. Indeed, they were sometimes worse. Mini-me Mandelsons and Campbells began to surface, seeking to cajole with infinitely less persuasiveness and power than the operations they were (questionably) modelling themselves on. This only made some churches look more irrelevant or silly (or both).

One senses a new mood around at the moment, at least in some ecclesiastical bodies. Probably the majority are spending too little on communications, thinking too little about it, and spreading the tasks too narrowly. I would say that. I'm a journalist and I direct a think-tank. But it's true. Only connect. That's the medium and the message, and as with the gospel (good news) itself, it costs a lot, but the gains are immense.


The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is meeting in Edinburgh from 18-24 May 2013. Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow and consultant Carla J Roth are there all week, reporting, liaising and commenting.

* Ekklesia reports and commentary from the 2013 Kirk General Assembly, plus those from 2012 and 2011:

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