We should tell our own story, Good News and Bad

August 4, 2009

When General Convention decided to let plans go forward to switch the Episcopal Church's monthly newspaper to a quarterly feature-oriented magazine without further study, the decision was about more than the loss of a newspaper. In fact, it never was strictly a debate between parchment and pixels, per se.

Undergirding the discussion about dramatically shifting the communication strategy of the Episcopal Church is the question of editorial integrity -- which I quickly grant is neither guaranteed nor necessarily imperiled in any specific vehicle of communication.

With action taken at General Convention, however, the Episcopal Church is embracing a clear priority for branding, marketing, messaging and public relations over news dissemination, and this raises significant questions about the credibility of our story told in a world in which people are letting authenticity guide their religious choices.

How and where do we now tell our stories with revelatory honesty? How and where do we proclaim the Good News even when proclaiming the Good News sometimes involves telling the bad news?

There is much to acclaim in the Good News stories of the Episcopal Church that we must be poised to elaborate. But additionally, from the sad circumstances of ministerial misconduct to the breadth of debate on issues that could sow dissension within and around the Episcopal Church, we need to be in a position to tell our own story with unquestionable credibility. If we are not, others gladly will tell it for us.

The news of the Episcopal Church cannot be left to others to report and explain. And with deep reductions in secular news agencies' religious coverage, we are ceding too much ground to people who do not know our story and don't really care.

But that raises the question: What is the role of objective reporting within the Episcopal Church, or any organization that strives to reveal itself? How do we report on the institution to which we not only belong, but consider beloved?

The Episcopal Communicators, an independent organization of journalists and communication specialists across the church, has wrestled with the dilemma for a generation, and it established some professional goals in its original bylaws (1975): Communication is a trust relationship based on honesty; communication is always, at least, two-way; a sharp distinction is to be made between communication and promotion; and the communicator's ultimate responsibility is to the people served.

In fact, it is the very ethos of Anglicanism to eschew a dogmatic approach to almost anything, to trust scholarship and to allow and encourage the freedom to continue asking questions.

In my own diocese, where I am the chief writer/editor of the diocesan newspaper, I like to say the role of the bishop vis-à-vis the diocesan newspaper is to read it, not write it -- for the sake of the community and the leaders' always-evolving understanding of it.

The commitment to tell the unvarnished truth about our own church invites living and serving faithfully in some degree of tension, without a doubt, and it makes marketing and branding a fixed image more challenging. The commitment to truth-telling also requires refraining from admonishing our communication professionals, "Remember who pays your salary!"

A decade ago, Barbara Crafton spoke to the annual conference of Episcopal Communicators, saying, "We must write to those who reserve the right to make a judgment about the Episcopal Church."

This is a risky enterprise and adds considerable anxiety, especially during anxious times with a lot at stake for our church.
But as Crafton said in her presentation, sometimes we must risk injury to self and the institution we love, "and write to the important part within each Episcopalian that seeks the truth upon which rests the genuine integrity of the church."

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