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Archbishop Eames attacks media - by Ruth Gledhill

Archbishop Eames attacks media

by Ruth Gledhill

The Archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames, has a reputation as a conciliator. So I have never been able to understand quite why it is that too long a time spent in the same room as him, listening to or reading one of his speeches, has the power to invoke in me senses of incoherent frustration and powerlessnss, feelings that had I not spent seven years on the couch in Kleinian psychoanalysis I would describe simply as rage.

Reading an address by the Archbishop of Canterbury requires nothing more than a couple of hours of free head space, along with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and Augustine's City of God. Whatever the slight irritation at being unable to find a news story in every one, that is more than made up for by the educative and spiritual impact. There is no reason that Rowan Williams should have noticed or even care, but I truly believe that nearly four years of reading his addresses have made me a better person.

Of course the point of any Archbishop's speeches, addresses, books and reports is not to effect change in one individual religion correspondent. But one of the debates any journalist must have with themselves if they are to maintain their professional reputations intact is to what extent, if any, the objective content of what they are reporting is mediated by the subjective impact it has upon them. In myself, I attempt to isolate the subjective response and distance it from the elements of a speech that make it newsworthy. It is only in columns such as these that I am offered the luxury of exploring, and perhaps explaining a little, that subjectivism. Which brings me belatedly to the point I am trying to make.

Dr Eames recently delivered a series of lectures in the US of which the third, the Pitt lecture, was given at Yale. The first two were interesting to read but rather typical of the man, in that he nearly but not quite abandoned his customary reconciliatory tone, a tone advisable in the circumstances in which he usually speaks but which makes reporting him so difficult because news thrives on conflict and that is the one thing that he always, admirably, seeks to avoid. The third speech, however, was fascinating, informative, useful. It contained new ideas. It was also courageous. It had everything I needed for a news story. Even so, the story I wrote did not make it to the final edition of the paper but it was a page lead in the early editions. However, the speech contained one serious error, and that was what left me feeling so angry. Referring to the whole sexuality debate, he said: 'In media terms - and how the media has enjoyed itself - North America was portrayed as a focal point of liberalism and the Global South as the defenders of conservatism.'

It was the suggestion that we had actually enjoyed writing about the slow suicide of the Anglican Church that left me so flummoxed. I could not begin to enjoy writing about the self-immolation of an institution I care so deeply about, and was baffled that anyone could have received the opposite impression.

A few days later, at a reception at Lambeth Palace to launch Jim Rosenthal's new book on St Nicholas and Jane Williams' book of Christmas meditations, both books that would make wonderful presents for godchildren, I checked it out with Gregory Cameron, the Welsh canon lawyer who was along with John Rees the architect of Windsor. He confirmed that we did indeed give every impression of enjoying ourselves.

This column represents one attempt to correct it. But trying to understand how it came about, at least on my account, I am forced to revisit Lambeth 1998. Besides being a hellish experience for most of the journalists, this was the conference where many of the seeds of the present difficulties first found root. The whole Lambeth experience was terribly distressing and after that, no matter what was going on behind the scenes, I determined to try always to present a cheery response to Anglican nightmares. Learning to ballroom dance helped to plaster the smile across my face.

But that doesn't mean I'm enjoying it. Just take the recent Primates' meeting at Dromantine. Without counting the minimal access we were given, the professional obstacles placed deliberately in our paths, this was a logistical nightmare for me. I had to go because the Guardian and Telegraph went, but practically, this meeting could only be covered by taking my mother and toddler along as well. It left my hugely expensive Mountain Buggy pushchair irreparably wrecked in the potholes of Northern Ireland. For other personal reasons as well, this meeting represented a spiritual, mental and physical obstacle course. In retrospect, I am amazed to have survived without needing to go back into therapy.

So that is just a tiny taster of why covering this story is not at any stage pleasurable. It does not even begin to take account of how distressing I find it to have towrite about the wreckage of the Anglican Church. So Robin Eames, I know you have an awful lot on your plate at the moment but I do beg you please to understand, we do not enjoy covering this story at all. This weekend is Hallowe'en. But for me the biggest horror story of all is not the innocent trick-or-treater on my doorstep, but the shocking discord of my beloved church at war.

An edited version of this column appears in this week's Church of England Newspaper Ruth Gledhill is Religion correspondent for The London Times.


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