Late last week, while I was busy with other things, the press and the Christian blogosphere here in the UK went wild over what Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in the New Statesman magazine, in an issue for which he was the guest editor.
But was this affair really the media disaster for the Archbishop which some have made it out to be?
Even before his article was published a storm broke out in the press. The Daily Telegraph started it by portraying Rowan’s words as “a sustained attack on the Coalition [government]”. But the Church Mouse, in a very sensible post about the matter, summarises what the Archbishop actually wrote:
In the entire article, Rowan does not actually criticise a single government policy. What he does say is that people are afraid of them, and the government needs to explain what is going on better.
One point I haven’t seen made in the stuff I’ve read – although I’m sure someone has made it – is to ask what’s happened to Rowan’s media person? Surely this is something where they should have got their leak and spin in first? … That kind of news release followed up by phone calls should have trailed the New Statesman well in advance and tried to set the agenda. Did they try and fail, or were they asleep at the keyboard?
In a comment on that post, I mused on whether “Rowan’s media person” even existed. After all, as I reported at the time, in May 2008 the Archbishop decided not to replace his press officer who had resigned. But it seems that rather quickly Rowan saw the error of his ways and, not later than September that year, appointed a certain David Brownlie-Marshall as his press officer.
It wasn’t hard to find out more about Mr Brownlie-Marshall, as his LinkedIn profile and his personal website, not to mention his page looking for work as a model, were easily found with Google. This is how he describes himself at LinkedIn:
I am an ambitious, energetic and entrepreneurial individual, who has worked in PR, Marketing and Social Media roles in London, New York and Edinburgh. My current role at Lambeth Palace involves managing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Social Media strategy.
Somehow, after reflecting overnight on this matter, I don’t think this young man presided over a PR disaster. He is clearly highly creative, even if not an expert in traditional ways of handling the mainstream press. He may well agree with Brendan Behan that
There is no such thing as bad publicity.
So my guess would be that Brownlie-Marshall deliberately provided “their leak and spin” to the Daily Telegraph to provoke the reaction seen in their article, fully intending to start the kind of controversy which we have seen. Perhaps he wants the church to be portrayed as somewhat left-leaning and opposed to government policies. After all, he knows that that will win it a lot of friends. Of course it will also make enemies, but mainly among people who I suspect Brownlie-Marshall, and perhaps also Rowan, secretly despise. I’m sure they would both be very happy to put a final nail in the coffin of the old myth that the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer.
This matter has got the country talking about issues of social justice and how the Christian faith relates to them. And it has enhanced the Archbishop’s reputation, at least among that majority of the country suspicious of government policies in this area, for taking a strong stand on these issues. It has had, I would think, a very positive effect on the Church of England as a whole. Rowan Williams and David Brownlie-Marshall are to be congratulated for how they handled it.