Tune in, or Turn Off

Jonathan Bish asks what the language used by the institutional Church of England tells us about its capacity to connect with the people of our country. Is the demotic idiom of Radio 2 and the soundbites of diocesan coms departments really the solution to all our problems? Or does the historical language of Christian culture rooted in tradition, learning, text, and nuance still have a role to play?

In the early days of the new Diocese of Leeds, the new bishop, Nick Baines, was fond of saying that the Church needed to not always speak in the language of Radio 3 and Radio 4, but learn the language of Radio 2.

Now, this is not another blog post where one of the diocesan clergy has a go at their bishop. Bishop Nick took on a difficult role in Leeds, and he is probably one of the few bishops in the Church of England who will give you a quote from Wolfhart Pannenberg and a reading list in his letters to the clergy. His point is a good one. As he says, “[W]e need to learn/speak a multiplicity of languages: R4, R2, R3, hip hop, 5Live, indie, etc. The error is thinking that one language is adequate for all interlocutors.”

The language we use to communicate with others matters, if it is to be understood by them, and if we are to accurately show what we mean. But this requires real attentiveness to the people we are speaking to: we should not assume they will respond to a particular vernacular, but rather adjust how we speak to them.

Yet the Church of England of today frequently does the opposite: it presumes it already knows how to speak to its public. It chooses ‘Radio 2’ rather than ‘Radio 3’. By that I mean that it presumes to speak the language of an imagined ‘everyman’, who is not particularly interested in the details of religious traditions, arguments about the existence of God, or the Christian cultural heritage, but who can be satisfied with just the right sort of appeal to the emotions, provided it is not too threatening. ‘Radio 3 or 4’ language on the other hand, prioritises detail, history, the didactic communication of information, the ‘classical tradition’, and so on.

Both approaches have their shortcomings when translated into religious terms: a religion that is just facts and high culture runs the risk of being a comfortable hobby, rather than a living faith. But speaking as someone whose ‘native language’ is far more ‘Radio 3’ than ‘Radio 2’, there are many people who will be left behind when we prioritise ‘Radio 2’. They are not hard to find. In my curacy parish, one parishioner from a very ordinary northern council estate had long since abandoned his parish church for its lacklustre preaching. But he went into raptures about a trip to Winchester Cathedral and the opportunity to hear Merbecke sung again. Examples could be multiplied: the working-class woman who loves the language of the BCP and struggles to keep up church attendance when it’s all PowerPoints, just like at work. The young man with no religion who wanders into a cathedral, is entranced by the architecture, and walks out with God. And indeed, there are those who listen to Radio 2, but want something less ‘every day’ when it comes to speaking about their faith.

All these examples are based on real people. All of them are being left behind by the ‘Radio 2’ language the Church uses as its main or only way of talking to people. We’ve swung so far, so fast in that direction that it feels like the Church speaks a completely different language to those left behind. The Church glorifies ‘lived experience’ and snappy communications at the expense of detailed knowledge of Scripture, the Church Fathers (and Mothers) or Anglican history. We assume people don’t want to hear it, even though growth in attendance at cathedral evensong and university chapels might suggest it makes a difference. And those who are interested in deep engagement with our texts or our history are seen as problematic. They’re dismissed as cranks or stuck in ivory towers.

A few weeks ago, I was at a ‘virtual’ clergy study day and the speaker seemed to think the clergy needed to be patronised at every stage of his talk. Familiar quotes had to be explained, as though the clergy would not be interested or know anything about their tradition. This was delivered by someone who probably saw themselves as recovering our historic roots – Hooker, the Ordinal and St Irenaeus were all mentioned. But it was delivered in such a way that it felt like a lot of the theological reflection in church contexts: all half-digested Rowan Williams quotes out of context and half-remembered missiology.

I became a practising Christian as an adolescent who was academically able but also a ‘problem child’. I was blessed to come to faith in an American Presbyterian church where Luther, Barth and Calvin were all on the preacher’s menu, alongside Stuart Townend and Graham Kendrick from the worship band. Would I have stayed if I’d turned up to an ordinary C of E parish? Probably not. I would have dismissed the Church as lacking credibility, intellectually flabby, and a club for do-gooders. If what I was told was to ‘find what God is doing in the world and get involved’, then I would have gone into the world. And not bothered with church. What’s the point of a Church which sees itself as an optional extra in the quest for the good life?

Now you might dismiss this all as out of touch: after all some of the examples I have given who value ‘Radio 3 or 4’ language are those already going to church, who will put up with the changes. Or maybe if we left, the Church would be a more harmonious place. Perhaps we should be concentrating on ‘Radio 2’ language if we’re serious about the conversion of England.

But this is a mistake. If education is any clue, the public’s responsiveness to a more ‘detail oriented’ language is growing: my generation were the best educated in history until Gen Z came along. Moreover, trends in the wider culture point to the appeal of the challenging, the obscure and the historical, whether that’s in the growth of ‘geek culture’ or righting historical wrongs. We’re living in a culture that is valuing learning more – the Church is running away from it.

So this is a plea to those in church leadership: stop running from who we are. Stop running from the difficult questions. Stop using soundbites. Read the Fathers, read the Scriptures, talk about them, and teach them. To everyone, regardless of background. There’s a place for ‘Radio 2’. But for everyone you bring in by using ‘Radio 2’ language all the time, you lose someone who might listen to ‘Radio 3’. We need both ways of speaking, and we need them now.

The Rev’d Jonathan Bish
Associate Priest, North Wakefield Benefice

This blog post appeared in an earlier form on twitter.com. It has been revised and updated to bring it to a wider audience, and to take account of some of the critiques of the original argument.

2 thoughts on “Tune in, or Turn Off

  1. In the early 1950s the BBC was under assault because it was felt that it was often talking down to ‘the people’; curiously, its chief adversaries were often elite representatives of corporate interests who wanted a TV channel or channels to advertise their respective products and increase their profits. Indeed, this was the chief reason why the Churchill cabinet agreed very reluctantly to the establishment of ATV: to advertise British wares so as to help protect the current account and, therefore, sterling’s parity against the dollar under the Bretton Woods system (a fundamental preoccupation of government at the time). Ironically, advertising on ATV was dominated by US products from the outset. ATV – indeed, commercial broadcasting as a whole – was therefore missold within the government. Tory defenders of the BBC (notably Lord Halifax) argued that commercial TV would create a sort of Gresham’s Law in which the bad money would drive out the good. Lord Clark (the founding chairman of ATV) and Norman Collins attempted to ensure this did not happen, but in time it came to pass.

    Left wing defenders of the BBC (such as Richard Hoggart or A. H. Halsey) argued differently. They felt that by reducing quality the working class would miss out on the chance of improvement. Therefore, a failure to elevate the population would only entrench class distinctions and prejudices. It was therefore essential to bring high culture to the masses, and to raise all boats. This remained public policy roughly until the intrusion of satellite broadcasting after 1989, although the advent of commercial radio (following the Sound Broadcasting Act 1972) and Channel 4 in 1982 had chipped away at that ethos.

    Query whether, by using ‘demotic’ language, elites within the Church are talking down to people, infantilising them, so as to keep them in their place. Is this not, therefore, more patronising? Might it also be the case that the clergy are afraid of their laity? Afraid that if more layfolk were educated by clergy in sermons about the tenets of the faith, and the development of doctrine, they might decide to abandon the faith and/or challenge the clergy? I mention this because it is my experience of thousands of sermons that it is possible to send a lifetime attending church and be really quite badly informed about the Christian religion (a dubious tribute to the efficacy of the clergy).

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