The Power of Establishment

On Monday, I did something I rarely do: I read The Daily Mail, one of England’s leading newspapers (by sales). It’s a tabloid that makes it money by plastering screaming (and arguably distorting) headlines across its pages.

I read the paper because a) it was in a waiting-room I was in and b) the front-page headline was about Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, and a letter he (and about 40 other bishops) signed opposing the government’s proposed changes to welfare. The article (and the accompanying op-ed column) was not positive about the archbishop’s move. Welby himself thoughtfully responded on his blog.

Leaving aside the merits of the dispute (which, as a non-voter in this country, I don’t entirely understand but on the surface it seems Welby et al. have a point), let’s talk about the media coverage. England is supposed to be an ever-increasingly secularized country, with fewer and fewer people attending church and fewer and fewer people believing in God. So why all the attention for a letter the archbishop signed?

For me, it’s a reminder of the power of Establishment: no matter what people might think about religion in England, the Church of England still has a privileged role. When its leaders speak, they get attention. Not always, and not as much as they would like, I am sure, but attention nonetheless. As I read about this debate, I am reminded of bishops in some African countries I’ve visited, whose public utterances are closely watched. When I was in Nigeria, bishops (of a number of different denominations) regularly featured in news reports. Ditto for South Sudan.

At the same time as this flare-up over the bishops’ poverty letter in England, the American House of Bishops released a letter about gun violence. Also this week, some faith leaders—including Episcopalians—have spoken out against the proposed Republican budget. I will be stunned if any of these statements makes the cover of any major newspaper in the United States, or is even mentioned. That’s not how the media market works in the United States. Katharine Jefferts Schori and American Episcopal bishops are not media figures in the way English bishops are. (A few have succeeded in getting into the news cycle with statements about same-sex marriage, but these are exceptions that prove the rule.)

All of which is to say what I’ve said many times on this blog in one way or another: context matters. Anglicans around the world minister in a huge variety of contexts that shapes their actions and statements. We do well to remember that.

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