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This page last updated 18 August 1998
Old black magic
by Andrew Brown
From the Church Times, 18 August 1998

This column spends enough time banging on about other people's mistakes, so here's one of my own. In April this year I rang Jack Spong to find out what he thought would be happening at the Lambeth Conference. We had what is known as a wide-ranging discussion: my note of the conversation says: "he was vastly amused by my trouble with the press department."

It also says he told me that HarperCollins, his publisher, had used an elided quote of mine on the jacket of his latest book. What I had written was that, as a theologically untrained person, I couldn't really see the difference between his position and atheism, no matter how well he performed his other functions as a bishop. HarperCollins, putting together the publicity package for his most recent book, had shortened this to something like, "An atheist, though an excellent bishop"; and, telling me this back in April, Jack told it as a joke.

Well, I thought, if he thinks it funny to be described by his own publishers as an atheist, this is a usable fact, and filed it away. Two months later, in a preliminary piece on the conference for The Sunday Telegraph, I wrote: "He is a man of enormous personal charm who holds no discernibly Christian views at all. His last book has a quote on the back, which he chose, describing him as 'an atheist who does the job of bishop very well'".

This is the kind of description that removed the joke from it all. And, Spong now says, he could not control what Harpers put out in their publicity material. Of course, the timing of the Sunday Telegraph piece -- the Sunday before the Conference started -- meant that everyone picked up on the quote. By a simple process of dramatisation, he became the self-confessed atheist bishop, which really was unfair, since in the book with the offending blurb he had actually devoted a page or so to proving that I was wrong to suppose his position indistinguishable from atheism.

I still haven't read the book: Harpers have not sent me a copy. So I don't know if I will find his arguments convincing,. But without reading the passages in question, I had managed to suggest that he accepted the descriptions when he was actually struggling against it -- and to make this suggestion irresistible to other journalists. I'm sorry.

With friends like that, you might ask, who needs enemies. But enemies can in fact damage you more.

This column doesn't usually deal with the church press, on the grounds that dog doesn't eat puppy. But The Church of England Newspaper's headline on Andrew Carey's interview with Jack Spong was a piece of truly professional smearing. By putting the word "witchcraft", which Spong never used, into a headline describing his attitude to African bishops, it ensured that every reference to the North America/African spilt from then on would involve the claim that an American bishop had accused the Africans of witchcraft.

PA did something like that years ago when it said that David Jenkins had dismissed the resurrection as a "conjuring trick with bones"; but that, I believe, was unintentional. The CEN's headline worked perfectly as a piece of black propaganda. It was brilliantly successful. The first generation of quotes, even in those papers most sympathetic to the right-wing agenda at Lambeth like The Times, did scrupulously mention that Spong had nowhere used the word "witchcraft", but the second and subsequent versions, even in papers sympathetic to the Left, used the quote as if he had really said it.

This was enormously damaging because it combined a prejudice which Spong really does hold -- that it is impossible for anyone who has assimilated the discoveries of Western science to believe in the God of the Old Testament -- with one that he has a distinguished record of combating -- that blacks are inferior or primitive. This trick of being nearly true is one of the real skills of political smearing.

Politics is a rough old game, of course. No doubt the Evangelicals are sick of being described as homophobic bigots (especially those who are), and felt like getting their own back. On the other hand, looking back at the Conference, the most memorable scene by far was Bishop Chukwama's attempt to exorcise or deliver Richard Kirker of homosexuality. If either of those two believe in witchcraft, it was not the Western liberal.

It was notable that The Times, the broadsheet most ideologically committed to the defeat of liberalism on this issue, hardly mentioned the incident in its coverage of the debate.


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