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Anglicans Online last updated 1 August 1999
My Lambeth hell
by Ruth Gledhill
from The Tablet,15 August 1998
While Anglican bishops meeting at the Lambeth Conference locked swords over homosexuality and took up arms against international debt, journalists were struggling with the professional obstacles thrown in their path. The religion correspondent of The Times came close to despair.
I had always wondered whether there was a special hell for journalists, and now I know there is. It is the Lambeth Conference, the three-week meeting of leaders of the Anglican Church that takes place every 10 years. I remain undecided as to whether the torments that we suffered there were deliberately inflicted by bishops and their staff who had decided this was their chance for revenge after years of being on the receiving end of our sinful endeavours, or whether it was simply Calvinism come to life.
The psychological torture was the worst. If my father was not an Anglican clergyman, and I not bound by the biblical injunction to honour both him and my mother, I would half way through the conference have left the Anglican Church for good. Most of us there to cover the conference arrived with a positive, friendly attitude to the Anglican Church. We were as determined as they were that we should not be sidelined away from important subjects such as international debt and Muslim-Christian relations. But in the end, homosexuality was all that most of the bishops seemed to want to talk about. I was baffled at times by the defensive attitude towards journalists. An organisation on the defensive is an organisation in retreat. We were there to report, not to distort, or most of us were at least.
My time in hell began with the press passes we were all issued with. Journalists at Lambeth were issued with fluorescent pink badges, hence our nickname the "pink pariahs". On my initial meandering around the campus, bishops' wives would put their noses in the air as they walked past, or make some insulting comment about a recent article. Bishops, with the exception of some in the Church of England who knew me from the General Synod and understood I was not all bad, would turn and walk away. Official "communicators", on the other hand, on catching sight of the pink badge, would home in, and officiously walk alongside, to ensure I did not commit the crime of attempting to talk to a bishop.
Our worst suspicions about our pink badges were realised when, a few days into the conference, we learned via e-mail that Dr Bill Beaver, head of communications for the Church of England, who was, with the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Robin Eames, in charge of the Lambeth communications operation, had indeed decreed in reference to the badges that "pink means danger". Many bishops, especially those from countries where a slogan such as "pink means danger" is equivalent to issuing a life-threatening warning, were from the start just too scared to talk to us. In the end, most of us found alternative means of reaching them, going through unofficial, underground channels to find and get to know some of the most interesting bishops, from Africa and Asia. In the end, these bishops came to trust us. But it was all so unnecessary, and so avoidable.
Then there was the element of exclusion. We were advised that if we wished to speak to any bishop, we had to put in an interview request form. This seemed fair enough, until it emerged that not only did it take up to two days to process a request, hopeless for a daily national newspaper, but that most of the responses that came back were "no".
A serious flashpoint for me was the first plenary debate. The conference sections, where the interesting work was done, had all been behind closed doors. Much was therefore expected of this debate, and full of excitement at finally having the chance to write a story that was not about homosexuality, but included important issues such as Muslim-Christian relations, I ran along to the sports hall to listen. The sports hall press gallery, with about 25 seats, was too small for the dozens of accredited journalists, so I knew I would have to sit on the floor, unable to see because of a mosque-like curtain obscuring the view. Then came the announcement that this debate was to be conducted, not in English, but in French. So I asked for a set of the headphones that were being supplied to bishops whereby simultaneous translations were transmitted. The security staff at the sports centre refused to fetch one, and refused to let me in to fetch one for myself. I was still in control of my temper, when the mobile phone went off. It was the picture desk at The Times, requesting help. I tried to answer their questions when one of the security staff, an elderly clergyman, began physically to push me off the premises, telling me I was speaking too loudly and disrupting the debate.
I came close to utter despair. This time the rescuer was Lord Deedes, of the Daily Telegraph, whose expression of visible concern helped pull me back from the brink and saved me from total conflagration.
Then, to add insult to injury, there was the bishops' day out in London, to which journalists were pointedly not invited. It seemed odd that the press should have been so determinedly excluded from this latter event, when international debt was covered, a subject the conference organisers were said to be desperate for us to report.
And then there was the fact that during this boat trip, the Bishop of Edinburgh, armed with half a dozen biodegradable mitres, was to cock a snook at the establishment and cast them into the Thames. Not only was it made impossible for us to record or photograph this eminently newsworthy event, but none of the communicators could confirm, even after the event had happened and right up until midnight, four hours later, that it had indeed taken place.
Given the level of disinformation, it was hard not to sink into paranoia. But the communications team, Dr Eames assisted by Dr Bill Beaver, head of communications for the Church of England were doing their best. They supplied as many bishops as possible for us to talk to, and the daily briefings were certainly detailed. What was objectionable was the sense of control. The lack of trust was almost tangible.
I had begun the conference with a vast reservoir of goodwill towards the Anglican Church, and it was fast drying up. I began to be ashamed to call myself Anglican. I had a tiny sense of what a leper must feel like, or a disabled person, or a tax collector up a tree. At the point of being pushed by the priest, I felt as if I was looking over an abyss. Outside, the Bishop of Sodor and Man, the Right Revd Noel Debroy Jones, was waiting, as if by divine appointment. He invited me to Mass on the Feast of the Transfiguration. There, in this oasis of faith, hope and charity was the healing I needed to continue at the conference. Lambeth has changed the Anglican Church, irrevocably. It has also changed me. Whether for better or for worse, as with the Church, it is far too early to say.
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