Mau-mauing The Times of London

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated the Church of England was  moving away from using faith as a criteria for admission to its church-supported schools, The Times of London reported last week.

And the newspaper caught hell for it. The Church of England’s press office said this was untrue — a “creative piece of writing.”

Was this a he said/she said (or wrote) dispute? The “he” being Justin Welby the archbishop of Canterbury and the “she” Ruth Gledhill, The Times‘ star religion reporter. Or was this a case of what the archbishop said was not exactly what he meant? Were his words taken out of context? Did The Times deserve the drubbing it was given?

At this point — a week after the story entitled “Church in ‘move away’ from school selection” (behind a paywall I’m afraid) — a newspaper reader is not likely to be any the wiser as to what happened. The Church of England’s press office and the Lambeth Palace press office have thrown up such a wall of flak round the interview that the archbishop’s original statement is moot. The content of the denials are now the story — or the official line from the church.

On Nov. 14, 2013 The Times reported:

Church of England faith schools are moving away from selecting pupils on the basis of their religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed.

The Most Rev Justin Welby said that selection was not necessarily the key to good results and believes that throwing open the doors to all-comers can help the Church achieve its mission to alleviate poverty.

Church of England schools are not analogous to Catholic parochial schools in the U.S. They are not private schools funded by tuition and supported by a sponsoring denomination. In England they are state funded. The Church of England explains:

The English system of education has been built in partnership with the Christian churches. The Churches were the first providers of schools, funding building and staff costs through voluntary donations. The State gradually became convinced that it had a duty to provide education and gradually assumed a larger part of the task. But Government has always recognised that Church schools are important partners in providing education for all. That partnership enables the State to use  around  8,000 school buildings and sites owned by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church free of charge, but in return successive governments, irrespective of political party, have continued to provide financial support for church schools.

Some parents choose Church schools because they want to have their children educated in accordance with their Christian belief, others because it is the nearest school or because it is a school which takes spiritual as well as social, moral and cultural development seriously. Whatever the reason, Church of England schools are committed to offering high quality education to the whole community and are part of the Church’s commitment to serving the common good. Taxpayer’s money is therefore being used to provide high quality education for tax payer’s children.

Many Church of England schools, which educate a quarter of England’s primary school children, are over subscribed. Removing faith, or lessening its importance,  from among the selection criteria for prospective students, would be a game changer in the admissions game.

Shortly after the story went live on The Times website, the archbishop’s interim press officer sent an email blast to religion reporters, saying the report was untrue.

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Do religious readers really want quality religion coverage?

It has been awhile since our own Bobby Ross, Jr., quoted that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tweet by New York Times religion scribe Laurie Goodstein that said (all together now): “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Mocking the typical newsroom attitude that three anecdotes equals a valid news trend, Ross asked if it was time for someone to write a story about “why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore?”

Discussion ensued, including this item at Poynter.org, and Bobby quickly wrote a follow-up post covering the conversation. In the midst of all that, I asked:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

To be more precise, what I meant to say is that — in light of the current advertising crisis in the news business — it is understandable that some professionals are questioning whether the religion beat, along with other complicated specialty beats, can thrive in an age of 24/7 journalism, with fewer journalists trying to produce more and more digital news products. There are, of course, many people (see art atop this post) who are convinced that the advertising crisis is going to kill American-model mainstream journalism, period.

On top of this new reality, there is the sad old fact that I stated in The Quill back in 1983:

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

You might even say that far too many newsroom managers simply do not get religion, or words to that effect.

As the discussion rolled on, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted an item under this blunt headline: “Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?” You need to read all of it, but I would like to respond to a few statements in his post. So, let’s proceed:

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