Methodism and the media
In a fast-paced world of round-the-clock news coverage the media agenda doesn’t just work nine to five.
I’ve been working for the Methodist Church Media Service for three and a half years, and (as an Anglican) it’s been a real crash course in everything Methodist. I’ve had to get used to the intricacies of Church structures, the nature of what it means to be ‘a people called Methodist’ and pretty much learn a whole new language.
But in a way, it’s been useful to be able to give an ‘outsider’s perspective’. Although terms like ‘supernumerary’ and ‘falling off the platform’ can be everyday parlance in Methodist circles, the work of the Media Service is all about communicating the good news stories of Methodism with those who perhaps have very little experience of church.
The Media Service team is made up of myself and our Media Officer, Karen Burke and we’re based at Methodist Church House, up on the fifth floor. We’re a small part of the communications team, based in the Christian Communications, Evangelism and Advocacy Cluster (aka the CCEA).
Our day at Methodist Church in London usually starts with a strong cup of coffee (tea for Karen) and a look through the national newspapers to check out the latest news and see if there’s anything we need to respond to. Karen is a journalist with a keen instinct for a good story and when she saw news of the Atheist Bus Campaign back in October 2008, she knew we had to come up with an original and fast response. People might have expected the Church to be negative about the campaign’s slogan ‘There’s probably no God’, so they seemed a little surprised when we thanked Richard Dawkins for getting God onto London buses and back on the public agenda. Though the Church doesn’t endorse the message, we saw it as a great conversation starter and an opportunity to show that the Church isn’t afraid of tackling the big questions of life.
We also spend much of our time responding to media enquiries or interview requests for Methodist spokespeople and we’re always looking to offer a distinctive and authentic Methodist voice on the issues that matter not only to the Church, but to those communities we are called to serve. In the last few months we’ve had spokespeople on the radio and television representing the Church on a variety of issues. Because of the Church’s award-winning campaign work on gambling legislation, we often get asked to contribute to news stories and features on all things to do with gambling, but through the work of the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT), we seek to communicate what the Church stands for on a whole range of issues, from the global economic crisis to extremist political parties such as the BNP.
JPIT is an ecumenical team made up of representatives from the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church. Where possible, we always try to work ecumenically and there’s great strength in numbers when we make public statements on the issues that unite us, such as climate change or Israel-Palestine.
Most of the work we do has a national focus but, for me, the best stories I hear are the local ones, about how churches are making a concrete difference to the lives of their communities, living out the love of Christ in creative and compassionate ways. And I’m pleased to say there are loads of these stories, from the surfer church in Cornwall to Tongan Methodist congregations in Wales and the church in London that has just received a £1 million grant from the government for its outstanding youth and community work. Part of me would love to spend my days travelling the Connexion collecting these tales, but I suspect hubby might have something to say about that…
But in a fast-paced world of round-the-clock news coverage the media agenda doesn’t just work nine to five. Karen and I provide an out-of-hours service and we have to be contactable 24/7. This is especially important when local church officers are handling difficult situations, such as the unexpected death of a church member. Quite often in these situations the local media take an interest and it’s vital that we can offer church representatives support in handling the media attention, whether it’s helping them to draft official statements or simple advice about to talk to journalists.
Though we spend much of our time in front of a computer screen, in our radio studio or attached to a phone line, sometimes we do manage to escape the office. Three times a year I attend Methodist Council to report for the Methodist Recorder and help to communicate Council’s decisions to the wider Church. Karen will soon be visiting Brussels and Vienna with Europe Project Officer Colin Ride to meet some of the ecumenical partners we work with in Europe and see how they run their media work. And there’s a whole host of other events and conferences we might end up attending, including Youth Assembly, the Churches Media Conference and the Christian Resources Exhibition. One of the most important aspects of the work we do is meeting people so that we can hear what’s going on in the Church and in society and so that we can tell the Church’s stories more creatively and effectively.
And, of course, every summer we move our whole operation to wherever the Methodist Conference will be taking place for ten days. There we offer a full media service, with news releases, two radio studios and a press office for journalists. We even stream the audio from Conference sessions live on the web through Premier Christian Radio, so that those unlucky souls who can’t be there in person can listen live to all the action! Conference is a strange mixture of long days, intensive media work, radio interviews, catching up on Connexional gossip and many, many curries. It’s a great opportunity to find out what’s going on in the wider Church and I always find it exciting to see the Church making important decisions, especially on social and political issues.
Karen and I also present, edit and produce the Methodist Podcast, which can be found on the Methodist Church website or downloaded through iTunes. We’re always looking for stories and issues that we think might be of interest to Methodists and other Christians across Great Britain. Often we find there’s an international flavour to the podcast, as Overseas Mission Partners share their stories as they pass through London or we hear the latest news from MRDF partner organizations. Most recently in the Credit Crunch Podcast we spoke to economic experts about the global financial crisis and what this might mean for the Church and its mission. And in January Ariane Sherine, the brains behind the Atheist Bus Campaign, told us all about how one little idea exploded into a global phenomenon.
And the best bit about the job? There’s always something new going on - no two days are identical. In fact, sometimes I positively dream of being able to get bored at work…