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The Genesis of a Non-Story

A screen grab of the headline from the Mail on Sunday

The other day I received an email from the Comms Unit at Church House. A journalist from the Mail on Sunday had been to church (at All Souls, Langham Place for a family event) and was intrigued to see the church used projector screens and also had flat screens on pillars. She wanted to write an article about its use in church.

The journalist spoke to the Comms Unit. The Comms Unit spoke to Publishing. Spotting the chance for a bit of free promotion, the staff at CHP talked about the days of Visual Liturgy, their current work and the (relatively less complex) development of a couple of new iPad apps to help clergy with the lectionary. Finally, they said, if she wanted to know about projection, she really needed to talk to me.

I know the CHP staff. I used to work there of course. And they certainly know about my research into the use of projection in worship, so I guess I was likely to come to their mind.

So what to do? I had her email and phone number to call her back. I had two issues in doing so. The first was one of grudges. Just over a year ago, I was forced to eject a photographer and journalist from one of my churches because they were photographing children and parents signing a book of condolence for a schoolteacher who had very sadly died. Not only did the photos of kids and parents appear in print and online, but also they published private messages written in the book. I thought it was absolutely odious at a time of deep sadness for our community. In which paper did the photos appear? The Daily Mail.

Still, it wasn’t this particular journalist’s fault that had happened. She did seem genuinely interested and wanted to do a good news piece, and I’m kind of supposed to not hold grudges right?

The second issue? I really didn’t think it was a story. As I’ve blogged about before, the media always seem to enjoy a story that juxtaposes churches and technology. It appears that the stereotype of out-of-touch greying, sixty-five year old Vicars who wouldn’t have heard of Facebook lives on in media consciousness. Any chance they get to cover something with quirky Vicars, they’re on it like a shot.

Indeed, the Express (who simplified, bastardised and mangled the Mail’s report) called me a ‘Trendy Vicar’. If they think I’m trendy and they think projector screens are new in church, frankly I think they’re the ones that are out-of-touch, not me. My kids will tell you that I haven’t been trendy for fifteen years and projectors have been used in churches for at least twenty five years since OHP transparencies became feasible. Hardly a new thing.

Anyway, I slightly begrudgingly made the call and gave an interview. I put her onto my friend Tim Lomax, who is not only a fellow projection user but happens to be on the Liturgical Commission and so has some authority to speak, and he is also far better looking (she wanted a photo).

I mentioned how it impacts hymn book sales and suggested Hymns A&M are the people to speak to on that front. Then when she asked whether some people might object, I said ‘well, I can’t think of someone obvious and specific, but you could always try the Prayer Book Society. Cue suitable quote about the dangers of free thinking from someone high up there.

Incidentally, I’ve used a projector in a Book of Common Prayer service at college, interspersing liturgy with a bit of George Herbert, and it went down a storm. Projection doesn’t have to equal a particular churchmanship and I’ve seen it used in all sorts of worship styles including the deeply traditional.

Hey presto, a story in the national newspapers which has amused regular worshippers (who can’t believe people think it’s a new idea), annoyed Mr Angry of Tunbridge Wells (the public’s comments on the Mail website are quite something) and barely even caused a ripple for everyone else.

So what do we learn from all this?

Well, I guess some journalists don’t go to church much or, at least, don’t go to churches where such things might be seen. No surprise there.

Some very weird ideas are out there. In trying to work it out for herself, the journalist asked whether the move to projectors was about hygiene and/or prompted by hymn book thefts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a church install projectors for reasons of hygiene or a lack of hymn books. Do people really steal hymn books?

The reasons for a move to projection, as I discuss in my little book, are far more creative and missional and usually with no small influence from other spheres, like seeing other clergy do it well and learning from them, previous work history, and education.

It does make me wonder what else we’re failing to communicate very well. I certainly come across some very weird myths about who can get married in a church, or who can be buried in a Churchyard for example.

Finally, never underestimate the stereotypes, fears and expectations of the wider public when it comes to Vicars. As much as I try to be a normal human-being, clearly it’s hard for some others to see us that way. While quirky Vicar stories may come and go and not really matter very much, it’s good to be reminded of that when I walk into someone’s home for a visit and find the place has been polished and cleaned, tea is brewed and a cake has been baked. There’s a whole bunch of expectations going on with which I need to engage.

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