‘Let me hear you speaking, in accents clear and true.’ …another line from a lovely hymn that I always find troubling and one which leapt into my head when a staff member at a school we visited today pledged to ‘knock that Birmingham accent’ out of my daughter. (I am now desperately trying to put her off going there!)
This week I have been lucky to join some of the sessions of the Diocesan Communicator’s Conference. Church communicators from across the country and the Anglican communion (some brought in by skype) gathered in Birmingham to think about the way forward for their craft. It is four years since I did that job and 20 years since I trained as a journalist and much has changed in that time.
When I trained, I learnt to gather stories and information and rewrite them into a consistent voice that reflected my organisation or publication and then allow other people to hear them. One of the reasons I left my PR role was that I realised that this mediated and monotone way of communicating was not the way forward and we had the technology to bring people together to speak and listen without an organisational filter. The skills of a communications ‘expert’ have changed. No longer are we looking for people who can put over a single message well and clearly but we are looking for people who can facilitate conversations that are multi-tonal, multi-faceted and dynamic. Since I left Birmingham this has started to happen – my successor has started to break open the conversation and use video, text, photography and e-mail to enable people to speak to one another. Like a good priest who is interested in developing the discipleship and theology of others in their congregation, Birmingham’s current communicator is interested in sharing other people’s stories and giving a platform to a myriad of voices rather than telling people what to think.
In the same way, at a recent talk to the Lunar Society, Birmingham City Council’s new Chief Executive, Mark Rogers, said the next step in addressing some of the city’s issues lay more in the process of having discussions about difficult topics than in the answers that may come out of those debates. That seems to be a great step forward in an outcome-driven sector but it leaves a massive question about who takes part in these conversations. How do we bring together the people who need to speak and the people who need to listen in a way that can influence the policy and systems of Europe’s largest council? I am not sure what the answer is but I really hope that we as a city give it a go. We need to reach way beyond the usual suspects, we need to stop hearing about people and hear from people who are affected by decisions made by the power-brokers in this region.
If we as a church in Birmingham are going to be part of this kind of solution to inequality and social exclusion we might need to think not only about what is happening at diocesan level but also to consider whose voices are heard during in our local places of worship and times of gathering. I am getting to really enjoy preaching but how can I widen the discourse and include the voices of those on the edges of church or society in my sermons?
Just reading a brief write-up from a Greenbelt seminar recently I was really struck by Nadia Bolz-Weber’s idea of welcoming a stranger by inviting them to have a liturgical role during the service, the first time they rock up in church. That seemed a brilliant idea – if it is not too intimidating. But are we happy to let the faltering and uncertain speak in to our liturgy? Do we only want to hear from the theological certain or can we learn from those whose doubts threaten to overwhelm them or whose questions are uncomfortably close to our own hidden wonderings? Can we hear from those who work outside the church and live their faith in challenging situations where they find God in those they meet and in the places the visit? Do we welcome every voice from every background or do we really believe at some level that when God speaks it will be with an accent clear and true?