About those letters

As I’ve mentioned below, The Living Church is reporting that David Booth Beers, chancellor of the Episcopal Church “has written identical letters to the chancellors of two traditionalist dioceses demanding that they change language “that can be read as cutting against an ‘unqualified accession’ to the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church.”

This report has generated an outpouring of blog-based analysis and reaction. Father Jake likes the move, and doesn’t care for Bishop Iker’s response. Mark Harris says the chancellor is doing his job. The Admiral of Morality, a delightful newcomer, suggests, like Jake, that the letters signal “the arrival of a new Presiding Bishop who, fresh from Canterbury, is prepared to act boldly and swiftly in the name of Christ and His Episcopal Church.”

Commenters on Kendall Harmon’s blog aren’t happy, but aren’t alarmed either. I think they understand that nothing definitive has happened here. The rhetoric is more reich-related on Stand Firm in Faith. (I can understand being upset about this, as it seems to represent a change in course at Church Center, but all this jackboot business, please)

I generally agree with Jake and Mark on the issues confronting our church, but I am more uneasy than they about these letters. My unease may be rooted in reasons peculiar to myself, or to a person in my profession, but I think it hints at a broader problem: namely, the seeming unwillingness of our leadership to recognize the virtue of dealing more openly with the press and with Church members regarding the problems before us.

When your organization is involved in an ongoing controversy, it is extremely advantageous to be able to control the content and timing of news stories. The Episcopal right understands this well, and keeps creating well-timed news events that get reporters’ attention, and foster the impression that they are on the march while the Church leadership is in retreat. Here was an occasion, however, where both the content of the next news story (“Chancellor sends letters”) and the timing of the news story (a clock that starts ticking when the letters are mailed) were entirely in Church Center’s control.

If it is a given that the content of the letters will become public, the most media-savvy thing to do is to release the letters broadly with an explanation of why you were doing what you were doing and why you were doing it now. This not only insures that your side of the story leads whatever pieces might be written, it also guarantees that your interpretive framing of the story will be taken seriously.

The other benefits of this approach include damping down rumor and speculation–People are less likely to wonder about your intentions if you explain them; demonstrating that you have nothing to hide or fear; and reassuring the members of your organization that the organization can be counted on to report upon its own activities in a timely and relatively forthright way.

If you choose not to follow this approach, and the content of the letters come out from a different source, not only don’t you reap the advantages I’ve outlined, you reap their inverse.

Controlling the timing of a news event is also a tremendous advantage because it allows you to make sure that the story breaks when it does you the most good or least the harm—depending on the type of story it is. If, for instance, you are about to introduce the new leader of your organization to the general public, if that person is more or less a blank public slate, if you are eager to sell this individual’s tenure as the beginning of a fresh new day, and if you have spent a great deal of time and a little bit of money to build the stage on which this new leader will make her entrance, then controlling the timing of a potentially distracting news story means that you can make sure it breaks after the big event. Otherwise you turn advantage into disadvantage by forcing your new leader to talk abut precisely the issues you are trying to move past.

Finally, a release that places an individual development in a broader context—We are doing X so that we can (do/avoid) Y and therefore achieve Z.—persuades your potentially anxious membership (which is getting its information about your intentions from skeptical, unfriendly or uninformed sources) that there is a steady hand on the wheel, and an alert navigator in the passenger’s seat. In the absence of such reassurance, the passengers are left to study the unfamiliar scenery rolling by outside the window and trust that the driver is heading home by another way.

When we don’t communicate information, we communicate anxiety.

People don’t come to church to have their anxieties amplified.

Are we there yet?

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