Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Just Delivery

18 Jan 2024

It is now mid-January, and the weekend’s newspapers were still full of the story that captured people’s attention on New Year’s Day – the  hundreds of  sub-postmasters and mistresses  wrongly  convicted of theft by the Post Office.  People went to jail, lost their homes, marriages, even their lives. The fault lay not with their own malpractice or miscalculations but with a new  computer system. Each time another postmaster rang the Horizon helpline they were told that they were the only one experiencing problems. One man rang  the helpline 91 times before he gave up hope of being heard.  

It’s not as if journalists and politicians hadn’t  been on the case, although it took a while. Computer Weekly was the first to investigate in 2009 – BBC Radio 4, Private Eye, Panorama  all covered the story,  as did news bulletins once the truth began to emerge.  But it was the ITV dramatisation which catapulted the issue onto the front pages and launched an outraged  national conversation.   Why did it take a drama  to wake up the Great British Public to the scandal?  My favourite response to this came in a tweet from Classicist Mary Beard. 

“This is the real power of arts and drama. Message is: we need to fund the arts. Good democracy needs good drama“.    

The   declared mission  of Paula Vennells, the CEO of the Post Office between 2012-2019 , was to transform it and to protect its reputation as a “brand.” After the drama 1.2million people demanded that she was stripped of her CBE.  She duly returned it (although technically it requires the King to remove it from her).  Paula Vennells was not alone in turning a deaf ear to those raising the inconvenient truths about the computer system and subsequent miscarriages of justice. Some of the responses and comments to her can feel like a pile-on, but it is  certainly legitimate to ask how she came to be awarded the honour with so many  of the Post Offices failures already apparent.  According to the Sunday Times, some people on the honours committee voiced concerns but they were not heeded. 

The drama has ensured that there’ll be plenty of  interest in the findings of the  Public Inquiry into what went wrong at the Post Office.  But where can broader questions be raised – about our society’s capture by technology and what its failures and complexities do to people? About both the status and vulnerabilities of institutions and their leaders which mean they’ll do anything to avoid being seen to mess up?  Can such conversations  rise above the rowdy ya-boo exchanges of an election year?  

The church should be one such space of course. But the crisis for one national institution poses uncomfortable questions for another.  Paula Vennells is a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England, and was an associate minister in the St Alban’s diocese until  2021.  Last Tuesday it emerged that she had been on the short list of candidates considered for the position of Bishop of London in 2017. This news was scooped by the BBC’s Harry Farley and Henry Zeffman and goes to show what can happen when journalists who have done time in reporting religion get involved in politics. The broadsheets picked up the story, adding their own details;  Paula Vennells nomination had the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed the Telegraph.  Channel 4 pointed out that, had she been appointed the Bishop of London, she would have been the third most senior cleric in the Church of England with an automatic seat in the House of Lords.  

The news was greeted with incredulity.  “Our gobs are smacked,” tweeted one London churchgoer who has  written to the Crown Nominations Commission to ask how Paula Vennells came to be on the shortlist.  The CNC doesn’t comment on the process,  but that shouldn’t stop questions being asked at February’s General Synod. What had the vacancy-in-see committee, responsible for  drawing up the episcopal job description, seen as the  essential qualities and experience for the role?  Paula Vennells may have helped shape Justin Welby’s thinking, served on church ethical investment boards and helped  deliver leadership development programmes for senior bishops.  But she’d never been in full-time ministry or run a parish.  

Others who delivered the bishops’ training include organisational psychologists and management and behavioural consultants. Their aim to help realise the church’s goals of numerical and spiritual growth.  It’s like asking a  plumber to tell you how to fix your crashed hard drive, wrote Rev Gerry Lynch. Critics argue that applying business models to the Church risks undermining its historic mission and core values. A culture of managerialism leads to a language of metrics and spreadsheets rather than of relationship and exploration, they say.   It presupposes the story it wants to tell rather than being open to new ones that are taking shape in its midst, or old ones which have been closed down but which refuse to be silenced.   Abuse survivors and their advocates see in the  Post Office’s denial, cover-up and  gas-lighting  echoes of the church response to their own calls  for justice.   And just as delays have left the Post Office victims waiting years for resolution so, with the Church too, delays in publication of reviews into cases of historic abuse mean that it becomes less and less likely that  those responsible for abuse and its cover up will ever be held accountable.  Unless, perhaps, those fighting to be listened to  could  join forces with a screenwriter and beat their way to a drama commissioner’s door.  

Leslee Udwin is a screenwriter who co-produced  “Who bombed Birmingham?” the TV drama which led to the release of six men wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA pub bombings.  Drama is unique in its power to force change, she told Radio 4 last week. 

“It is almost the only vehicle through which we can truly empathise experientially …. we subvert our own concerns and worries and give ourselves over to the experience of another human being. That’s the most generous act we can make”.  

Giving ourselves over to the experience of others, empathy, generosity.  We could try and do that through drama, as Udwin suggests, or we could  make them the marks of mission for a lost church.

Rosie Dawson is a freelance journalist and radio producer who specialises in religion. As a BBC producer for more than 25 years she worked creatively on a variety of genres in both Radio and Television. She has won many industry awards for her work – including the Foreign Press Associations radio story of the year (2015) for a documentary on child soldiers. Her work on Radio 4’s “Sunday” and “Beyond Belief” means she has excellent connections across faith communities in UK. More recently she devised and presented Bible Society’s #SheToo podcast on narratives about the rape and abuse of women in the Bible. Rosie runs media training events, writes for the Religion Media Centre and sits on the Higher Education Funding Council’s panel assessing the quality of research in Religion and Theology.

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