Friday, 16 May 2014

Farewell to Ruth Gledhill, Fleet Street's Last Full-Time Religious Affairs Correspondent

Ruth Gledhill's tenure as Religious Affairs Correspondent at The Times is ending. For more than a quarter of a century she has been an influential figure in the febrile borderlands where the church and the media meet. She has not always been loved by the church: truth-seekers never are; but she has been admired and respected. Thank you Ruth. We honour your achievements and wish you well. 

She is the last of her kind. With her departure, an era is coming to an end. There will no longer be a full-time journalist doing her job: not at The Times, not anywhere in Fleet Street. So this is a symbolic moment. I don't know the story at The Times, but we can guess that in the board room, the discussion ran along the following lines. Religion has been sidelined from the mainstream of public life. It's now a voluntary, marginal activity participated in by fewer and fewer people. In an increasingly secular society, religion doesn't merit intensive media coverage, and therefore not a full-time senior post. 

However, this ignores the blindingly obvious fact about the 21st century, that religion is playing an ever bigger part in world affairs and in our own society. This has taken some people by surprise. A generation back we might not have predicted the resurgence of radical fundamentalisms in world faiths, nor their often dire social, political and human consequences, though the signs were there if we had been paying attention. Islam is in the ascendant in many societies with the inevitable push-back of Islamophobia, often fuelled in the USA by the politics of the far right with its extreme conservative Christian agenda. Anti-semitism is worryingly on the increase across Europe. In this country, the place of religion in schools and allegations of discrimination against employees because of their beliefs continue to exercise debate, while in the British churches, the fractious debate about same-sex relationships is coloured by the oppression of homosexuals in African churches. I could go on.

My point is simple. Religion is not in decline in the modern world: it is flourishing. But it is a highly complex phenomenon that is evolving in new ways as the global village contracts. Understanding faith in a diverse world, making sense of the behaviours of faith communities calls for real insight they are to be responsibly presented to those who want to read the signs of the times. Broadsheet readers are right to look for careful analysis informed by a sophisticated grasp of religious affairs that can challenge the naïve readings we are so often fed by the media. 

This is precisely the time when we need our journalists to have as deep and comprehensive an understanding of religion as we expect from those who write about politics, education, literature or science. It is not enough simply to report 'stories'. It is the interpretation that matters. And without well-educated specialists in theology and religion, I doubt if we are going to get the in-house level of intelligent interpretation we have been grateful for from Ruth Gledhill and her like.

So come on, broadsheets. You may not like it, but for better or worse, religion is a major feature on the landscape of modernity. You have the power to shape minds for good as your readers try to make sense of what they see and hear. Give us back our interpreters. Otherwise we shall be left stranded on Dover Beach while the sea of faith makes its 'melancholy long withdrawing roar' and there will be no-one left in mainstream journalism to help us make sense of those other disquieting noises whose crescendo we hear in the dark, the 'confused alarms of struggle and fight where ignorant armies clash by night'.

Meanwhile, read The Tablet each week for the best-informed commentary on religion that's available in the UK at present. 


  1. farewell indeed!
    Of course this all partly reflects the changing world of the blogosphere.
    It is incumbent on those of us who blog (and I have been remiss of late) to better articulate the diversity of discussion. Will miss Ruth. Surely she will not be so easily quieted!

  2. Michael Sadgrove has been far too generous in his comments about Ruth Gledhill who has been a thorn in the side of the Church of England for years. Sensationalism and speculation over substance every time - if I had £1 for every time she used the word 'schism' I would be a millionaire. Her reporting has done nothing for the position of religion in this country.