Sentamu's bulldog to become top church spin-doctor

The Reverend Arun Arora has been appointed head of communications at Church House.

The smart money may be against him, but the Archbishop of York remains, at least in the minds of headline-writers, the favourite to succeed Rowan Williams at Canterbury next year.  So it's with some interest that I read that John Sentamu's former spokesman, the Rev Arun Arora, has been appointed head of communications at Church House, the Church of England's administrative headquarters.

Rev Arora, who is forty and a former solicitor, is currently leading a Christian outreach project in Wolverhampton called Pioneer Ministries.  But before that he was a church press officer for almost ten years, first for the Bishop of Birmingham and then (after his ordination) for the Archbishop of York.  In that position (which he called "one of the best jobs in the Church of England") he was once described as "a determined publicity-seeker for the archbishop".  In February this year, though no longer working for Sentamu, Arora wrote a post on his ministry blog in defence of the archbishop's decision to write for the Sun on Sunday.

He wrote that very few of Sentamu's critics in the church "would turn down the opportunity to preach the Gospel to 6 million people" and compared them to the pharisees who had condemned Jesus for associating with sinners.  And he went on to explain his approach to News International and the publicity opportunities it afforded:

As Sentamu’s former press officer it was one of my goals when I began in 2006 to make full use of the pulpit offered by both the Sun and the News of the World. From 2006 – 2009 numerous articles were placed on the precious op-ed page, often with accompanying editorials supporting the central message- usually but not always related to Easter or Christmas. Over time I established a good working relationship with Colin Myler, the then editor of the News of the World, his deputy and various people on the Sun, one of whom agreed to accompany the Archbishop in jumping out of an airplane to raise money for Paratroopers wounded in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Arora did turn down an invitation for Dr Sentamu to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, saying that "We don't do celebrity."

Last month, Arora accused certain people within the church, and also media commentators of "besmirching" Sentamu. He wrote of "anonymous whispering" and coverage that was "in stark contrast to the way other bishops are being portrayed".  Some of this -- such as the comment of an unnamed don who had allegedly described Sentamu as "brutish" -- Arora attributed to "the naked racism which still bubbles under the surface in our society, and which is exposed when a black man is in line to break the chains of history."

Greeting the news of his new appointment, Rev Arora says that the church has "a fantastic story to tell of lives and communities being transformed by people in God through faith" and promises to publicise the work of a "largely unnoticed army of men and women" in parishes up and down the country.  It's a fair bet, however, that like his predecessors Arora will spend a high proportion of his time fending off stories about splits in the church, especially over the issue of sexuality.  His appointment, though, does perhaps signal that the C of E intends to be rather more pro-active in its media engagement than has sometimes been the case.

Of course, the process for appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury is in no way connected with that for choosing a director of communications for Church House.  But some might see today's news as some sort of omen.

 

Balloons are released as Dr John Sentamu becomes Archbishop of York, November 2005. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.