God, guns but not gays from The Independent

Hypocrisy pays. Reading about the foibles of the great and good, the rich and famous sells newspapers. When you have a story that combines religion and hypocrisy you can count on a nice bump in circulation. Market forces determine newspaper content. It is difficult to sell church stories to an editor. A story on the dodgy theology of the head of the Episcopal Church may generate 125,000 views on a religion news website (earning it the church newspaper equivalent of double platinum status) but most secular papers will not touch it. However, if a church leader has been caught in a bad act (think sex or money) or if religious hypocrisy is involved, the newspaper that turned down a serious story will snap up the latest Jim and Tammy Faye escapade. Yes, I know I sound like a cynic, but I plead experience in my defense.

The Independent thought it had a winner last week with its story entitled "Church of England has up to £10m invested in arms firm", as it combined the Church of England (always a soft target) with money and hypocrisy. But I am afraid the story will not pay. The Independent's hypocrisy charge does not jell because the complaint is weak and it does not distinguish between the different strands of Christian moral teaching on war and ethical investing.

The headline states the CoE has invested its money in an "arms firm", and the accompanying photo shows a man inspecting a display of automatic weapons. Who is it? The lede does not tell us:

The Church of England has invested up to £10m in one of the world's major arms firms, which supplies systems and technology for unmanned drones and jets to conflicts around the world. The discovery, on the eve of what is set to be the biggest day of protests against DSEi – the UK's leading arms fair -- in Docklands, London, tomorrow, has led worshippers to accuse church leaders of profiting from conflict.

Strong stuff. The Independent has made the "discovery" that the Church of England has enriched itself by financing the merchants of death. From the photo accompanying we might think it was Kalashnikov. Are they now in the drone business? Maybe -- the Russian government last week sold a 50 per cent share of the rifle manufacturer to private investors. Could these investors be the C.o.E.? Are we seeing a modern twist on the church militant?

The identity of the modern day Krupp is given in the story's second paragraph.

The Church Commissioners and Church of England Pensions Board are both shareholders in General Electric (GE), with shareholdings up to £10m. Yesterday, the Church defended the investment, claiming less than 3 per cent of GE's business was based in arms sales.

General Electric? A merchant of death? The Independent explains:

But the firm, along with its key subsidiary General Aviation, is a leading supplier of "integrated systems and technologies" for combat aircraft, military transport, helicopters, land vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles – better known as drones.

The Independent's claim is weak. Apart from the hyperbole, what does it have? Is GE really an "arms firm"? And if so, how long has the church held GE stock? Did it buy the shares recently? Or has it had the shares in its portfolio for about 75 years or so? Who else owns GE stock? I would imagine this "blue chip" stock would be held by a number of charities who invest in the market.

The article says worshipers are shocked by the news. Which ones? We hear from one potential worshipper, a peace activist-priest who has been arrested for his anti-war protests, and from the leader of a hitherto off the radar Christian pacifist group. And we have a statement from an advocacy group. Do these qualify as worshippers? Regular people in the pews who are outraged by what they see as the church's hypocrisy? Or are these campaigners who have put out a press statement?

Against that we have a statement from an unnamed spokesman for the C.o.E. who tells us GE makes washing machines and the like. Could The Independent not have spoken with someone from the church's ethical investment committee?  Could The Independent have asked a question or two of some of the theologians or public intellectuals who have written on these issues -- or even, God help us, the Church of England bishop tasked with speaking to defence policy issues in the House of Lords? What is the Church of England's stance on these issues? Are they Quakers with better dress sense, or members of the "God, guns and gays" crowd? As The Independent asks no questions, we get no answers.

My questions are rhetorical.

What you have here is re-write of an activist group's press handout followed by a telephone call to the church press office. There is about a half hour's work here. This is not a serious story. Unbalanced, incurious and lazy.

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