Gay atheist appointed church’s community reporter

Credit: St Margarets, Rainham

By Christine Rayner

A parish priest has taken an extraordinary step to start mending the “strange relationship” between the Church of England and the media. He is employing a journalist to dig out stories of relevance to the whole community — even those that question faith and authority.

The Rev Nathan Ward of St Margaret’s Church, in Rainham, Kent, knows his new recruit will raise eyebrows within the church. Ava Forbes is an atheist and gay and will be given editorial freedom to find stories within the parish to keep the community informed, no matter how controversial.

The project came out of a survey during the Covid-19 lockdown for parishioners that did not produce the results Nathan Ward expected. The overriding message to emerge from the 600 responses was a desperate need for community news.

He says: “I thought we’d get requests for help with shopping, or how to get online for church services. Instead, there was a very clear message that people felt isolated and out of touch with what was going on in their area.”

Mr Ward, who describes himself as a “creative type of guy” is no stranger to controversy. While employed as a youth worker, he became a whistleblower on unacceptable practices within the sector and also agreed to act as an undercover reporter on several BBC Panorama documentaries.

His move comes as local newspapers throughout the UK face an unprecedented crisis with the sharp decline in advertising revenue made worse by a fall in sales caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rainham is at the eastern part of the Medway towns, an urban conurbation of 280,000, which is covered by a single newspaper, the Medway Messenger, which had a circulation of 3,680 in 2017, the most recent figure available.  The dominating title, the Medway News, was shut by its owners in 2011.

The results of the parish survey took Nathan Ward by surprise, but he knew it was a message he could not ignore. “I decided we needed to employ a full-time journalist,” he said. “Someone who could keep their finger on the pulse with the community and share stories with the public, whether within the church or not.”

An advertisement invited applications from journalists looking for a challenge and 50 replies were received. After a rigorous selection process, he and his fellow interviewers gave the job to Ava Forbes, who holds a BA in journalism, media and culture from Newcastle and a masters in broadcast journalism from Westminster University.

At first sight, she does not appear the obvious candidate to work for the C of E, but Nathan Ward says she stuck out at interview as the ideal person for the job.

“It might be surprising to learn we decided to employ an atheist, but I think this will make her a stronger, more inquiring journalist in the role we want for her. I fully expect to hate a story that Ava will uncover and publish, some time in the future!”

Ava Forbes was born in Glasgow and raised a Catholic, although her father was a Scottish Protestant, and so she is no stranger to religious tensions. “I saw how ugly that was and when my parents, brother and I moved to England we slowly started to drift away from practising faith publicly.

“I still considered myself religious and Catholic until I went to university and realised that I was gay. My experiences of Catholicism and the homophobia that comes from that led me to have to make a choice, God or my authentic self. I chose the latter.”

Despite her move away from faith, Ava says she has “immense respect for people who do believe in God”. She adds: “One of my biggest heroes was my great-aunt Jean who wanted to be a nun, but my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her. My aunt was a teacher and always considered herself married to God, as a nun would.

“I have always been fascinated by her belief in the Bible and have seen and can understand why faith can bring so much comfort and purpose to people’s lives. What I realised, as I came to terms with my sexuality, was that I didn’t need God to find that comfort or purpose and that I had found that in myself.”

Nathan Ward, who was ordained in 2011, believes the Church of England has “a strange relationship” with the media and says there is a need for strong, inquiring journalists willing to ask the questions that need asking.

“I firmly believe the church should sometimes hold up its hands and say ‘we were wrong’. There needs to be more transparency. If we deny the truth, we deny Christ himself. I know that journalists can be a power for good and that the world needs them to hold authorities, including the church, to account,” he said.

“I was looking for a passionate journalist who knew stuff and had integrity. I believe we have found that person in Ava.”

He is putting in a request for the new community journalist to be allowed to attend diocesan and deanery synod meetings, something he believes has not been done before. He fully expects this will produce “a shockwave” among the authorities.

Funding for the full-time job has been found by “looking carefully at our expenditure in more traditional roles” and releasing the money to pay Ava’s salary. She will be given editorial freedom to investigate whatever stories within the parish that she feels need exploring. The stories should have a community focus and only half need to be related to church matters, he says.

The stories will be published on the Rainham community page set up to bring news to the parish. It started with 600 followers and now has more than 8,000. The parish newsletter will also be resurrected in September, after suspension during during lockdown.

Topics already on the agenda include the impact on the community of thousands of proposed new homes, the reopening of businesses after lockdown and the 2020 GCSE results.

She is relishing the challenges ahead and says: “My job is to celebrate this community and make sure it has a voice. The sense I get from speaking to residents in Rainham is that the local press here is failing them and that they don’t feel heard or supported. I’m a huge advocate for ‘good news’, rather than reporting on only the negatives in a community. I think over the past few years, and certainly in the past few months, we have really needed news that looks at positives and creating solutions.

“Historically, churches were the hub of a community and where members of a parish would come and be informed, not only about the word of God but also what was happening in the world around them. At a time where local journalism is on its knees and congregations are shrinking, it seems only logical that churches and journalists pull their resources together to achieve their common goal of serving their community.”

© Religion Media Centre 2020

Christine Rayner is a university lecturer and freelance journalist. She was editor of the Medway News until its closure