I THOUGHT at first that I was simply on the wrong side of a
generational divide on the idea of tweeting in church. But, at the
weekend, I met someone older than me who actually thinks it is a
good idea to get out the smartphone and go on social media to
disseminate to the wider world the best lines from the sermon - or
to cyber-heckle any perceived heresies.
It has to be said that I encountered this elderly adopter at the
Christian New Media Conference, a gathering where iPads seriously
outnumbered pens as the primary note-taking device.
For 2000 years, civilisation has had a love/hate relationship
with technology. Socrates was even against writing, fearing that it
would erode memory, and mislead us into thinking that we had
acquired wisdom, when we had only information. (He was not entirely
wrong there.) There were worries about the pernicious impact of
printing, the telephone, radio, television, and now the internet.
What history seems to suggest is that technology is neutral, and
that flawed humans manage to use most things for good or ill.
Twitter enthusiasts argue that social media are part of young
people's lives now; so they should be part of their church
experience, too. Its impact outside church is unarguable, as the
soaring price of the newly floated shares in Twitter has shown. And
there is a generational divide: a recent survey of under-25s
suggested that 80 per cent tweet while watching television, turning
a traditionally passive experience into an interactive one.
Some in the Church are embracing this as a way of inculturating
the gospel. Last year, for example, the Vicar of St Paul's,
Weston-super-Mare, the Revd Andrew Alden, put up a large screen to
display comments made on Twitter while his services were under way,
to allow the congregation to ask questions and raise points as he
preached. The internet expert Vicky Beeching argues that the Church
must leave behind what she calls Web 1.0, the era when internet
sites were largely passive and static, and embrace Web 2.0, today's
internet, which is active and participatory. Without this, young
people will drop the Church entirely.
Older heads are listening. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd
Richard Chartres, told the New Media Conference that if "cyber
space is the new town square," then "the church porch is now
located on the web."
Up to a point, my Lord Bishop. Someone using a smartphone in
church needs to consider its impact on others. Those sitting around
may become prey to irritating thoughts: is their neighbour reading
the Bible on their phone, tweeting the sermon, checking their
emails, texting a friend, or playing Angry Birds? Check
#TweetingInChurch on Twitter, and you find entries such as "James
Taylor is sitting in front of me in church right now. OMG." One
priest I knew had among his congregation a member of the Cabinet
who constantly cast surreptitious glances at his Blackberry, and
who probably was not consulting a biblical concordance.
Apologists insist that Twitter is nowadays just a way of taking
notes. It is not. It is a method of publication, and only someone
self-absorbed or self-deluding would not see that. The real
objection is not about poor theology, but about bad manners, as it
is when the iPhone is used at the family dining table. Virtual
reality can be an act of disrespect to the person present before
us. Perhaps there is something theological about that, actually. It
is about incarnation. And remember, it was an Apple that got us
into this mess in the first place.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the
University of Chester.