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‘Dance as if no one’s watching. Tweet as if it will be brought up in court’

13 July 2018

Fraught with danger, or an opportunity to thrash out the truth? Tim Wyatt asks some of the C of E’s most prolific users of Twitter and Facebook what they think about social media


A digital billboard on the side of Milan Cathedral 

A digital billboard on the side of Milan Cathedral 

IT IS not hard to find a bad news story featuring social media. From allegations of data misuse and interference in elections to the opprobrium heaped on those guilty of ill-judged Twitter posts, and concerns about the impact on social cohesion and attention spans, it seems that we might be falling out of love with the medium.

In the halcyon days of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest, the Church of England, like the rest of the world, appeared enraptured. There was widespread enthusiasm about the opportunities for mission and communication.

The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, captured much of the optimistic mood in a column for the Church Times in 2011: “Christians have much to say using social media because churches contain many ordinary people with engaging stories to tell. The more they get out there and speak freely, the richer a view of Christianity the world will get” (Comment, 6 May 2011).

Bloggers such as Church Mouse (16,500 followers) and the “digital nun” Sister Catherine Wybourne (19,500 followers) shot to prominence, while a thousand Facebook groups sprang up as believers coalesced online around their various interests and traditions.

One blogging priest, the Revd Peter Ould, even co-ordinated early efforts on Twitter into a website, the Twurch of England, which collated every tweet from Church of England bishops and priests into a single live feed. Asked in an interview whether he was excited by the possibilities, he replied: “Absolutely — and we’re only just beginning to see the potential.”

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent

WHILE these early experiments are often remembered fondly, the pitfalls were soon encountered. In 2010, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, was obliged to withdraw temporarily from public ministry and apologise, after he made inflammatory anti-royal remarks on Twitter and Facebook (News, 26 November 2010).

In 2015, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, ordered the Revd Stephen Sizer never to post about the Middle East again, on pain of losing his licence, and said that his insistence on using social media to attack Zionism was a “liability to his own ministry and that of the wider Church” (News, 9 February 2015).

Many others have quit their accounts of their own volition; concern about polarising debate was among the explanations. Social media undoubtedly represent a risk. Dioceses are among the organisations that have issued guidelines about their use.

Yet the number of users continues to grow. Twitter added six million new monthly users in the first quarter of this year, and Facebook added another 48 million daily active users, taking the total to 1.4 billion. Under Adrian Harris, the head of digital at Church House, the national Church’s own online presence has increased significantly. Last Christmas, £50,000 was spent on a social-media campaign encouraging people to find a church service in their neighbourhood.

Among those defending the medium is the Team Rector of St Luke in the City, Liverpool, the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes. She describes social media as an invaluable “watercooler” for parish priests, and as a bulwark against isolation.

“If you were in a workplace, and a letter came from head office, you would all chat around it in the coffee room,” she says. “But, as clergy, you don’t get to do that; so it’s really nice to be able to have a little conversation of ‘What do we think about this?’”

The Vicar of St John’s, Hampstead, in north London, the Revd Jeremy Fletcher, agrees that social media “at their best” create a sense of community: “You’re linking with people you’ve never met before, and there are perspectives they’re able to bring into things which genuinely broaden you out.”

The Revd Dr Ian Paul, a theologian who writes a popular blog, Psephizo, says that, for academics in particular, social media act like a university “common room”, where the like-minded can discuss the latest research and exchange advice and recommendations.

Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, draws on relationships and networks developed through social media for research. Her Facebook account is a place of vigorous, vibrant, and at times rowdy debate.

Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University

“It’s really hard to find a space for open, honest debate about religion and the Church; so I try not to police it much,” she says. She rarely bans people or moderates their interventions, to ensure an “open academy”.

The Vicar of Great Missenden, Canon Rosie Harper, an inveterate General Synod tweeter, argues that the very nature of social media enables more democratic debates. “It is a great equaliser. Anyone can say what they feel or what they believe.”

Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for Canterbury Province on the General Synod, believes that social media have become an essential part of the C of E’s deliberations. It helps him to engage with people from other traditions and positions, he says, but also to explain the thinking of the national institutions to people who feel “disconnected from the centre”.

ADVOCATES for social media argue that it is a means of maintaining open channels of communication between a shrinking Church and a population that is increasingly irreligious. Bishop Broadbent points to the skill of the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, in explaining what bishops are doing in the House of Lords.

Others see evangelistic and even pastoral opportunities. The Church Army’s chief executive, Mark Russell, is a three-time winner of Premier’s award for Christian “Tweeter of the Year”. In an average week, about 150,000 people see his tweets: a reach far in excess of anything else that he does. The pop star Ellie Goulding agreed to become the patron of the Church Army’s women’s homelessness project because he began tweeting her, he reports.

On another occasion, he spotted that a celebrity had tweeted about depression, and he replied to say that he would pray for that person at church on Sunday. Now the pair are in private conversation, and planning to meet to talk further.

“I’ve had a number of conversations with high-profile people in the world of showbiz who’ve had quite significant private conversations with me on the back of something I’ve tweeted them — about faith, about God, and about prayer,” he says. “I can’t think of any other way I could have got near to those people. Their emails go to their agent, their letters go to their agent, but it is just possible their Twitter feed goes to the phone in their pocket.”

It is not just celebrities. A woman in St Helens who ended up in a tweet conversation with Mr Russell after her son killed himself went to church last month for the first time with his encouragement.

 The chief executive of the Church Army, Mark Russell

WHAT about the dark side of the medium? The Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Finedon, in Northamptonshire, and BBC radio presenter the Revd Richard Coles, who has accumulated 162,000 followers on Twitter, says that he has learned the hard way how vicious the network can be.

He recalls how he had tweeted that Mo Farah winning the 10,000 metres at the 2012 Olympics had caused him to cry. “Somebody thought it made me cry because I was horrified that a black Briton had achieved something, and started to accuse me of public racism. In the end, he grudgingly said he would give me the benefit of the doubt. Twitter is a volatile atmosphere, and ambiguity is very difficult.”

Mr Russell had an even more bruising encounter with the UKIP MEP Jane Collins, who replied to a tweet of his expressing support for his friend, Canon Alan Billings, standing to be South Yorkshire’s police commissioner, by appearing to imply that Mr Russell was a paedophile. He had to threaten legal action before Ms Collins agreed to delete the tweet and apologise.

Professor Woodhead says that she has given up engaging in theological debate on Twitter because of repeated run-ins with hardline conservative Christians. “There’s a whole following of really unpleasant Christians who will just try to take down anybody. Quite early on, they started to go around spraying on anyone they didn’t like, like tomcats, and they saw off a lot of people.

“Twitter is the perfect medium for bullying and aggression, because you can slap someone around the face and then run off and shut the door.”

Bishop Broadbent finds Twitter to be a hostile environment for the same reason: “More and more, I find, I’m getting followed by rabid American conservatives, and I’m tempted to block them because they’re Trumpists and completely beyond the pale.”

Others worry that social media, far from encouraging debate, shut it down, as people follow and engage only with those with whom they already agree, creating so-called “filter bubbles”.

While the speed of social media is a boon when spreading news or firing up discussion, it also makes it easy to make mistakes, and hard to undo the damage. Bishop Broadbent, while admitting that the anti-royal Facebook posts were intemperate and poorly phrased, says that part of the problem was that his remarks were taken out of context and splashed across the newspapers before he had time to issue a caveat, or to explain his Republican principles properly.

Social media can also become an all-consuming distraction, and an attachment to it can verge on addiction. Fr Coles regularly “fasts” from social media, to keep its lure in check. Mr Fletcher says that it is all too easy to flick from the Daily Prayer app on his smartphone to the Facebook or Twitter logo. Scrolling social-media feeds delivers a shot of serotonin, he says, but it is “all carbs and no protein”.

It did not, however, take the invention of the internet to enable believers to offend each other, he argues: “I don’t think people are ruder because of Twitter: I think that they have greater opportunity to be ruder to more people. The technology enabled that, but it didn’t create it.”

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, an Assistant Curate at Liverpool Parish Church, agrees: “Christians have a marvellous ability to poison whatever they want to. Blaming the medium is too easy.”

The Vicar of St John’s, Hampstead, the Revd Jeremy Fletcher

THE C of E’s guidelines for the professional conduct of the clergy include several sections that address social media. They warn priests that anything posted online is in the public domain, and is likely to be shared.

“The clergy must remember that they are public figures whose opinions, when proffered, have weight and significance. The power of the internet for doing harm as well as good must always be borne carefully in mind, and weighed, before saying anything which may prove to be damaging to oneself as well as to others.”

In guidelines on conduct at the Synod, the Business Committee urges members to “use the same level of consideration when commenting on social media on Synod business or on members or their speeches. In general, our advice to members is: ‘If you wouldn’t say it to their face, please do not say it on social media.’”

The digital department at Church House has embarked on a widespread training programme to try to embed good practice on the internet across the C of E: more than 500 parishes and dozens of dioceses have been trained by the national team.

But, despite the formal guidance on offer, almost all of those interviewed for this feature said that they had made up their own rules as they went along. Mr Russell says that his are fairly simple: “Don’t get cross; don’t stoop low; double-check your grammar; don’t be a smart Alec; and if you’re going to tweet something, get your source right.”

Mr Fletcher recommends: “Dance as if no one’s watching. Tweet as if it will be brought up in court.”

Fr Coles says that when he first joined Twitter there were no guidelines. “It was very much a learning process of falling in the deep end and swimming. The biggest temptation to resist is the temptation of slapping back. If there is heat in the moment, just don’t do anything until it has receded.”

For Canon Butler, it is vital that all social-media users are “prepared to say sorry”; and Dr Paul suggests sleeping on it before sending a reply to anyone antagonistic.

Dr Threlfall-Holmes, whose advice includes “Don’t tweet drunk”, recalls that, when she first joined Twitter, she found it so baffling that she borrowed the book Twitter for Dummies from the library. “On Facebook, you know who your friend group are, but Twitter is much more of a broadcast medium; so you have no idea who’s seeing what you put out there.”

The other advice that comes up, time and again, is to be your authentic self rather than attempt to construct a particular online persona. Dr Threlfall-Holmes reports that many of her clergy friends privately despair of colleagues who use social media simply to pump out dull messages without engaging in conversation.

“It is social media: you’re supposed to be social,” she argues. “If you’re just tweeting out inspirational quotes or Bible things, it’s absolutely dire, and I think it gives the Church a bit of a bad name.”

Christians must never “tweet like a bishop”, she says. “It’s all: ‘So privileged to be with the people of X today,’ or ‘What a delight to do this confirmation,’ and there is never anything critical there. It’s all fresh paint and delight, and isn’t everything wonderful. It becomes very tedious.”

Others suggest that clergy should not be afraid of using social media to be subversive — maybe even funny. Much of church activity online is “terribly earnest”, Mr Butler-Gallie says, whereas the rest of the secular world uses the internet to be more “tongue-in-cheek”.

Last year, he spent the entirety of the Synod’s meeting in York posting short gifs of Premier League football to explain simultaneously what was taking place in each debate.

“There needs to be a slight mockery of the ways of the world,” he suggests. “It has to be taking the piss — not of the Church, but of the world. How cool can a meme be if it can be deployed about the Bishop of Norwich?”

The C of E’s guidelines assume that people would send “church tweets for church people”, but, instead, Christians should use social media to engage with what the rest of society is debating, and in society’s own bombastic online style, he argues.

The Vicar of Great Missenden, Canon Rosie Harper

ALMOST everyone interviewed admitted to enjoying the knockabout character of social media. “It’s not a very Christian place, but, then again, there should be no place that is a no-go area for Christians,” Bishop Broadbent says.

“If there’s a golden rule in contemporary culture — and particularly on social media — it is ‘Thou shalt not hurt somebody’s feelings,’” Canon Butler says. “The problem with the Church of England is, we are too afraid of saying anything significant for fear of upsetting somebody, whereas, actually, the Lord we follow regularly said things that caused people distress.”

Social media tend to upset those who thought that the truth was supposed to be “lovingly preserved and burnished and protected”, Professor Woodhead says. But the truth needs to be “thrashed out” online, she argues. “If it’s the truth, then you have to defend it, and argue for it, and test it out, and see if it will stand up.”

Dr Threlfall-Holmes agrees: “I don’t find it offensive when people disagree with me. There’s no point just whitewashing things. You don’t do difference well by pretending it’s not there and not having debates.”

Perhaps social media have a built-in winnowing effect: the clergy and Christians who last the course — who find the environment enjoyable, and have thus become its most prominent users — are automatically those who are not afraid of a good argument.

It seems clear that Facebook and Twitter — and maybe even Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest, too — still have much to offer the Church. But it is surely no coincidence that the people who get the most out of these contentious websites tend to be those with the thickest skins.

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