Press: The sharpness of social-media teeth

14 February 2020

GEOFF CRAWFORD/CHURCH TIMES

Archbishop Welby addresses the Synod

Archbishop Welby addresses the Synod

WHEN you are reduced to re-using teabags, and find yourself frantically mashing one with a fork against the side of a mug when it has already been used twice, you will understand the feelings of the press gallery at the General Synod, trying to get a news line out of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address.

Gabriela Sperling’s Telegraph report was pretty much that moment when the teabag bursts: “Social media is evil at root of society’s ills, warns Archbishop of Canterbury”, the headline ran, almost entirely unmoored from the body of the story below.

The speech itself had something even stranger: listing the tools of the devil (or lion), Archbishop Welby said: “Culture, cruelty, lack of love are pre-eminent, and we can aid the biting of the lion through social media in a way we’ve never known before.”

Culture? We know what he means, because this is the Church Times, and we all speak Evangelical, if some of us only as a foreign language. But, to the ordinary reader, “culture” means Radio 3, reading books, and other elitist pastimes. It was all an example of the remarkable introversion of the Church at the moment.

Much better to follow the example of Steve Doughty in the Daily Mail, who got an actual news story by reading the small print and remembering what people had said in the past: “The Church of England could be forced to pay £200 million to survivors of child sex abuse, its parliament is to be told.

“The money is being set aside for ‘restoration or redress’ to thousands of victims abused by bishops, clergy and lay helpers.

“This huge bill is more than the annual sum spent running the C of E by its financial arm, the Church Commissioners.”

The figure, incidentally, seems to be five years old, since it comes originally from the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler (and was suggested by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s counsel to Archbishop Welby in 2018). So it may have risen since then.

 

THE Financial Times has a weakness for stories of the form “Churches learn from business how to be efficient”. The latest was a report by Jonathan Moules of a church-planting conference, led by the Bishop of Islington, the Rt Revd Ric Thorpe (Unilever and HTB), who posed in a generic “business-leader” outfit. It made a useful corrective to the stately paralysis of the Synod.

Even if the contents mostly looked like common sense wrapped in jargon — “When I was in marketing at Unilever we tried things out and if they didn’t work we dropped them. It encourages an innovation culture” — this movement is one of the few places in the Church of England where the energy of the people working in it is not entirely absorbed. Perhaps the real explanation for the success of church-planting is not the quality of the planters, but their readiness to shed congregations who think that their church should resemble a kind of miniature synod, or who make those pastoral demands so irritating to go-ahead visionaries.

The other noteworthy point about this report was that the illustrative success story was about a Baptist. The writer obviously saw no important distinctions within “the Church”. Another useful corrective to the Synod.

 

THE other story that caught my eye this week appears to have nothing to do with religion. In fact, it takes place in the borderlands between religion and unclassifiable mass psychosis. The New York Times carried a long investigation into “QAnon”, a conspiracy mythos that flourishes on the internet.

It’s not a theory, exactly, since it makes no predictions, and tells multiple overlapping and sometimes incompatible stories. If it is a cult, it has no prophet — or only a pseudonymous one. This is someone who posts to noisome corners of the social web under the name of “Q clearance patriot”. He pretends to be a senior intelligence officer in Washington, charting the progress of President Trump in his struggles against an insidious paedophile evil (including, of course, all of the mainstream media).

The stories themselves are ludicrous, but that may be part of their attraction. To believe them is to assert that you are exempt from the coming Judgement.

The New York Times reported: “Outside a Trump campaign rally in Florida, people in ‘Q’ T-shirts stopped by a tent to hear outlandish tales of Democrats’ secretly torturing and killing children to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.

“Matthew Lusk, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary for a Florida congressional seat and openly embraces QAnon, said in an email that its anonymous creator was a patriot who ‘brings what the fake news will not touch without slanting’.

“As for the theory’s more extreme elements, Mr. Lusk said he was uncertain whether there really was a paedophile ring associated with the deep state.

“‘That being said,’ he added, ‘I do believe there is a group in Brussels, Belgium, that do eat aborted babies.’”

As several people have pointed out, this is, among other things, a resurgence of the blood libel, even if, this time, it is not explicitly attached to Jews. I know that the Archbishop didn’t refer to it, but perhaps the Telegraph headline-writer had a point anyway when he or she claimed that social media were lions seeking out whom they might devour.

Church Times: about us

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)