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Angela Tilby: Bishops have to sacrifice privacy

11 June 2021

St Davids Cathedral

The Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy

The Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy

THE Bishop of St Davids, Dr Joanna Penberthy, apologised last week for a tweet that she had posted in March, in which she had urged: “Never, never, never trust a Tory.” This was her contribution to a debate in which some Welsh Tories were believed to be subverting the Welsh Assembly: a serious issue, and one on which a responsible bishop could well have an opinion.

But the opinion here was hardly a measured contribution, merely a repeat of a well-worn banality. It left Tory-voting Anglicans (a majority among the laity) with the impression that she held them in contempt. In her apology, Dr Penberthy said that the Twitter account on which she had posted the message was a private account. But the assumption that this made it OK was disingenuous, because, for any bishop, the scope for privacy is surely much more limited than it would be for a “private” individual.

The public nature of episcopal office has been understood from antiquity. Bishops are meant to be visible, to be seen and known, to be a focus of unity in the Church, and a point of mediation between Christian communities and civic authority. “He must be well-thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace. . .” (1 Timothy 3.7).

When persecution broke out in the early Christian centuries, the bishop was first in line for attack, because everyone knew where he lived. Only in the gravest of situations did bishops go into hiding. There is something distinctive in this public calling which goes beyond what is required of a deacon or a priest. The example of the second-century Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, as public witness and martyr, has been formative for the Church.

Dr Penberthy’s tweeting history suggests that she does not understand that bishops make a sacrifice of privacy. To witness to a divided public requires a high degree of self-awareness, a readiness to suspend even passionately held beliefs in order to communicate with and care for those who may not share them. To push contempt on social media for “Tories”, or anyone else, is crossing a line.

It happened last year, when bishops and senior clergy piled in to attack Dominic Cummings (News, 29 May 2020), as though public opinion needed persuasion at that point. To me, it seemed cheap, a gleeful venting of righteous rage on an individual who was already, even if justifiably, under attack. I, for one, lost respect for those who laid into him.

This is not to argue that bishops should not contribute to political life. There are good examples of those who have used their position to advocate for the needy and vulnerable. But they should remember, when they do so, that the part that they play is mainly as pastors to the faithful and representatives of an inclusive faith to the wider world.

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