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Press: Penberthy violated first law of social internet

11 June 2021


DR JOANNA PENBERTHY is a clot. We learned many other things last week, but this was the most unexpected. The Bishop of St Davids gave a perfect gift to the right-wing papers that she presumably despises by burbling for years on her Twitter account about the wickedness of the Tory Party, until somebody noticed her account, and the whole thing blew up.

This was most obviously a violation of the first law of the social internet, which is that no one will spread anything you put online except your enemies, and they will put the worst possible construction on it.

This has always been true to some extent. In 1991, when I was, among other things, The Independent’s internet correspondent, I wrote privately to an academic in the Midlands suggesting that she not sign off her public postings “6’2”, blue-eyed, bisexual, and horny af” because there might at some stage be journalists other than I who learned how to read Usenet. I never got a response, but the signature disappeared.

That was a time before there were web browsers that could be operated with a mouse and long before social media as we now understand them. Even then, the medium appeared sympathetic and intimate, in a profoundly deceptive way. No one thought that they were talking to strangers, and no one realised that they could be overheard by millions.

But almost all the conversations from that era have disappeared, while almost everything you have ever written on Facebook or Twitter is only a few clicks away from the curious or the malicious. These are almost always the same people. Who among us wants to know what a bishop thinks about anything — unless we are stalking them? And there are far more people who stalk from hostile interest than from the other sort.


THIS brings us to Dominic Lawson, in the Daily Mail: “What happened to ‘love thy neighbour’? Or, even more difficult, ‘love thine enemy’?”

He quotes Penberthy: “On March 25 this year, she wrote: ‘Never never never trust a Tory.’ A little while ago, replying to someone who tweeted that ‘I no longer believe a single word from the Conservative Party. And I am a lifelong supporter’, Dr Penberthy pinged back, with a distinct lack of Christian charity: ‘That you ever supported the Tories says everything we need to know about you.’

“And when, last May, a poll showed Conservative support running at 47 per cent, she tweeted: ‘A very sad indictment of British electorate that so many still want to vote Tory. Absolutely appalling. I am ashamed of each and every one of them.’”

And so on. He is, of course, entirely right that the clergy are a long way to the Left of the laity, especially the most numerous portion of the laity who do not actually go to church very often.

It’s a shame that Lawson then had to spoil the whole thing by saying that the Anglican Communion should be ashamed of Dr Penberthy for expressing hatred of people who don’t share their views. As if the Daily Mail would ever do a thing like that. Chastened by his rebuke, I shall change my own Twitter handle to “Enemy of the People,” or, simply, “Saboteur”.

None of this detracts from the political force of his argument. Half-truths make much better offensive weapons than do whole truths, which tend to be covered in awkward spikes, like floating mines.


BACK at the Telegraph, Emma Thompson had another go at the bishop: “I am not theologically trained, but I cannot remember Jesus telling us to love our neighbours unless they are Tories. . . There is nothing new about Left-wing bishops being out of touch with their congregations. The trouble is that the political divide between bishops and laity is not the only issue driving a wedge between them.

“This is most keenly felt in the decline of parish churches. Last month, the Bishop of Winchester, Tim Dakin, was forced to ‘step back for six weeks’ after an extraordinary revolt by both clergy and laity [News, Leader Comment, 28 May]. Bishop Dakin appears to have prioritised resourcing urban Evangelical ‘megachurches’ while rural churches have been harassed with demands for growth, in money and attendance.

“Rural dwellers love their parish church buildings. This attachment to local people, place and parish is, sadly, almost portrayed as part of the Church’s problems. Properly understood, it should be part of the solution. A recent report from the University of York found that, post-pandemic, even 75 per cent of non-churchgoers wanted access to churches, as places of quiet reflection and comfort.”

They’re not going to pay for them, though.

It is a principle of this column that bishops are to blame for everything, but I really don’t think that they can be blamed for the utter failure of churchgoers to pass on to their children or grandchildren any kind of Christian faith, or even a desire to spend time in empty churches.

Angela Tilby: Bishops have to sacrifice privacy

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