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Social media has ‘atomised’ public space, Archbishop McDowell tells Ireland Synod

13 May 2022

Pat Ashworth reports on the Church of Ireland General Synod in Belfast last week

Church of Ireland

Archbishop McDowell addresses the Synod, on Wednesay of last week

Archbishop McDowell addresses the Synod, on Wednesay of last week

IF THE common good is to become a social reality, then civic society must “encourage and struggle” for it in partnership with those who govern, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Most Revd John McDowell, told the Church of Ireland General Synod on Wednesday of last week.

“Mistakes and costly misjudgements” had been made in the course of the pandemic, and there had been much suffering, but the best of what had been achieved as a society had been achieved together, he said. “In one form or another, it has been a lesson in how to do and how not to do participative democracy.”

Social media was the single biggest contributing factor to the “atomisation” of the public space, “following the turn it took when it became less about people connecting with other people and more about people performing for like-minded people: dissolving social capital, chronically suspicious of institutions and — to use the jargon — refusing any meta-narrative.

“The effect has been to turn nations into ungovernable protest movements. That, unfortunately, in turn has led governments, even in some democratic countries, to choose to manage these divisions by deepening them rather than by healing them.”

Churches, he said, “must again become properly and truly trans-generational bodies, who have the patience and humility to learn from those who we have marginalised in the past, particularly the young.”

In the context of care for creation, he commended the “extraordinary” achievement of disinvesting ahead of schedule from companies who invested in fossil-fuel extraction, but declared, “The rest of the task is over to us . . . to get creation care into our church culture.”

He declared the rural parish to be the backbone of the Church in Ireland. “Farmers and what they do are very visible, and, because of that, can carry the can for people who are much worse in what they are doing to the environment, in retail and in agri-food.”

The Archbishop called for integrity among the clergy: people would not long consent to receive the sacrament from the hands of ministers whose hands offended them, he reflected. “People are very quick to spot a counterfeit, whether in the pulpit or in the public square.”

He continued: “Any leadership or initiatives which we explore as a Church, especially as they trickle down to parish level, need to recognise that our method is always to understand, to learn, and to persuade, and never to command.” Christ’s religion required harmony of word and deed: “a moral demand because, first and foremost, it is . . . an appeal to the conscience”.

Listening was an important element of inclusion, he argued. The results of a survey into ethnic diversity, inclusion, and racial justice in the Church of Ireland had shown it to be a welcoming Church — but one “hesitant about what to do after we’ve said ‘hello’.

“It seems we are more likely to go on to say, ‘And I hope you will be able to enjoy the riches we have on offer,’ rather than, ‘Tell us about your experience of God and your thoughts about his Church and his world’. . .

“We recognise the benefits of inclusion, but are uncertain about how to turn that recognition into meaningful participation. We need to do some work on that.”

One prominent finding had been around the Church’s entanglement in the past with slavery. Its stance was “not a statue-destroying militancy but a heartfelt desire for an understanding based on accurate facts and the appreciation of the legacy that the gruesome reality of slavery has left”.

Reconciliation was at the heart of all these things, the Archbishop told the Synod: “In order to earn the right to take part in a work of reconciliation, we, as a Church and as individuals, need to acknowledge that we, too, share a similar burden as do our political leaders, in that we are associated with institutions which have, at least historically, benefited from the reinforcement of distinctions between social groups. And, as with political leadership, these differences have been in some way or another connected with conflict.

“Our distinctive contribution to reconciliation is as disciples of Jesus Christ, and everything else needs to be seen in relation to that.”

The Archbishop turned in conclusion to the invasion and desecration of Ukraine, which historians looking back would “no doubt find to be a war with many causes, but with no justification”.

He reflected, “You know, for all the weaknesses and faults that make us vessels of clay, we are still one of the few institutions which can act as custodians of the big long-term questions of our world, especially in the face of a relentless short-term electoral cycle. And there is nothing which requires that long-term care more than the rules-based order which emerged in the wake of the last world war.”

He hoped that the Synod would send a message to its brothers and sisters in Christ in the Russian Orthodox Church, and especially to Patriarch Kirill, that when one part of the body of Christ was wounded — even if those wounds were self-inflicted — the whole body suffered.

“We live in an age when calls are made for resignations of those in public life for the most trivial reasons, yet no one can say sorry for the most egregious failures. That should never be the case for Christian leaders.

“So we appeal to the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russians to think again about what lies behind this conflict, and to use the grace given to him by the Lord of the Church, the Good Shepherd, to help bring this barbarous war to a just end.”

Read other reports from the Church of Ireland General Synod

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