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Armchair critics should tame their tweets

by
03 March 2023

The manner in which Christians disagree with their leaders on social media is a cause for concern, says Pen Withcare

THE customers of every pub in England have guided the national football team to World Cup victory every year since 1966 — if only the players could have heard them. Similarly, when Covid-19 broke out, many of us became armchair epidemiologists, however poorly remembered our biology O level.

It is easy to form an opinion from the sidelines when you are not encumbered by data, context, and accountability. But now, owing to social media and public email addresses, popular commentary has a direct line to the seats of power.

On the one hand, this is democracy at its most tangible. More voices, and more diverse ones, can make themselves heard more easily than when the gatekeepers were all-powerful. On the other hand, the tone of debate can quickly become vitriolic when people can spread their opinions, no matter how little grounded in evidence, reason, or empathy, and when influence is built by playing to the ugliest part of human nature: fear, tribalism, prejudice.

Leadership is meant to help us to live well together. A leader stands somewhat above the cacophony of different perspectives and, having weighed them all, discerns a way forward. The leader’s judgement may not reflect what one would do oneself in that position. But, if a democratic society is to function, there has to be a basic level of trust that the interests of the whole will be served to the best of the chosen leader’s ability and knowledge.

 

THAT trust, sadly, is notable by its absence. Having worked for Members of Parliament, I have often overheard the refrain “You don’t represent me” — with the implication that an MP should represent an individual rather than the constituency as a whole. Perhaps because people are no longer buying in to the basis of our electoral system, objections and criticisms can turn into bullying.

For the most part, the wounds inflicted are psychological: a hateful comment on Twitter here, a parcel of what looks like anthrax there. But physical attacks have never been impossible: in recent years, the murders of the MPs David Amess and Jo Cox bear witness to this.

I chose to not pursue a political career further for lack of a skin like an elephant’s hide. Before I worked in the Church, I had failed to appreciate, however, that a thick skin was a prerequisite for church leaders, too. I knew, of course, that there were divisions in the Church of England. But I thought that the most offensive comments, the most bitter diatribes, would come from outside. Instead, they appear to come most often from other members of the body of Christ.

Undoubtedly, the Church of England needs exceptional leadership to weather, and flourish amid, the ups and downs of our post-Christian context. Aside from financial shortfalls, leaders walk a tightrope in trying to maintain the breadth and unity of the Anglican Communion. Yet, when so many spectators are ready to pounce on any and every slip-up, each step must feel like a form of Russian roulette. No wonder Jesus declared the peacemakers blessed: the middle ground might not, otherwise, be recognisable as a hallowed space.

This problem does not affect only our present leaders. Knowing that they will probably inherit a mantle and get little thanks for wearing it will prevent many future leaders’ stepping forward. Among them will, perhaps especially, be people from marginalised backgrounds who have already struggled for recognition and acceptance. We are all the poorer without diverse, empathetic, and wise leadership.

 

THE episcopate and diocesan staff teams can help to rebuild trust in their decision-making by being transparent about their reasoning, open about how they see God calling them, and honest and humble when they fail. Similarly, ensuring that congregations are familiar with the Church’s governance structures and the ways in which they can become involved in them may enable people to feel that they have a voice without needing to venture into the storms of social media.

None of this is to ask for unthinking obedience, or to seek to quash prophetic voices. It is a plea for what James 3.1-12 calls “taming the tongue”. Just before it tells of the power of human speech to “set the course of one’s life on fire”, the epistle warns that “we who teach will be judged more strictly.” I wonder whether the apostle was thinking not only of the need for teachers to speak wisely, but also of their flocks’ tendency to take judgement into their own hands or, rather, to pronounce it with their mouths.

At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed “that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17. 22-23). Our discipleship and mission are inextricable from our relationships with one another. Social media present an opportunity to reflect our Trinitarian understanding of God in our speaking to and about those Christians with whom we disagree.

My question for all of us is: would someone outside the Church see a reflection of God’s heart in the way in which we discuss the proceedings of the General Synod, our dioceses, or the episcopate? If not, we might ask ourselves what we give precedence to over the commandment to love one another.

The author has asked to write under a pseudonym.

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