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What would Jesus think if he read your social-media posts, church review asks

24 June 2024


THE “immensely destructive” use of social media is among the factors identified in a new review of trust and trustworthiness in the Church of England.

Besides referring to “major and traumatising breaches of trust” that have arisen from racism, sexual abuse, and issues relating to Living in Love and Faith, the review warns that distrust is “pervasive” in the Church. It diagnoses a “viral sense of despondency” among clergy, warns of heightened tribalism, and calls for an account of the Church “that is so compelling as to dispel the implicit overarching narrative of decline”.

The review, Trust and trustworthiness within the Church of England (GS Misc. 2354), was begun by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, in 2022, in response to issues that emerged during his work on the Transforming Effectiveness programme (News, 16 July 2021). He was asked by the Emerging Church of England Steering Group (a body comprising representatives of the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops) to explore “how we repair and preserve trust in the Church’s organisation and structures”.

He was supported by a small task group: the Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at the University of Cambridge, Professor David Ford; the Dean and Professor of Strategy at the University of Bristol Business School, Professor Veronica Hope Hailey; and Gordon Jump, a project manager at the National Church Institutions. A larger reference group was also gathered.

Over the past two years, Professor Hope Hailey conducted interviews with 20 laity and clergy, who were nominated by “a handful of diocesan bishops”. The focus was on those who “work with varied complexities and challenges in the Church but need to establish high-trust working environments”.

The 49-page review concludes that “pervasive yet patchy distrust is manifest in different ways across the Church”, but that distrust is “most profoundly evident” in “the major and traumatising breaches of trust that have been of deep concern to the General Synod and many inside and outside the Church”.

“Racism, sexual abuse and issues relating to Living in Love and Faith all deeply affect the life and witness of the Church,” it says. “The serious breaches of trust and some of the profoundly inadequate ways they have been responded to, in terms of processes, procedures and decision making, are themselves acute manifestations of a wider culture of distrust.”

It asks: “Why is the Church not, by its very nature, modelling better behaviour and practice?”

The “harm of social media” was a recurrent theme in conversations and group discussions, the review reports. “While accepting its remarkable value in connecting people and sharing information, the behaviour within and outside the Church of posting comments without regard for those about whom or to whom we are writing has become an immensely destructive behaviour in the use of social media. It is as if we feel we are somehow protected from the consequences of verbal unkindness, and even cruelty, just because we are not standing in front of the person about whom we are writing.”

“My God, in whom I trust, without asking to see photo ID or supporting documents”

It continues: “This is much more complex than ‘Please be nicer to one another online’, however. What some readers receive as hurtful and disparaging, the author and their allies may believe to be words spoken with integrity, prophetically challenging a culture they feel called to speak against. This difference of interpretation is painfully complex. We value freedom of speech, and disagreement should not be a matter for censure. . .

“Yet we know that people can be deeply hurt by what they encounter online, and our priority not to cause harm should sit foremost in our mind. Attacks on views we believe to be incorrect should be confined to the opinions expressed and never to the individual. And yet in a world where people’s identities are so intertwined with their deeply held views, is such safely targeted critique even possible? We are on very difficult terrain when we embark on such debates online without the face-to-face fullness of in-person discussion, and we should tread exceedingly carefully.”

Social media is also touched on in a section on access to information, with the warning that, “through our indiscriminate use of social media we are in danger of becoming stupid in our judgement of where to place our trust.”

The review includes quotes from unnamed interviewees, such as: “It would be an interesting exercise in spiritual direction, wouldn’t it, to say to all of us on social media, to everybody who’s kind of a keyboard warrior . . . what if every single tweet and every single thing you ever said in your lifetime, was gathered into one piece of paper or document and you are asked to sit down with Christ and read it.”

The review places its reflections on trust against a wider backdrop of a Church under stress. Ministry in the 21st century can be “a lonely, unaffirmed, contested and resource-starved experience for many clergy”, it observes. “This sense of declining affirmation from wider society can not only prompt a viral sense of despondency but also an overly critical and negative analysis of the institution and its leaders, almost as though a default position of distrust is a safety protection for many clergy from the possible disappointment from trusting too much. This prompts too many narratives and discourses in the national Church about decline and distrust.”

There are, it says, “high levels of distrust between individuals”, including between parish priests and bishops. “Often that is because a person does not feel known or understood by those in senior roles, or those in senior roles have become perceived as not making decisions that have the good of others at heart. As resources have been stretched, historic deference — itself of course problematic, as we know from serious safeguarding incidents — seems to have given way to distrust.”

Distrust also exists between peers, it says, including within the National Church Institutions and among the bishops.

While acknowledging failures by the Church’s leadership, the review is critical of a tendency to “other” parts of the Church as a “faceless entity”, noting that “we are all too familiar with conversations where an amorphous group — ‘the diocese’, ‘the bishops’ or even just ‘they’ — are held responsible for the trouble we are in.”

It suggests that “mistakes of ability or competence should not be afforded the same level of attention as breaches of integrity or morality”, and observes that, “when asked about obligations of followers to leaders, whilst a few clergy spoke about respect, compassion, always seeing leaders as human, unless prompted, very few spoke about forgiveness.”

Another recurrent theme in interviews and conversations was “the growth of groupings around church tradition, known by some as ‘tribal groups’ . . . where the internal narrative of a group becomes self-reinforcing and more powerful in terms of shaping identity and a sense of security than any overarching narrative about the whole Church of England”.

While acknowledging that “groups like these are bound to exist, for theological and operational reasons”, the review speaks of a need to ensure that “identifying with a particular group does not supersede identification with the overall mission and purpose of the Church of England, nor negate the possibility of people of one disposition learning from and valuing people of different dispositions”.

Among the concerns raised are that “ordination training and the different perspectives of theological education institutions bake in this tribal division”. It recommends that “substantial effort” be made to ensure that candidates “have developed a deep understanding and empathy for other traditions, recognising that all make up the whole that is the Church of England”.

The diagnosis of a culture of distrust within the Church echoes other recent reports. Last year, the report of the governance review spoke of “a culture of mistrust which harms the reputation and effectiveness of the Church and diminishes its prophetic voice” (News, 7 July 2023).

A wave of anxious, often angry, responses to the consultation on revision to the Mission and Pastoral Measure (News, 2 July 2021) prompted the Church Commissioners to warn that “re-establishing relationships and building trust” must be a priority for those leading reforms under the “Emerging Church” programme (News, 28 January 2022).

The following year, the Chote Review of Strategic Development Funding said that it had served as a “lightning rod” for a lack of trust in the Church (News, 11 March 2022), while the new diocesan finances review, published last week, warned that a “lack of transparency and clarity about how resources are held, used and shared” was undermining trust (News, 21 June).

Bishop Seeley and his colleagues warn that serious breaches of trust “will take decades to heal and deserve considered and reverent repair”, and conclude that “real culture change within the organisation requires a shift in everyone’s attitudes and behaviours, which together over time effect the transformation”.

The paper will be discussed at next week’s meeting of the General Synod, where members will be asked to help shape its recommendations.

Read more on this story in our Leader comment here

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