Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Canterbury lambastes social media’s role in Anglican disputes

Writing on his blog on 28 January 2015, Archbishop Justin Welby reflects on the limits of electronic media in solving disagreements.

In a process of reconciliation in which I was involved recently, one of the questions that people were asked (quite a standard question in these circumstances where the disputes are within the church) was, “What has this dispute done to your soul?”

You could adapt the question to different sorts of disputes, not least by changing the word ‘soul’ to ‘spirit’ or ‘inner self’ or something like that.  But it is a very valid question: the impact of conflict is not only external, but deeply internal. It causes trauma and lasting damage even where there has been no physical violence.

I will remember for a long time a letter I received in the last few years from someone who’d gone through a particularly difficult conflict in the church. It was full of what can only described as deep trauma and sorrow. It had been deeply damaging.

There were lots of reasons for this, but one that has been on my mind recently has to do with electronic media that we value enormously – Twitter, blogs (this is after all a blog), email, text and all the other ways in which our communications have been made more or less global and instant. (I am aware of numerous other forms but don’t want to end up sounding like an advertisement for particular apps).

The trouble is that subtleties, tone and access all get muddled up. That’s not a new comment – it’s been said many times – but every now and then things happen which make it even clearer.

The subtleties we lose when we communicate electronically have to do with expression, with touch, with the face-to-face aspect of relationship. Social media does not show tears in the eye, a hand on the arm when saying something painful, body language that speaks of inner turmoil, deep distress – even gentle respect.  It is simply there – usually forever. 

Certainly within the church, that is not the way the bible teaches us to disagree. Disagreements always happen: they always have, and always will – we only need to read the Acts of the Apostles and the letters in the New Testament to see that.

But the best examples of disagreement and strain are dealt with personally. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, sets out the pattern.  It starts with personal meetings, and goes on to wider disciplines. It sets something in motion; a new stage of relationship. Print and electronic media is often just static and there, often indelibly, locking us into a permanent present tense that hinders healing.

Tone is equally difficult to achieve; electronic media has no volume control. The US President Teddy Roosevelt spoke of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Electronic media speaks loudly and carries a big stick – through it we have no other means of speaking, especially in the compressed form that is often used.

For disputes within church communities, Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel makes it quite clear that personal interaction is essential – yet all of us feel that when someone has done something wrong, we should all say so!  Electronic media breaks through locked doors, and pierces people painfully. It is not for all of us to set everyone right on everything.  There’s a point at which we need to leave it to those who know people to speak to them personally and quietly – in spaces where the tone is subtle and full of love. That is how people can be put back together rather than torn apart and left lying around in electronic media space.

Love often says don’t tweet. Love often says don’t write. Love often says if you must rebuke, then do so in person and with touch – with an arm around the shoulder and tears in your eyes that can be seen by the person being rebuked. 

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