Social Media and the Virtual Church

There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed on social media, regarding virtual church services. Are the issues themselves the cause? Or are there other things surfacing in our common life?

 

There is a monumental twitter and facebook spat going on at the moment, having to do with whether and where it is or isn’t right to celebrate the Eucharist outside a church. It’s raised other questions too, about the validity, for want of a better word, of streaming worship and whether church buildings should remain open, and if so for whom. There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed, to the extent that I find myself wondering whether the issues themselves are the cause, or whether other things are surfacing in our common life of which, until now, we were not aware.

The controversy seems to be largely focused on church people, ordained and lay, some of them highly placed. Perhaps it has extended itself more widely in the social media scene, and it is only because of my fairly limited following that I’m not aware of whether other people are concerned about these questions, whether they feel they have a particular interest in them. I think I can safely hazard a guess that most of my non-churchgoing friends are fairly indifferent to them.  So where does that leave those of us who, willingly or not, have been caught up in this fracas?

Where it leaves us has to do with what it is about these questions that really matters to the individual and how the whole question of public worship needs to be thought about theologically. It would take a book to answer the second question, even if it were to be limited to the contextual circumstances of a pandemic. But I think there are other more pressing pastoral issues at stake right now. These have to do with feeling very disorientated and afraid in these unprecedented times, and with the attendant anxieties which that fear brings to the area of public ministry, to its relevance and place in our lives. In this respect, it feels that those of us who are ordained are coming adrift from our moorings. It would not be fair to blame bishops or other church leaders for this sense of dislocation because many of them are probably feeling the same way.

Be that as it may, our passionate attachment to the issue of public worship and its attendant questions may also have to do with fearing the loss of a certain kind of purpose, of calling, perhaps. Ordained people are feeling vulnerable, especially those who do not have other paths along which they can minister, such as the continuation of food banks, homeless shelters and other permitted good works. Church buildings witness to the abiding presence of God in our midst in practical, as well as spiritual, ways. We all belong to our buildings, as our buildings belong to us. We also belong to one another in the context of social media.

I am not a parish priest, but I can imagine only too well how at a loss many priests must feel when they have only the internet and the phone to rely on for exercising pastoral and liturgical ministry. The tone of the exchanges on social media does not seem to acknowledge the challenges they face, still less express the affirmation which they must be needing. There is very little kindness in it all. If we were to begin to outdo one another in human kindness, we might find that questions of liturgical practice under lockdown would resolve themselves. Would the Church then look significantly different after Covid?

Quite a bit has been written about the Church’s structural future, but we also need to think about what that structure will embrace, and what it will convey to the world. Will the Church consist of people who are so anchored in God’s love that whatever they do or say will convey God’s love for them and for those they serve?

Right now, we are like the frightened disciples, huddled in the upper room when the risen Christ appears to them. They are busy arguing about the truth of the reports they have heard, as we are busy arguing about how public worship is to be conducted under lockdown. They are unstable and afraid, as we all are right now. Christ breathes peace into their individual fears, as he breathes into ours. He makes it possible for love to take hold of them again.

To be effective in ministry, wherever that takes you, is to know God’s love, to love God in return and to love his people. It also should inform how we conduct discussions online.

When Will There Be Good News?

The heart of the post I’ve just written: Our humanity is the spirit that makes us the persons we are. It is the line we draw between right and wrong, wisdom rather than cleverness, compassion rather than pragmatism.

The first thing I read or listen to tends to set my emotional course for the day ahead. By this I mean that whatever bit of news first appears on my screen, and my instinctive reaction to it, will, in some measure, define all my other emotions for the day, along with the thoughts and decisions which these emotions will affect.

Today, it happened to be William Bell’s article in the Comment section of the current issue of the Church Times. Bell’s is a factually sustained account of why we still ought to feel a deep sense of outrage at the ongoing injustices being perpetrated in regard to the Palestinians by the continuing appropriation of their land, and denial of their basic human rights, specifically in the context of East Jerusalem. Yesterday, it was the murder of two young Cambridge graduates by a crazed individual wielding a knife during a seminar designed to bring people together through shared learning.

Many of those who read this post will have experienced similar feelings to mine in regard to the news of the day, and possibly a degree of helplessness in the face of all this evil. But does it have to be like this? Might it be possible to turn our feelings of helplessness and anger to good use, or to ‘convert’ them? I understand this ‘converting’ as a kind of composting, as when biodegradable material is sufficiently concentrated and rendered down that it becomes a nutrient, a source of life and growth for the soil it feeds.

Perhaps our feelings of anger in regard to the events going on around us, not to mention our distrust of politicians and increasing disillusion with the political system itself, need to be rendered down and converted in a similar way. Positive anger may not always translate into writing newspaper articles, but it can fuel hope. For one thing it strengthens resistance, as it has been proved to do in wartime situations when there is a common enemy to defeat. Resistance is not just about defending oneself against danger. It is about being proactive in the face of evil, a proactivity which both defines and tests our humanity.

Our humanity is really the spirit that makes us the persons we are. You could also describe this spirit as ‘will’ or ‘conscience’. It reveals itself as the line we draw between right and wrong, or which defines those situations that require wisdom rather than cleverness, compassion rather than pragmatism. In politics, mistakes are made when decisions taken by politicians are the product of delusion, because they are self-serving or part of a wider power-mongering agenda, as is the case with Trump’s support of Israeli settlements.

The human spirit learns through wisdom to discern motive. So the human spirit is tested not only in how a person or nation responds to the evil being done to others, and to the duplicity and lies of the powerful, but in how that person lives a ‘just’ life, to use a rather biblical expression. Living a just life will involve anger, but it will need to be ‘converted’ anger, anger which is fuelled by compassion and the desire for wisdom and understanding. For the person of faith, this particular kind of understanding, the understanding which ‘bears fruit that will last’ (John 15:16) begins in the life of the spirit.

There is nothing nebulous or abstract about this life. On the contrary, it is a conscious ongoing and deliberate willing of ourselves into any given set of circumstances that are affecting people’s lives. Right now, the greatest of these, and the one with the most enduring consequences, is the accelerated rate of climate change. Getting into this situation, from that place of wisdom and compassion, involves a willingness to become, in a sense, those whose lives are most affected by extreme and long-term changes in climate. It is not hard to imagine who they are. We read about them every day. When we become who they are, when we see their faces from within our own spirit, we begin the work of resistance, because it is in this place of deep compassion that anger becomes ‘converted’, and so changes the way we think and the way we do things.

If we remain in this place, at a sub-conscious level, we will find ourselves questioning our every action, insofar as any given action is likely to make the world a safer or happier place for other human beings and other species. Small actions count most because they are within the reach of all of us. How long to leave the hot tap running, whether to drive when, with better planning, we could easily have walked or cycled, opting for loose vegetables rather than packaged, or, better still, growing your own if you have a bit of garden space.

All these decisions are made in and by the human spirit, but they are only made possible by an encounter with the face of Love itself.

Mouse Habits

‘When we click through the news on our screens we experience it in the immediacy of the present moment. We also experience it in our loneliness. The loneliness of such moments feeds the fear we carry around in ourselves, the fear that comes with a sense of our disconnectedness from some indefinable life-source.’ Excerpt from my latest book In Such Times: Reflections On Living With Fear

‘Mouse’ is not a bad name for the gizmo which connects us to our computer screens. It is a symbol of the hunted, but also of the one who hunts, or searches, indiscriminately picking up whatever life sustaining morsels lie to hand. As ‘hunters’ we are in control, believing that the world lies open to us, that there is an abundance of choice out there. As ‘hunted’ we are the victims of the fears and uncertainties which this spurious freedom appears to give us.

I think of my own screen habits which have deteriorated of late, both in the amount of time I spend ostensibly reading things, when I am in fact simply grazing. I remember, rather wistfully, my pre-social media days.

As one of many millions who spend a fair bit of time online, I’ve thought about screen habits quite a bit of late, first in regard to how, if at all, they affect the way I think about what is going on in the world, and what I choose to watch, and why I watch those things. Most of the time it’s the news. I feel helpless in the face of the destruction of the planet and the evasive tactics of the powerful who benefit from that destruction. I am horribly fascinated by the antics being played out in parliament, though I am growing bored with those of Donald Trump and with much of the competing rhetoric surrounding the Brexit issue. Recently, I’ve been drawn to things that somehow ring positive – stories of heroic beach rescues, or of the devotion of animals which defies understanding but brings hope.

As I live in the country, I’m fairly well acquainted with the hunting habits of mice. You can be pretty certain that for every one mouse you see scurrying across the kitchen floor – even a reasonably clean kitchen floor – there will be at least ten more lurking behind the pipes or nesting in the cavity insulation. They work in teams but seem to hunt alone, a little like the computer mouse. We hunt alone, but there are millions of us gravitating to the same things.

This being said, I don’t think the solitary hunter mouse experiences existential loneliness. The idea hasn’t even crossed her mind. The solitary rodent is not in denial about anything in particular. She has enough to do, just obeying her nest-making and other survival instincts.

This is where we, when we are in ‘hunter mouse’ mode, differ from those little grey rodents. Much of the time we spend on computers is spent in a form of denial. We hunt to get away from our loneliness. We are in denial about the isolationism which our freedom to access information as events unroll has brought us. We are also in denial of the loneliness we experience in it. Though anxious about the way the world is going, our anxiety seems to return us to ourselves most of the time.

What we are really looking for, then, is something that will lead us out of ourselves and into a place of commonality, a feeling and desire for the common good. Deep down, I think many of us are watching out for something resembling sacrificial love, especially in the sphere of politics and leadership.

Watching the news, or surfing it, gives you a sense of the kind of battle being waged between the forces of good which are to do with sacrificial love, and the arrogance and self interest which ultimately leads to loneliness and isolationism.

Watching the news becomes a matter of surfing for the opinion which best chimes with your own, even when your own is shaped from ‘gut’ feeling rather than a balanced seeking out of the truth (a now completely devalued word) and of what best serves a nation. When glimmers of love emerge in the political arena, as they do from time to time, defying the arrogance and contempt of some for those they are there to serve, we recognise them for what they are with a kind of deep sense of joy – but not the triumphalist joy that comes with ‘winning’ or having the last word.

If the whole Brexit debacle has served any purpose at all, it will at least have revealed that it is possible for politicians to act with integrity in the matter of sacrificial love. In other words, to put their consciences and the needs of the country ahead of their careers. The same holds true in all public spheres, including that of the Church, where integrity and sacrificial love is required from time to time from leaders. Much of the time, the personal sacrifices that they make go unnoticed, or unremembered.

But they are remembered at a different level. In the case of Brexit, their story will no doubt define history, so they will be remembered by future generations. But hope does not begin and end at its source, with the person or people who are courageous and competent enough to put sacrificial love at the service of the country. It gives hope to the millions of us ‘hunting’ desperately for politicians we can trust and for a future we can believe in.