John Stevens’ headline and bullet points in Daily Mail sure are provocative:
Twitter kills thoughtful reflection, says Welby: Archbishop insists big questions cannot be answered in ‘140 characters’
—Most Reverend Justin Welby made comments in major Westminster speech
—He warned politicians including Cameron and Miliband of social media
—‘Instant reaction’ has replaced ‘reflective comment’, he said
The rise of Twitter and other social media sites is threatening to kill off quiet reflection, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.
Instant reaction has rapidly replaced “reflective comment” in an era in which angry remarks can be spread to “the far corners of the Earth” within seconds, the Most Rev Justin Welby said.
The need to compress arguments into the 140-character limit for Twitter messages can distort discussion on complex subjects, he told an audience including David Cameron and the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
My first reaction, as a regular user of Twitter, was that perhaps he is unaware that all the Beatitudes are 140 characters or less…
But upon investigation (thanks to 21st-century technology), I believe Archbishop Welby did NOT say any such thing about Twitter. In fact, I mostly agree what he did say in this section of his address at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast (with my bolding text):
“A 21st-century global Church, with all Christians irrevocably belonging to each other through the action of God, seeking to discern truth in many thousand cultures, is a church with fuzzy edges; because in a world in which cultures overlap constantly, and are communicated instantly – and, judging from what I get, often with some friction – you need space to adapt and to meet with one another, and you have to trust the sovereign grace of God for the consequences. He (unclear if Bishop Welby means Pope Francis or Cardinal Vincent Nichols) comments that even 20 years ago took months to reach the far corners of the earth now, as we know, take seconds. Instant reaction has replaced reflective comment. That is a reality that you deal with in politics, and it demands a new reality of ways in which we accept one another, love each other, pray for each other. The best answer to a complex issue on which one has heard a soundbite from a sophisticated argument is not always given in 140 characters.
“The Church of this century must be a generous church, because of that communications revolution, because of technology, because we are face-to-face with everyone, everywhere, always, in a way we never have been in history. The Church is a generous church which loves truth and loves people with the overwhelming love of God in Christ. As Christians we believe that God reaches out to us unconditionally and we are to do the same for others. God has no preferences, except a preference of love for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable; the widow and the orphan, the alien and the stranger. The Church is the most effective church when it demonstrates that love. And with that love comes the obligation of holiness: of being ourselves, but not turned inwards but living in holy lives that draw people to the blessing of which Isaiah spoke.
The Archbishop certainly did not say “kill Twitter”, or even that Twitter has no purpose (although, ironically, that’s the instant reaction expressed in these stories). Noting that technology makes instant reaction the norm does not mean it is inherently bad, just different from the past. He even makes clear that “a sophisticated argument is not always given in 140 characters”. That’s certainly true, and leaves plenty of room for meaningful Twitter dialogue. His valuing reflective and extended dialogue should not preclude using the tools of social media.
What I think (and hope) he’s also saying is that the church should be aware and engaged in the age of instant reaction, AND lift up the value of reflective and nuanced conversation, all in a spirit of generosity.
That’s worthwhile, when it does and doesn’t fit in a Tweet.