The Revd Gay Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, has published a letter on social media use by church members. While the title and conclusion of the letter frame the issue positively – “I ask that we all take seriously the need to use social media responsibly, charitably, and in the service of the mission of God to which we are all called” – it contains some stark and chilling warnings about the ways in which our use of social media hurts others, and the threat of its use to control and silence even the debates of General Convention.
I found the link to her letter on Twitter.
— House of Deputies (@HouseDeps) September 9, 2019
Jennings refers to the recently released statistics concerning membership of the Episcopal Church, and acknowledges the need (with a nod to Paul Tillich) to “shake the foundations” and stir up to see “what appears in the remote corners of our souls which we have neglected for a long time.”
As we continue wrestling with how we are called to participate in God’s mission, I think we need to pay close attention to what is in the remote corners of our souls. If we look carefully, I hope we’ll find our Baptismal Covenant, in which we affirm the Creed, repent of our sins, proclaim the Good News, and promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being. I hope we’ll find our history of seeking the kingdom of God by distributing authority among clergy, bishops and laypeople so that all voices are heard, all people are welcome, and all visions of justice and mercy are honored. And I hope we’ll find a deep longing to be the body of Christ in a world that needs our witness and our transparent willingness to repent of our collective sins and seek a better way. Out of those very Anglican remnants, I believe the new will be born in us.
But there is another, far more worrisome, set of responses to the changing landscape of the church. Those are the responses that seek to blame and shame, to assign responsibility for numerical decline to those with whom one disagrees about theology or polity, or to use the occasion to elevate one’s own sense of certainty.
This summer I’ve been recovering from shoulder replacement surgery and have been unable to travel. In between physical therapy appointments, I’ve had more time than usual to survey the online landscape of the Episcopal Church. This, quite frankly, has been a mixed blessing. I’ve had the opportunity to catch up on updates from deputies and other friends across the church, and I’ve enjoyed the chance to share the joy of births, graduations, new calls, and other celebrations. But I’ve also witnessed conversations, particularly on Twitter, that have demeaned people based on their theology, discounted people based on the ministries to which they have been called, and shamed congregations for their websites or liturgies. More than once I have spoken to women who have been attacked by Episcopalians on Twitter so savagely that they have received anonymous death and rape threats. And more than once I have seen posts suggesting that these kinds of tactics will be present at General Convention in 2021.
Now, I am no Luddite. I was the first president of the House of Deputies to welcome social media on the floor, and I have encouraged and participated in the House of Twitter. Digital conversations allow deputies to engage with one another, with the wider church, with the wider world while we deliberate, and they also allow for some levity (#gc79pigeon!) during our long hours of work. But I am dismayed that what can be a platform for communication, humor, and spirited debate has also become home to intolerance, personal attacks, and theological purity tests that have no place in our church. I take very seriously the possibility that uncharitable behavior on Twitter might play a role in suppressing open debate and the free exchange of ideas at General Convention.
I am not suggesting that online behavior be policed. But if we Episcopalians hope to find new ways to spread the Gospel, ugly social media conversations are not going to help.
What we post on Twitter, Jennings concludes, has real and lasting consequences of our relationships and our evangelism. Therefore:
I ask that we all take seriously the need to use social media responsibly, charitably, and in the service of the mission of God to which we are all called.
Read the full text of President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings’ letter here.