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House of Deputies President Jennings: Be charitable on Twitter

House of Deputies President Jennings: Be charitable on Twitter

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.

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.”

Jennings continues:

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.



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Simon Burris

Sometimes I wonder whether “Christian approach to social media” isn’t sort of like “Christian approach secular politics.”

I mean, maybe the best position from which to approach it is strictly from the outside (?).

Christopher SEITZ

“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 seems like an odd comment. Surely people are free to comment as they wish on church decline, and so they do. To have this then characterised in the manner above could suggest that such commentary is always like this, when of course this is simply not true. To then move to the next concern — violence against woman — without an explanation of how church decline commentary is related to this violence, is disconcerting at a miminum. I have never tweeted in my life and I do not intend to. But from what I gather, it is a sewer line in which all kinds of subChristian commentary is possible, on every side. You could read this and believe the sewage is only on one side. Somehow I doubt that.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I’ve never heard of liberals making death and rape threats against women for expressing their views (personal relationships are a different matter). During the debates over SSM in my state, the bishop was middle-of-the-road and he got spat on for not being a homophobe. He never got spat on fron the anti-homophobic side. I don’t doubt that there are exceptions, however, the “both sides” argument presents the real possibility of false equivalencies.

Christopher SEITZ

You missed my point. If you want to decry twitter excesses, be my guest. It is a sewer line.

Leave out introducing it with a topic that is not related to it. Obviously church decline is a topic reasonable people have a right to discuss and even to hold strong/serious views about. This blog has done just that. It comes off sounding like a defensive change of subject.

Christopher SEITZ

The discussion on the TEC decline here at this blog has been very good. The host has made very good comments, as have others. Why Jennings includes this topic in her rambling comment, which then culminates in a win-win defense of violence against women (who would object to that, if even in scorched-earth twitter land?), is a serious question. What is her budget cost to TEC? In a word: huge. As are all the offices Ferguson, Jon White, et al question. If this is her contribution, in the name of an extravagently expensive salary in a seriously declining church, perhaps that explains the odd transitions in her remarks.

Cynthia Katsarelis

“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.”

I got your point, I was just trying to put the spotlight on the most shocking revelation in Jennings+ letter. A revelation that makes it crystal clear that this abuse is much more than reasonable people exercising their right to discuss their impassioned views. She links the topic directly to the threats, i.e. that theological/political discussions crossed over into abuse. That link isn’t missing. If you find it disconcerting, perhaps you simply don’t know that women journalists and leaders regularly get threats for even covering certain issues, let alone expressing a view. That this is spiritual violence is happening within an Episcopal context over theological/political differences is what is disconcerting to me.

If one has to resort to threats, there might be a problem with one’s argument.

mike geibel

Online behavior can be policed. EC’s own comment policy prohibits personal attacks and threats and offenders can be blocked. Civility starts at home, and the post-election rhetoric by both sides has been ugly, and we all should strive to do better. Certain issues are Trigger Issues (abortion, SSM, immigration, Israel, immigration), and the use of demonic labels (baby killer, homophobe, racist, Nazi, anti-Semite) can trigger an intemperate response. Demonization is “viewing those we disagree with as if they are an insidious demonic force let loose in the world,” rather than as fellow Christians with sincerely held values that differ from our own. Last year, B++Curry declared that the MAGA slogan was heresy, essentially labeling all Trump supporters as heretics, and Clinton called them deplorables. Those who employ trigger labels should not be surprised when they evoke an angry reaction, but I agree that threats, curses and personal attacks are inexcusable.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I thought it was a misstep when Hillary referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” whether I agreed with it or not.

The reality is that there’s been a spike in right-wing extremist violence. A spike in acting out on the political polarization, attacking people rather than positions. Articulating racist, homophobic, and misogynistic views is now acceptable, as is treating people to harangues, insults, and discrimination for being a POC, LGBTQ+, or female. The extremism and violence aren’t coming from the left; human and civil rights are NOT extreme. Yes, jerks say awful things, but the extreme right is responsible for the actual violence and things like swarming on social media to those who threaten their world view, as delivered to them by people like Alex Jones.

Church is worse, because God is invoked to support this. Wrong God.

Cynthia Katsarelis

It’s not surprising that a gaggle of guys cannot see that Jennings is discussing something beyond disagreement, but violent language that has included death and rape threats. Attributing other motives may help feed your narratives, but it isn’t her narrative.

The “both sides” argument is a giant false equivalency that does a major injustice to some. Being on the receiving end of racism, homophobia, and misogyny is nowhere near the same thing as being called racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. These things are NOT equivalent. People of color, LGBTQ+ people, and women are frequently victims of violence, specifically targeted for who we are. Language that feeds that violence leads to actual harm, such as the El Paso shooting. Yes, I think some people are homophobes, I usually refrain from saying so, but there is no power group that regularly victimizes racists, homophobes, and misogynists. In fact, they are rarely brought to justice.

mike geibel

A left-winger shot Rep. S. Scalise and three others at a softball game. In the Berkley Riots, Black-clad protesters threw fireworks and rocks at police and hurled Molotov cocktails that ignited fires. More than 6 people were injured, and a woman wearing a MAGA hat was pepper-sprayed in the face. At a May Day rally in Portland, left wing activists attacked police and set fires; NPR reported: “Numerous projectiles were thrown at or launched at police and firefighters including rocks, bottles, ball bearings, fireworks, smoke bombs, and road flares.” In July, Tacoma police killed an armed man firebombing the ICE facility. In Oregon an organizer of an armed left-wing militia created to protect the LGBTQ community was killed when he drew a gun at his daughter’s Middle School. The divisive conditions in America are favorable for political violence that can destroy this noble experiment we call a Constitutional Democracy. The collapse of Churches can be the collateral damage.

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