Madeleine Davies

Why are clergy wasting their time on social media?

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2015 at 6:35 pm

Twitter is something of a success story for our clergy. They are among the medium’s most popular characters, with hoards of followers, many of whom never interact with their ilk IRL.

But their presence has not come without a backlash. Accusations of narcissism and time-wasting have been levelled at the men and women who, some would argue, should be too busy visiting the poor and ministering to the sick, to be crafting 140-character epigrams.

“Why are they wasting their time on social media?” was the first question posed to three prominent clergy tweeters at Greenbelt on Saturday.

Kate Bottley, the “Googlebox vicar “(54.9k followers), Richard Coles (87.5k followers) and Giles Fraser (28k followers) did a good job of defending their commitment to the medium but, reassuringly I felt, acknowledged its dangers, and readily admitted to getting it wrong on (4)

Bottley, who rapidly accumulated followers after a video of her leading a flashdance wedding went viral, described Twitter as a “third parish” in which she did “proper vicaring”.

“You’re the only vicar I know” typed one woman who approached her to find out how to go about christening her baby. On another occasion she was able to help a follower who had been told by a funeral director that the Church of England would only do funerals for church-goers.

The secret to her success, she suggested, was authenticity. She is happy to tweet what she had for breakfast and to be “someone who shouts in the playground”. It was also important, however, to “accept that you will mess to up from time to time: but that’s okay.”

All three panellists were able to provide examples of getting it wrong; or at least being perceived to have done so. Fraser had once tweeted “am praying in church” (“no you’re not” came the rapid reply). Richard Coles had shared that he had “tears streaming down his face” while watching Mo Farah collect a gold medal at the Olympics and promptly been outed as “the world’s worst racist”. Bottley had been called to account by a friend after retweeting a picture of a fellow priest in a short skirt.

A self-confessed “relentless Twitterer”, Coles wanted to acknowledge that there was a tension between his activity online and his parish duties. When asked how he “did it all” by a fellow priest he had confessed “by neglecting my parish. And it’s sort of true”. It was reassuring to hear that someone so well-loved on Twitter and obviously adept at it, is so cogniscent of the risks. It was, he suggested, “quite a brutal stream of consciousness and unconsciousness”, that often fed narcissism. He feared that journalists increasingly spent time on Twitter rather than seeking out stories, with the result that the “preposterous” was elevated while really important events went unexplored. But it was also often a source of “unequivocal good,” he said. A medium for “glancing encounters”, “looking out of the window”, and “a lightness of touch in matters of seriousness”.

From reuniting lost dogs with owners to changing people’s minds about the issues of the day (Fraser compared his recent tweets from the church in the jungle in Calais as “a sort of sermon”), there was much  to celebrate, the panellists argued. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign was cited, as was Twitter’s ability to expand horizons. Fraser pointed out that he was in reception as well as broadcast mode. He had read articles he might never otherwise have encountered, and been “buoyed” during moments of loneliness by followers supporting and praying for him. It “raises surprisingly remarkable people up”, he observed ( I will now be checking out and

In fact, it was evident throughout the session that all three panellists had given a great deal of thought to their presence online and the ethics involved. Fraser set the question in a historical context, suggesting that, in the wake of the Civil War, Anglican clergyman in England had ceded to pressure to be “Mr Collins-es”, travelling their parish by horse and conducting endless visits in which the “dinner party rules” (no politics, religion or sex) were strictly observed. Pastoral care was all. “I am not very good at pastoral care and I do not do much of it,” he was happy to confess.

His own presence on Twitter began as a race to reach 1000 followers, with the then Telegraph journalist Jonathan Wynne-Jones (who maintains to this day, apparently, that his resignation from St Paul’s was a calculated bid for victory).

There was divided opinion on how best to respond to attacks online. While Coles tried to “nice them back”, suggesting that there was an opportunity to model an alternative response to aggression, and Bottley opted to retweet them with the hashtag “#everyblessing”, Fraser questioned whether it was right to be “pushovers”.

“When people say stupid things we should be prepared to argue back,” he said.

There was discussion, too, about whether it was important to keep some areas of their lives absolutely private.

“Yes, and you have to be really, really clear about that,” said Coles. “Twitter is a beast that needs feeding . . .We are not just heroes but custodians of people’s stories.”

As someone who often feels quite uneasy when clergy tweet stories of funerals, it was good to hear this. There was still, he suggested, a “lack of structure of accountability”.

Finally, it was good to be reminded that clergy, as much as anyone else, are vulnerable online. Coles had to remind himself that it was not representative of public opinion, as a “palliative to anxiety”. Bottley has seen the “pervy side” (including, incredibly, requests for used pairs of tights).

Their final tips:

Richard Coles: Never unfollow and take a fast 2-3 times a year

Fraser: Encourage people to do it, but don’t confuse it with real life.

Bottley: Be authentic and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

The session ended, inevitably, with all three attempting to take a group selfie.

“It is human interaction, and to that extent it’s wonderful,” concluded Fraser, who had met Bottley in real life just hours before.

  1. That’s useful, thanks. Some years ago I offered an apologia for Facebook…and it found its way into print.

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