February's Letter from the Bishop

Dear brothers and sisters,

The Archbishop of Canterbury tweets.

The Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Justin Welby recently wrote a blog (that’s short for “weblog,” an internet opinion page) in which he talked about the dangers and limitations of cyberspace.  Please understand that Archbishop Justin is a regular and frequent electronic communicator.  He maintains, in addition to a Twitter feed, a Facebook page (I’m his “friend”) and the aforementioned blog.  I should disclose that I’m an avid Facebooker; and so, like Archbishop Justin, I recognize the positive use of electronic media.  In a general way, the Archbishop’s approach reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s:  “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel. . . . I have become all things to all people” – including, I might add, a blogger and a tweeter – “that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:16,22).  Whatever it takes to makes Jesus known, St. Paul and the Archbishop of Canterbury will do it.

That said, Archbishop Justin is rightly cautious.  In his blog, which was reprinted in the online Huffington Post, the Archbishop doesn’t de-value electronic media.  Indeed, I would add that many of our parishes use these forms of communication in creative and positive ways.  They help us to connect with people, often those outside the church.  I’m aware of one parish that “livestreams” its Sunday Eucharist on the internet, and another which posts videos of sermons online.  In a couple of congregations, sermons are “tweeted,” while others use Facebook quite effectively both for evangelism and for in-parish communication.  That’s all to the good, and I’m grateful for these creative ways of presenting the gospel.

The danger comes, says Archbishop Justin, when we try to push electronic communication beyond what it does best; when we use it, for example, in times of

conflict, or when we’re dealing with complex and sensitive topics.  “The subtleties we lose when we communicate electronically,” the Archbishop tells us, “have to do with expression, with touch, with the face-to-face aspect of relationship.  Social media does not show tears in the eye, a hand on the arm when saying something painful, body language that speaks of inner turmoil, deep distress – even gentle respect.”

In other words, when you’re struggling with a difficult or painful topic, don’t send an e-mail.  Talk face-to-face.

Archbishop Justin goes on to point to the New Testament pattern for dealing with difficult matters.  “Disagreements always happen,” he says.  “They always have, and always will – we only need to read the Acts of the Apostles and the letters in the New Testament to see that.  But the best examples of disagreement and strain are dealt with personally.  The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, sets out the pattern. . . . For disputes within church communities, Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel makes it quite clear that personal interaction is essential.”

So what’s the “takeaway” from Archbishop Justin’s blog?  To begin with, YES to social media.  It’s a good thing to make Jesus known in any and every way possible.  Remember that the Archbishop’s article was itself communicated electronically.  “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isa. 52:7).  But NO to social media (be it e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, texts) as a substitute for face-to-face communication.  Personal engagement is at the heart of the gospel.  After all, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).  When God the Father wanted to reach out to us, he didn’t send an e-mail.  He sent his Son.  And when we want to connect to one another most deeply, we look one another in the eye.

I encourage every parish in the diocese to engage in two-point strategy:  first, to use electronic media actively creatively, harnessing its potential to spread abroad the good news; and second, to keep in heart and mind the importance of Christian community that can only be fostered in face-to-face encounter.  My moments of greatest joy, after all, are experienced not when I’m posting on Facebook, but when I gather with brothers and sisters around the Lord’s Table and celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Yours in Christ,