Church of England

Anglican 'truthiness' – the malign spin against Justin Welby


Chinese Whispers has got nothing on Anglican spin. You know how it goes: the Archbishop of Canterbury makes a statement; it is announced verbatim by Lambeth Palace; reported with variations by sundry newspapers; gossiped about on anxious blogs; tweeted with significant misinformation by an impatient tweeple, or deliberately spun by mischievous participants to ensure that what the Archbishop is reported as saying (or doing) bears little resemblance to what he actually said (or did). The propagation of disinformation by non-Christians ought to come as no surprise, but from Christians it is a malignant distortion; a misrepresentative falsehood in the pursuit of a preferred agenda; or ‘truthiness’: “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist,” as expounded by American television comedian Stephen Colbert.

The Rev’d Dr Christopher Craig Brittain has written an excellent piece for ABC’s Religion & Ethics blog on this precise phenomenon which merits a much wider readership. It has (at the time of writing) attracted zero comments, but it raises such important matters of communication ethics in the Anglican Communion that one is tempted to light the touch paper by reproducing the entire article and then passively watch the celestial illumination.

His subject is truth; in particular the “power struggle over the authority to adjudicate the ‘truth of the Gospel’.. within the transnational Anglican Communion”. He observes:

Fuelling this emerging stand-off is a tendency to exaggerate the shortcomings of one’s opponent, to the point of engaging in character assassination. The internet has become a powerful tool in this rhetorical battle, but with the consequence that truth is often being compromised for truthiness.

..It not so much that a great many people are lying in the media; rather, an increasing number of people are becoming unconcerned with verifying their claims or with questioning the accuracy of statements by people who seem to share their own biases. In other words, “If it sounds right, it must be correct.” Exaggeration and leaving out inconvenient detail are often the order of the day.

Brittain observes that the Church has fallen for the deception: each reported aspersion, backbiting or selective recounting is taken as read by undiscerning journalists, bloggers and tweeters, and, to adapt the maxim, the truthiness is half way round the world before the truth has got its boots on. “As leaders in the Anglican Communion have taken to accusing each other of promoting ‘false Gospels‘, a tendency to slide into truthiness has emerged in the Anglican media.” And he provides a few examples which serve to illustrate this phenomenon:

Consider, for example, their coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to the second Global Anglican Future’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in October 2103. Archbishop Justin Welby had been in his post for less than a year, and it was clear that his visit to this conference hosted by the leaders of the Anglican churches of the Global South would be complicated, possibly even contentious.

During Anglican Unscripted episode 84, Kallsen and Congar report that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s performance “was a disaster.” However, after George Congar summarised a speech delivered in the Archbishop’s hearing by then Archbishop Peter Jensen (Sydney, Australia), I became rather suspicious about the way the story was being told..

..”Peter Jensen, the General Secretary of GAFCON, gave an address to Justin Welby. In a nutshell, he said that ‘this is not a battle between political factions; This a battle between “light and dark.” We’re talking about spiritual warfare. Justin Welby, you cannot be a neutral bystander in a battle of spiritual light versus dark; either lead or get out of the way.’ And from everyone I spoke with … Justin Welby came away gobsmacked.”

When I first watched this video, I was puzzled by this account because I had previously watched a version of Peter Jensen’s speech. GAFCON had posted both the text of his comments and a video on their webpage. What struck me after again watching the video and reading the text is that it did not sound much like the account provided by Congar. There is no mention of “spiritual warfare” or the imagery of “light and dark.” Archbishop Jensen does not address Archbishop Welby directly or suggest that he might need to “get out of the way.”

While it is clear that Archbishop Jensen intended to offer a defence for the GAFCON movement – denying that it is “schismatic” and calling it a “movement for unity” – after criticising the church in North America, the most aggressive comment he makes is, “Who will stand with us?”

And so, Brittain observes, we see an example of Anglican ‘truthiness’, principally brought about by gossip and second-hand accounts conveyed as primary-source witness: it suits an agenda to present the ‘facts’ like this, and it ‘feels right’. A second example:

On 3 October 2013, Archbishop Welby was asked during an interview with the Irish Times Gazette to comment on the present relationship between the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and the Anglican Communion. The ACNA had formally withdrawn from the Episcopal Church USA, and its status in the Communion remained controversial. Archbishop Welby replied, “Well, the ACNA is a separate church; it is not part of the Anglican Communion.” The interviewer, Canon Ian Ellis, then followed up by asking, “Can it be in communion with the Anglican Communion, or is that something for the future?” The Archbishop answered, “Well, it’s clearly for the future, because it’s not part of the Communion.” He did acknowledge the possibility of reconciliation in the future, but for now the ACNA was only an “ecumenical partner” in the “church of Christ,” rather than a member of the Anglican Communion.

How did Anglican Unscripted cover this story? In episode 127, after Kevin Kallsen refers to the interview as “Justin’s gaff,” George Congar picks up the story:

“Justin Welby set off a bomb on Friday … by deciding what it means to be an Anglican, burying the other Instruments of Unity, and just upending everything. His statement was such that the Principal of Moore College in Sydney [Australia] … said it was a ‘slap in the face to the GAFCON Primates’. It really was that big a gaff. And what did he do? He said the ACNA is not Anglican. Now the conversation began about the Anglican Communion, and is the ACNA a member of the Communion. Well, no, it’s not. It’s not a member of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). And that in recent years has sort of been seen as the mark of being in the Anglican Communion.”

Notice at this point that Congar’s account gives the same answer to Canon Ellis that Justin Welby did: the ACNA is not a member of the Communion. But then he continues:

“But, you know, the Church of Nigeria and some other African churches don’t pay their dues to the ACC anymore, and they don’t send their delegates to the meetings … There really is no hard and fast rule anymore about what it means to be in the Anglican Communion … This is an issue that’s in flux. But the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t limit himself to discussing the Anglican Communion, he went on to discuss what it means to be Anglican. And he said, ‘it is being in Communion with me’.”

And so, once again, Anglican ‘truthiness’ misrepresents Archbishop Justin: “While it is accurate to highlight the contemporary tensions over the question of membership, it is quite another to suggest that Justin Welby was somehow being indiscreet or arrogant to answer the question of the basis of this official list,” Brittain suggests.

You may be annoyed with the Archbishop of Canterbury or frustrated by his words or deeds. You may be critical of his theology or exasperated by his errors and omissions. But, you know what? He’s just a man – as sinful, imperfect, limited and morally flawed as any of us. There is no joy in spiritual misrepresentation, theological caricature or character defamation, however ‘truthy’ it may be. The Blogosphere, Twittersphere and YouTube are places of darkness, spite and bile. Christians have a moral obligation to be truthful, if not loving; to be light and salt. The last word goes to the Rev’d Dr Christopher Craig Brittain (whom we must thank for highlighting this phenomenon):

If the internet is indeed to be a site of Christian “witness,” then greater attention and care must be taken, by all involved, and greater reflection devoted to discerning what such a call to “witness” entails in the blogosphere. If indeed “the medium is the message,” then how Christian witness is presented will do much to shape its content. Defending the “truth of the Gospel” is not well served by the preaching of “truthiness.”