It’s a crude headline-grabbing statistic, derived from a distinctly unscientific list of apparently random figures, but by no means without a degree of truth and reliability to it. There is a short essay on the ‘Save the Parish‘ website by the Rev’d Peter Owen Jones entitled ‘These birds that cannot sing‘, which observes the “complete lack of engagement, of witness, of imagination” of the Church of England’s 42 dioceses, which, he asserts “have no practical or spiritual traction or presence”.
He is talking about social media: YouTube and Facebook, primarily, but the paucity of engagement may also be observed on Twitter and TikTok. Special excoriation is reserved for the 42 dioceses’ “immature and inept” media/communications teams: “A pack of poodles doing the Bishop’s bidding – and what the Church of England has ended up with is 42 inward-facing communications strategies, all of which are preaching to the diminishing choir.” And he adduces his statistical evidence:
Just go online. Here is the evidence for who owns, and more importantly is contributing to, the current spiritual and religious narrative within the UK:
- On YouTube, a year ago, Richard Dawkins tells a theology student his degree is useless: 659,000 views
- Russell Brand discusses religion on Facebook: 952,000 views
- Stephen Jenkinson talks about the meaning of death: 143,000 views
Now let’s have a look at how the leadership of the country’s main religious organisation, the Church of England, is performing:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury’s address to the Anglican Communion: 4,000 views
- The Bishop of Exeter’s Easter message: 62 views
- The Bishop of Chichester’s Christmas message: 57 views
- The Bishop of Reading (Oxford diocese) talking about COP26: 21 views
- The Bishop of Truro’s ‘driving home for Christmas’ homily: 5 views
It is indeed woeful that (for example) a team of five media/comms specialists in the Diocese of Oxford (cost? £200K pa?) doesn’t seem to have the first idea of how to spread good news via social media. And this isn’t simply because the list of (archi)episcopal topics are ‘dog bites man’ stories, and so scarcely newsworthy: there is nothing remotely remarkable about Richard Dawkins telling a student that his theology degree is useless – it’s just another entirely predictable atheistic snarl aimed at religion – and yet 659,000 views speaks for itself.
Why is an academic’s assertion of the uselessness of a theology degree so much more ‘viral’ (for that is social-media term) than a bishop’s cosmological apocalyptic declaration that Jesus rose from the dead and split history in two and heralds the seismic renewal of all creation?
‘The medium is the message’, as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan observed in 1964. That is to say, the words are important, but they are shaped by the medium of communication both in their transmission and reception:
The title “The Medium Is the Massage” is a teaser—a way of getting attention. There’s a wonderful sign hanging in a Toronto junkyard which reads, ‘Help Beautify Junkyards. Throw Something Lovely Away Today.’ This is a very effective way of getting people to notice a lot of things. And so the title is intended to draw attention to the fact that a medium is not something neutral—it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them and bumps them around, chiropractically, as it were, and the general roughing up that any new society gets from a medium, especially a new medium, is what is intended in that title”
Richard Dawkins has 2.9M Twitter followers and Russell Brand has 11.1M, but Stephen Jenkinson isn’t on Twitter at all, and yet his social-media ministry ‘Orphan Wisdom‘ captivates millions. Why? Because he is a master story-teller; a supreme entertainer.
And that is ‘entertainer’ in the original meaning of the term, before it got captured by variety showbiz and prefixed with ‘light’. To entertain is simply to hold the thoughts and attention of (a person, a group, an animal). A bishop, like a politician, like a schoolteacher, must be able to entertain their audience. If they cannot entertain, their words are wasted, no matter how urgent, important or relevant they may be, simply because everyone has switched off. The medium is the message, and the human episcopal medium is as dull as ditch-water.
That might have been an excuse for doing nothing 20 years ago, or even a decade ago. But today even the most prosaic message may go stratospheric with the right creative treatment.
Jesus was a master entertainer: you simply cannot captivate and hold the attention of 5,000 people with a sermon if you can’t command, orate, and entertain. Some people have what is called ‘presence’, and some people just don’t. Richard Dawkins, Russell Brand and Stephen Jenkinson have ‘box office’ charisma in bucket-loads, but this list of bishops?
Certainly, the Archbishop of Canterbury has a certain presence and can entertain (he has 170.8K Twitter followers), but (here’s the thing) when did he last captivate his audience and ‘go viral’? The answer, of course, was just last week, in his appearance on Question Time. During his response on the Russia-Ukraine war and the assertion that God will judge Vladimir Putin, you could have heard a pin drop: he captivated his audience and told the story. But before that? Bishops and archbishop only tend to ‘go viral’ when they put their foot in their mouth or shoot themselves in it; when the story is ‘man bites dog’.
But as the Rev’d Peter Owen Jones observes, the Church of England employs hundreds of media/comms professionals whose essential job seems to be to collate information and tweet or email it out. There is no assessment of wider engagement (and apparently no performance review to assess their professional effectiveness). Shouldn’t a bishop whose Christmas homily attracts just five views be asking questions? Or don’t they care?
To adapt Marshall McLuhan to the instruction of the resurrected Christ to his disciples to spread the gospel to all the nations of the world, the medium is the mission. Social media is an extension of ourselves and our witness. The personal and social consequences of social media result from this extension of ourselves. Words matter, but not as much as the medium and manner of their communication. The world is presently on (and captivated by) social media, but the Church of England is still playing with fax machines. They have a place, certainly, but they no longer help shape the spiritual and religious narrative of the nation. As Tim Rice in Jesus Christ Superstar challenged Christ through the mouth of Judas:
Ev’ry time I look at you
I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You’d have managed better
If you’d had it planned
Now why’d you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?
If you’d come today
You could have reached a whole nation
Israel in 4 BC
Had no mass communication
Yet here we are in AD 2022 with an abundance of mind-boggling mass communication, and the Church of England is backward and inward-looking when it comes to deploying social media. Why is it asleep in the light? Why is it that a blog post on Archbishop Cranmer will reach somewhere between 50-80,000 people, but a video or sermon put out by a diocese reaches a dozen or a few hundred? Where is the dynamism and creativity? Where is any sense of Hiram’s prophetic grasp of the importance of artistic excellence? Where is there any incisive analysis of why the deeply spiritual Russell Brand (or Jordan Peterson) can reach millions with their messages, but bishops are struggling to reach thousands, and some to reach just a dozen?
But you can’t ask these sorts of questions: they are considered impolite, if not impertinent, if not emanating from a plane of missiological ignorance as not to be worth responding to. They are the professionals, you see, and this is just an amateurish blog, limping and droning on and on. And who on earth is the Rev’d Peter Owen Jones? Ah, ‘Save the Parish’… say no more.
There is certainly a way of improving things at both the diocese and national levels of the Church of England, but better the devil(s) you know.