Is it wrong to judge a blog by the comments it attracts?

“I guess I find it hard to take that particular blog very seriously really,” wrote the Rev’d Canon Andrew Godsall, ministry development adviser in the Diocese of Exeter, of the Archbishop Cranmer Blog. He was commenting over at the Psephizo blog, expressing his surprise that the eminent and Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy would deign to publish his 95 New Theses (or, indeed, anything) on this site. The reason was not because his colleague the Dean of Exeter was criticised in a previous post for tweeting that Brexit Christians are all uneducated morons, or even that the Archbishop Cranmer blog is just rubbish. No, the reason he was “surprised” that any serious Christian or senior member of the clergy would engage with this blog is because of “the vitriolic comments it attracts”.

He isn’t the first member of the clergy to judge this blog by its comment threads. The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev’d Alan Wilson, did so a few years ago, and he went a good deal further:

..if you build a community on people who assume silly monnikers and sound off in a way they never would at work or at home, they reinforce the worst aspects of their characters, all you get is a seething mass of babyish sarcasm. The anger of man (and it is about 90% men — they come over as prep school masters indulging their shadow sides) really doesn’t work the righteousness of God.

And he went on to compare this blogs’ delinquent communicants and deficient comment threads with his own capacity to inspire experts and inculcate social-media virtue:

Compare and contrast a conversation I on my Facebook page where around 30 people, including specialist doctors, lawyers (including one who had worked on the Shipman case), care workers, bereaved relatives and others, engaged in a hugely respectful mutual conversation about assisted dying. Many points of view were expressed, including some angry ones. But all had integrity, partly, mostly perhaps, because all were accountable for what they said using their real names.

Should a blog be judged by its comment threads? Is a blogger in some way responsible for the way commenters sound off? Is this mainly the critique of politically-motivated left-wing, liberal-minded clergy who think that conservative Christians who incline toward moral orthodoxy and Brexit are, basically, ‘bigots’ and ‘-phobes’ and ought to be silenced (or reported to the police for ‘hate’)? Do they judge the Guardian by its vitriolic comment threads, or is its journalism of such superior quality that its online defects may be overlooked?

If this blog’s posts are thoughtful and intelligent and written in elegant prose, should a sewer of a comment thread be deleted because it detracts, offends or deters people from reading? What or whose threshold of acceptability should obtain? Who made Archbishop Cranmer pope? Does one delete every comment which certain (Exeter) clergy might find racist or homophobic? Or every anti-EU comment which Lord Deben judges to be xenophobic or anti-Christian? In the hundreds and hundreds of comments that pour in, should they all be screened and pre-approved for ‘acceptability’ before they can be published? Should commenters’ identities be checked to satisfy the Bishop of Buckingham’s demands for accountability? If so, where would the hours come from to do all this? How would identity be established? Passports? Credit cards? Do they think the blog pays anyone a salary? It’s easy for the Bishop to filter and ‘approve’ comments on his Facebook page if the most he gets is 30, but when you’re dealing with vast quantities every day, you either allow freedom of expression within the law or you close down the comment facility altogether because it’s simply impractical to monitor it all.

This blog will be 11 years old in March. God knows, it has consumed many, many thousands of hours, but those thousands would have been doubled if a million comments had had to be sifted for something called ‘vitriol’. And what, in any case, is the appropriate threshold of vitriolic acceptability on a blog? Is it vitriolic to speak the truth plainly as you see it? Must all commenters have art in their expression? Was Jesus not a tad vitriolic?

Andrew Godsall says he is concerned with “re-engaging the nation with the Church of England… to focus on things that communicate the Gospel in imaginative and generous ways.”

How can a Christian-Anglican blog best contribute to that mission? If its sermons aren’t the problem but its comment threads are, should the temple be cleansed, the community expelled, and another (nicer? more erudite?) congregation installed? Or should current communicants just be instructed to be less vitriolic? How, exactly, would that be enforced?

What clergy like Andrew Godsall and Alan Wilson tend to overlook (wilfully, it seems) is the fact that the overwhelming number of comments on this blog are reasoned, reasonable and intelligent. Occasionally, a thread emerges which is so erudite in its mutual interrogation and counter-ripostes that it could be a work of platonic theo-philosophy. These emerge spontaneously: the medium is the fons et origo. The danger, of course, is that someone interjects with anti-Semitic deflection, or plunges the tone into the sewer by obsessing about anal sex. These may be few and far between, but they are all that critics like Alan Wilson and Andrew Godsall choose to recall, and these then become the episodes which are deployed to bludgeon the blog and discredit the blogger: ‘If you don’t delete them, you must agree with them.. blah.. blah..’

Hence Andrew Godsall’s surprise that someone as eminently learned and respectable as Martyn Percy would sully himself by association. Why didn’t he give his 95 New Theses to the equally eminent theologian, author, speaker, academic consultant, and honorary assistant professor the Rev’d Dr Ian Paul?

Jesus mingled with lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors and other outcasts.

Is mingling with a few vitriolic blog commenters not a decidedly Christian thing to do? And, if market forces and popularity may be adduced to counter a little religious snobbery, the Archbishop Cranmer blog keeps going because something is clearly working. As of today, 329,190 people all over the world have read last October’s post on the Christian missionaries crucified in Aleppo. Sure, a few of the comments were vitriolic, but why should the post be judged by the crass contributions of a few when 329,168 people never bothered to leave any comment at all? Why should a whole blog be judged by what two or three people think or express upon it, when they are a minuscule fraction (0.007%) of those who actually read it?

The assertion that if you don’t delete comments you must agree with them is perhaps one of the most unintelligent criticisms made of bloggers. The expectation appears to be that every comment posted must be an extension of the author’s mind; that you can judge a blogger’s character by the company he attracts. So if (say) the BNP or Britain First like a sentence within it, you become one of them, and unless you issue perpetual denials and rebuttals, you are deemed to affirm all that they believe and stand for. And so all comments must be somehow qualified or tempered by the blog owner to ensure social conformity, which would effectively make every comment a mini blog-post, if not a whole new chat thread as the commenter appeals and the host is obliged to justify (or otherwise is deemed to agree with the commenter’s reasoning..).

Setting aside the vast number of hours this would take, why should the fact that some commenters believe that Anglicans aren’t real Christians (or that Pope Francis is a moron, or that all Muslims should be deported and Islam banned) be suffixed with a ‘superior’ official opinion or apology? It may offend to read some people’s comments about Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals or hamsters, but isn’t moderation by the participant community preferable to the host’s haughty censorship? Don’t the overwhelming number of ‘vitriolic’ comments on this blog receive seasoned riposte by some of the more moderate and compassionate communicants? Isn’t that what salt is supposed to do? Isn’t mutual correction and rebuke the biblical way? Why must it be down to the blog host to judge, sift and mete out arbitrary punitive measures upon recalcitrants?

Is it that because an eminent bishop and respected priest judge this blog by its comment threads, others feel justified and affirmed in trashing the whole enterprise? It saves having to engage with the substance, doesn’t it? Just hurl ‘bigot’, ‘-phobe’, ‘racist’ and ‘hate’ into the argument and, hey presto, there’s no longer any argument to be had. Far easier to dismiss Martyn Percy’s 95 New Theses because you can’t take his chosen medium seriously, than to reason with them, one by one, in a comment thread infected with vitriolic deplorables.

Does the vitriol come from robust Roman Catholics or fundamentalist Protestants? Is it Happy Jack, Martin or Dominic Stockford? Is his name really Dominic Stockford, or is he just pretending to be a church pastor? Martin who? Shouldn’t we be told?  Avi? Bluedog? What kind of names are those? It’s not CliveM, 1642again or Albert, is it? Is the serial offender David, Anton, Jon Sorensen, dannybhoy or Cressida de Nova? Is it Marie 1797, IanCad, not a machine, Len or Dreadnaught? It’s surely not carl jacobs or the Inspector, is it? And God forbid that it might be Mrs Proudie…

Apologies if you’re a regular communicant and haven’t been name-checked, but it’s impossible to facilitate Andrew Godsall’s desire for perpetual fragrance without identifying the cause of the stench, and that means naming (and shaming) individuals, many of whom use pseudonyms, so aren’t really accountable anyway (according to the Bishop of Buckingham), and so can’t really be shamed.

But there’s a person behind every moniker – sometimes lonely, depressed, angry, frustrated or needy; or (more often) just eager to express a robust opinion on a matter of politics or theology which isn’t possible anywhere else (is there another blog like this?). And all the world’s a stage, so everyone pretends to be what they are not, which might be magnified on social media to the point of uncharacteristic crudeness or terseness which would seldom be expressed face-to-face. That might be off-putting to some, but others find the anti-PC honesty and freedom of expression refreshing. Jesus wasn’t very PC, was he? And what’s wrong with free speech?

Is it wrong to judge a blog by the comments it attracts? Is the blogger not only the author of his post, but also co-author of every opinion expressed upon and about it? Isn’t judging this blog by its comment threads as un-Christian as judging people by appearance? After all, you’re judging the moral foundation and ethical motives of a whole missional endeavour by what a fraction of its readers say about it. Where there is scriptural dispensation for Christians to judge, the exhortation is to do it fairly and reasonably: ‘Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment‘ (Jn 7:24, KJV); ‘Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly‘ (NIV). Christians are exhorted to judge just judgment. Is judging a blog by its comments not an unjust judgment according to the flesh? Matthew Henry observes: “We must not judge concerning any by their outward appearance, but by their worth, and by the gifts and graces of God’s Spirit in them.” The words of commenters may be justly judged for what they are, but are they not merely the outward appearance of the whole blog? The comment threads speak what communicants’ hearts are full of, but surely they may not be adduced to judge the heart of the blog.

Does the Rev’d Andrew Godsall write off a whole church fellowship because it contains a few cranks and gadflies? Is the vicar responsible for all who enter his church and chat about the sermon over a coffee in the vestry afterwards? Okay, it’s not quite the same: a Christian blog’s fellowship is not a parish church, but it is an ecclesial community. If a vicar isn’t responsible for the calibre of sinning reprobate who turns up on a Sunday, why judge a blog community any differently and so unjustly? If, as Andrew Godsall claims, one’s heart’s desire is to “communicate the Gospel in imaginative and generous ways”, why does that imaginative generosity not stretch latitudinally to the toleration of a little vitriol?

It is true that some commenters are robust in expressing their opinions, which may be interpreted as aggression, anger or rudeness. It is also true that some who fellowship here (and have done for a decade) are utterly hostile to the theology, ecclesiology and political philosophy of the conservative Anglican host. When Bishop Alan Wilson hurled the attribution ‘troll’ in this general direction, it became clear that the blog’s and blogger’s fiercest critics are prepared to twist and distort motives, or misrepresent and caricature theology or philosophy in order to undermine credibility and destroy reputation (behind the back; not face-to-face). When one responds, more in sorrow than in anger, it only attracts what may be termed vitriol, which, of course, is left to stand without any community rebuke or higher accountability.

But comment threads are largely a process of iron sharpening iron: some intelligent, thoughtful and mature people (from many denominations and by no means all Christian) are eager to pick holes in weak arguments, challenge shoddy political thinking or shady theology, or correct grammatical errors (for which, many thanks). Can iron be sharpened without the red-heat of a sweaty forge and deadly sparks of vitriol? Perhaps, but it’s not everyone’s style to pop into John Lewis’s to buy an ergonomic Rota for plain or serrated blades, encased in plastic housing for health and safety.

Judge a blog by its content, by all means, but not by what you might read below the line, where a pair of idle hands may do the Devil’s work. That doesn’t make the blogger the Devil; nor does it make the blog evil. And you can always choose not to read the comments at all. Ever.