church politics, social media and the archbishop

I’m a politics tragic. Watching the Labor party implode (actually watching Federal politics generally) has been like watching  a car crash – it’s awful, but I just can’t look away. Then there’s NSW politics. NSW has always seemed to me to have a particularly toxic political culture, perhaps something in the water. On moving to Sydney (after almost a decade’s absence) and becoming a member of a Sydney Anglican church this year I’ve discovered there’s a whole new political sphere to watch with fascination. It’s an election year in Sydney. We’re voting for archbishop.

When I say ‘we’, I don’t actually mean me. The voters at synod are made up of clergy and synod reps (I don’t even know who my church’s synod reps are!). So you could say the election doesn’t really concern disenfranchised church members like me.

But this time, the campaigns have been more public than ever.

RickThe supporters of the two candidates – Glen Davies and Rick Smith – have embarked on social media publicity campaigns, commending their men like never before. There’s and, both with their weekly email updates and a facebook page. The candidates are very similar, neither seem likely to bring significant changes. But still, there’s a definite Rick brand and Glen brand being marketed. Glen’s is the seasoned, wise, experienced and mature candiate. Rick’s brand is about being young, energised, active. The wise old owl or the fresh-blood whippersnapper.

Previously all this campaigning was relatively hidden from the public eye and people in pews like me. But thanks to social media it’s open campaigning now. What was previsouly whispered in secret is being proclaimed from rooftops, and it hasn’t all been pretty. The first instalment of ‘why rick?’ videos had me chuckling as a series of Anglican celebrities (they weren’t named, you’re meant to know who they are) offered only a couple of words of support  before the camera cut to the next endorser, even mid-sentence (‘I think that Rick’ CUT ‘would be a’ CUT  etc.). The effect was overwhelming – all these important people think Rick is great – though I couldn’t actually be sure why.

Church politics?

But firstly, to the issue of politics itself. Should we even have campaigns for archbishop? Should we eradicate church politics as much as possible? Secular politics hardly fills Australians with hope – and now we’re being political at church too?

In my view, politics is inevitable with a group of people like the church. We’re going to have different views on what needs to be done and we need some sort of framework for making group decisions and persuading others. But church politics ought to be done so differently to politics in the secular world that it’s almost unrecognisable.

That’s because Christians can’t use power to trample or dominate over others. A Christian will not (or ought not) run roughshod over those with whom she disagrees. Instead, we take the position of weakness, we make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of others. We speak the truth, seeking to persuade others. Even the Apostle Paul didn’t use his position to pull rank. He became like a ‘little child’.

With the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. (1 Thessalonians 2)

So if the Christian way is not to use power to dominate others, how do Christians actually get stuff done? We believe that the way to change things is through submission, gentleness, humility even weakness. This is how Jesus achieved his victory through the cross and it’s how his followers ought to act too.

fistThis means that in church politics there’s no place for factionalism, back-room deals, faceless men, political alliances, nepotism, jobs for the boys, branch stacking – these are weapons of power-politics, not of Christian humility.

And in church campaigning there’s no place for spin, cheap slogans, shallow celebrity endorsements (which distract from the substance of debate), sound-bites, innuendo or insinuation – these bury or confuse the truth rather than revealing it.

Our politics must be in service of others. We still have our views and preferences, we still seek to persuade others of them, but we can’t do it in a way which manipulates or crushes others – that would be self-defeating. Is such a politics possible? I think yes, but we might not recognise it as ‘politics’.

Social media opportunities

The Rick and Glen campaigns seem a little unprepared for the reality of social media. If you set up a facebook site you need to be prepared to receive negative feedback and be wary not to feed the trolls. Things have been defensive at times.  Poor John Dickson’s even been accused of ‘cyberbullying’ for asking too many tricky questions. This seems like growing pains to me.

The cat’s out of the bag with social media. There’s no point arguing over whether we should or shouldn’t use facebook for this sort of thing – this is the new reality. Instead, we should be thinking about what are the opportunities (and risks) that new media could bring.

1. It’s an opportunity to include more people in discussions about the diocese. Yes, most of us aren’t going to vote, but at least we’ve got more of a chance to know what’s going on! We can even ask questions! If done well, social media campaigning can generate discussions, promote inclusion and encourage a greater  feeling of ownership in diocesan decision-making.

2. Following from that, it’s an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the role of the archbishop, the diocese and the local church. How do we need to grow? What have we neglected? What really matters? Even the Glen and Rick brands reflect slightly different views about the role of the church and of archbishop. Which is wiser?

3. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how church politics has been done and how we may need to change. Now that more of the machinations can be seen in the light of day, how well have we done our politics? Hopefully, the broader scrutiny will generate renewed concern for doing our politics completely differently (in humility and honesty) to secular politics.

Of course, all these opportunities are also risks if handled poorly. Please let’s not take our cues from secular politics (look how that’s turning out!). There’s a risk that our politics will turn people off, that it’ll leave those who don’t have a vote feeling disenchanted and disconnected, that all our dirty laundry will be put on display and the name of Jesus dishonoured. It’s a big responsibility. Yet as I see it, keeping discussions hidden is never going to encourage the Sydney political culture to become more godly. Instead, we need to change.

As well as doing politics well, I would even suggest there’s even a need for Christians to do some journalism well. Now that these campaigns are going to be public, we could really benefit from a non-aligned godly media asking the questions. I mean journalism without the ‘gotchas’ and soundbites. This could assist campaigners in remaining honest, in avoiding spin and in getting to the point. Perhaps a retired minister or someone from outside the diocese – someone with wisdom, insight and respect as well as knowledge of chuch politics – could be a great blessing in this regard.

My two cents

I’ll just add my thoughts. An archbishop should be loving, wise, humble, faithful to the Gospel and able to communicate (that includes listening). I’d also like to see someone who:

  • Will look to cooperate with, support and even learn from other diocese beyond Sydney. For a perspective outside Sydney see  Jeremy Halcrow’s Sydney’s next archbishop and a crisis in leadership.
  • Will revive a concern for social justice and social inclusion so that we’re not just hearers and preachers of the word, but doers of it.
  • Will encourage more opportunities for women and older people to use their gifts in service so that the Body can be built up.
  • Will fight against tendencies towards tribalism.

What do you think? Am I being naive? Can we do our politics in a Christian way?


3 thoughts on “church politics, social media and the archbishop

  1. I love your four points at the end Laura. Have you seen them getting much airtime in the debate? What I’ve read seems to suggest that the major concerns of the Archbishop should be good doctrine, church planting, interacting with the media and maintaining Sydney’s leadership (others might say isolationism!) in global Anglicanism.

  2. No, not really. There was some suggestions that Smith was concerned that social justice might be a distraction – he made some comments about Tim Keller and Chris Wright possibly being an unhelpful influence in this regard. Both campaigns seem to be indicating there’ll be no change for women in ministry.

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