At best, the CofE’s Christmas social media campaign is too light and fluffy to communicate the truth of the gospel says Rev Peter Ould. At worst, it misinterprets and mistranslates scripture. The Church must do better if it wants to win souls for Christ
Advent is traditionally a time for reflection as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Given that, it’s not surprising that the Church of England would want to provide some resources to help people prepare for Christmas. But is their daily social media offering any good? Is it even theologically robust?
This year the CofE Twitter / X account is offering us the #JoinTheSong campaign, a daily Bible reading, pithy comment and a prayer. Sounds good right?
Unfortunately the truth is a bit more worrying.
Day One brought us Ven Miranda Holmes, the new Archdeacon of Liverpool, mistranslating Isaiah 45. Whereas the text talks about “treasures in secret places”, Rev Holmes chose to translate the Hebrew mistar (meaning secret or hiding place) as “darkness”, which is not what the word means. From here, she leap-frogged to waiting in darkness at the start of a panto performance and the anticipation that brings, and then onto talking about Christmas anticipation.
01 - Darkness— The Church of England (@churchofengland) December 1, 2023
Archdeacon of Liverpool, @MirandaTHolmes, begins our daily reflections for Advent.
Read more in Genesis 1.1-2 and discover more with our online Advent calendar, at https://t.co/RP7IaFCGlZ.@LivDiocese #JoinTheSong pic.twitter.com/JTzfaBcxiv
Unfortunately that’s not what Isaiah 45 is about at all - it’s God’s word to Cyrus, king of Persia, saying that he’s going to use him for the purposes of restoring Israel (Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and freed the Jews to return to the Promised Land). The “treasures in secret places” refer to the mystery of God using Cyrus for his purposes. They have nothing to do with anticipation. Isaiah 45 is about God’s sovereignty over all creation, all nations and all peoples - it’s not about waiting in darkness (try Isaiah 9 for that).
Perhaps Day Two would be better. A lay worker from Sheffield spoke on the theme of ‘light’, but read a passage from Genesis 1:27-28 that had nothing to do with light (clue - the light stuff is in the first few verses) followed by a prayer about being a light for God. Nothing bad in itself, but not the correct usage of the theological concept of imago dei - being made in the image of God - that she had just read from.
02 - Light— The Church of England (@churchofengland) December 2, 2023
How can we reflect God's love and light in everyday life? 🕯️
Hannah Sandoval, from @DioceseofSheff shares today's Advent reflection.
Find our #JoinTheSong app at https://t.co/XzZEePDxAK or https://t.co/VX2YVcu0F6. pic.twitter.com/EeTb4XVoKz
Day Three was the absolute low point. Rev James Moring read to us from the Genesis account of Noah’s Ark, including a detailed description of the rainbow as the sign of God’s promise never to destroy humanity again. Brilliant stuff, but then utterly ruined by a prayer that thanked God for the sign of his promise, the dove! The what now? Rev Moring literally just read the Bible verses that said God’s promise was the rainbow, and then told us something entirely different in his prayer! This wasn’t just a translation issue, it was ignoring the word of God and replacing it with something else entirely.
03 - Promise— The Church of England (@churchofengland) December 3, 2023
Rev James Moring, from @Lichfield_CofE, shares from the book of Genesis on the promise of God.
📱 You can find Advent reflections for all ages by downloading our #JoinTheSong app, at https://t.co/XzZEePDxAK or https://t.co/VX2YVcu0F6. pic.twitter.com/k7z7PBOf9Q
Day Four was a rest from the egregious misuse of the Bible with an acceptable message about listening to prophets (but the prayer then veered off into other areas and asked us to listen to people who might not be prophets at all).
People don’t need lightweight spirituality, they need the prophetic, gritty truth
Day Five brought us some nice (at first) thoughts about angels to accompany a Bible reading from Gabriel’s visit to Mary. This however then descended into some rampant heresy with angels being described in the introduction to the prayer as “either human or divine”. In reality angels are neither, but rather a different kind of created being altogether.
05 - Angel 👼— The Church of England (@churchofengland) December 5, 2023
Rev Jane Palmer, from @DioSalisbury, shares today's Advent reflection on Gabriel appearing to Mary.
You can listen to audio versions of our Advent reflections, online and in our #JoinTheSong app at https://t.co/XzZEePDxAK or https://t.co/VX2YVcu0F6. pic.twitter.com/C4WdyoQ2Ga
I appreciate that the message was trying to communicate that God can come alongside us through ordinary people as well as supernatural intervention, but this kind of sloppy language betrays exactly what is wrong with the Church’s Advent social media campaign. It can be summed up in the expression “spirituality without theology”.
The individual components (Bible verses, prayers, reflection) are all wonderfully touchy-feely, but has anyone actually sat down and asked: “Do all the components work together? Have we checked we’re actually using the Bible verses correctly?”
In fact, on Day Five no-one even bothered to check if the spellings were correct in the subtitles (spoiler alert: they weren’t). This is not the fault of the individuals giving the devotions. There’s a download from the CofE containing all the readings and prayers, meaning that these major errors were produced directly by the CofE communications team.
Prayers and theology
For Anglicans, prayers and liturgy are incredibly important. Other denominations have statements of faith or doctrinal formularies, we have the Book of Common Prayer. We express what we believe through what we pray. This means that our prayers should come out of our theology, and they shouldn’t be formalised until we agree what the theology actually is.
In recent years, the CofE seems to be putting a touchy-feely spirituality in front of robust theology. It is more bothered about the appearance of the end product than its biblical foundations. We see this in rushed-through liturgy for which there is no consensus, and the willingness of senior leaders to jump onto the latest public issue without proving any corporate theology behind their stance.
We express what we believe through what we pray. Our prayers should come out of our theology
And that’s what’s happening with these daily devotionals - a series of Bible readings and prayers thrown together almost haphazardly (“Oh look, the word light appears once in that passage, so let’s have a prayer about light regardless of the context of the verse”) without concern as to whether the theology has been properly worked out.
That can lead to people with the best of intentions spouting the worst of heresies, but it’s also what is so wrong in the CofE at the moment. We are full of people who don’t actually believe the words they are reading, and who want to change the meanings to suit their own theology.
It’s not all bad though. In the middle of all this muddled, feel-good tweeting was a video of TV presenter, Dan Walker, telling us about his favourite carol. It’s a brilliant example of how to actually do this kind of thing. Dan draws out a verse from the carol, gives us some great, basic Christology and finishes with an evangelistic challenge. Brilliant!
People don’t need lightweight spirituality, they need the prophetic, gritty truth. Jesus isn’t a nice, fluffy bloke with whom you can have a prayer gong session in the calmness of your sandalwood candle-infused meditation room. He is the Lord of all and he came to save his people from their sins.
If all the CofE has to offer is social media posts with garbled theology and headline heresy, perhaps someone else needs to take over the pastoral mission to the nation next Advent.