If the Church of England wants to restore trust, it needs to earn it, says George Pitcher. Social media is not the problem, it’s the lack of transparency in dealing with the hard issues


Source: Tracy Le Blanc: pexels.com

There is something foreboding about a new Church of England report, a sense that, whatever it’s about, you know what’s coming: A heady mixture of statements of the obvious, answers to all questions that are likely to be “Jesus” and an overriding sense that it’s been authored jointly by Pollyanna and Mr Pooter.

So it is with the latest portentous brick to be offered ahead of next month’s General Synod, the Church’s parliament, titled Trust and Trustworthiness in the Church of England, which wonders why we’ve lost those qualities and ponders what we might do to retrieve them.

Late on, this report observes that “day-to-day 21st century ministry can…be a lonely, unaffirmed, contested and resource-starved experience for many clergy…[prompting] an overly critical and negative analysis of the institution and its leaders.”

The CofE is only as strong as its weakest parts – the abusers, embezzlers and fundamentalists

Well, amen to that. That’s pretty much what it looks like out here in day-to-day ministry. 

But let us not be overly-hasty (or overly-critical) for this report is in the finest traditions of the Church’s leadership. After all, it follows Living in Faith and Love, a six-year project on sexuality and marriage, which concluded that we may bless same-sex unions in church, but not conduct same-sex marriages, a conundrum that Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, received with “joy” while asserting that he would not conduct such blessings personally.

A loss of trust

So here we go again. Living in Trust and Trustworthiness (as it may as well be called) can similarly be summarised as follows: Nobody trusts us, so we should get better at being trusted, though there are other things to blame, such as social media.

A major problem here is that Rt Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of Edmondsbury and Ipswich, and the team that put this report together don’t tell us what trust is. Well, they do in so far as they inform us that the Greek word for trust, pistis - as used in the New Testament - also means ‘faith’ and ‘belief’. So that’s OK then. If we can bang on about faith and belief, we’re back in safe territory.

The trouble is that a whacking proportion of those who distrust us don’t share our faith and belief. This is a massive problem for the Church. Our answer might be Jesus, but he’s not the question that these people are asking. They are more interested in the mechanics of trust rather than its theology. They are asking how we can trust an institution that has let us down so often.

The report’s assumption that social media is, of itself, a bad thing is telling

Trust doesn’t work by asking people to trust us. Nor – and here’s a surprise – does it work by acting in more trustworthy ways. Trust, for most people, is a commodity. It can be traded. If you invest your trust in me, you expect a return from that investment. That dividend can take many forms, but its currencies are our hopes and our fears. If we can address those, then we’re paying out on that investment of trust.

Oddly, these market mechanics are also consistent with our theology. When we talk of trust in God, what is our return on that investment? Search as I may, I can find none of this in the report, which confines itself to truisms and axioms about being trustworthy.

Structurally strong

This report also bandies about the word ‘integrity’. It’s taken for granted that this means actions that are prescribed by a high moral purpose, which is easy enough to find in our Church, for all its faults. But integrity, in an engineering sense, also means a structure that is sound in all its component parts.

This structural integrity also doesn’t seem to concern the report’s authors. The structural integrity of the Church of England is only as strong as its weakest parts – the abusers, the embezzlers and the fundamentalists. We can’t act with integrity until we’ve addressed those mechanics too.

Shining a light

A final word on social media. As far as this report is concerned, this is a new-fangled thing that makes us “lax in our scrutiny” of information sources. Who knew? It hardly needs saying that this is an issue for educators of social media users rather than the platforms themselves.

But the report’s assumption that social media is, of itself, a bad thing is telling. By and large, social media is transparent. True, there are tragic hidden cases of terrible harm. But take bullying. Most of it online is visible and can be called out. That’s a world apart from what went on out of sight in, say, the 60s and 70s when I grew up.

Speaking of which, what was the Church up to in those unaccountable decades before the internet and social media shone a light on that which might have otherwise remained hidden? Indiscriminate use of social media puts us in “in danger of becoming stupid”, says the report. One might respond that we’re better stupid than wicked.

So this is a report devoid of self-awareness. Trust the Church of England to come up with it.