Anyone who has been involved in any sort of online community will be aware of the problems of sock puppets and trolls â€“ accounts that are set up to make anonymous comments, and which take advantage of the anonymity offered by online communities either for some sort of gain, or more often than not to cause trouble. Indeed one of the topics of conversation in the recent UK Channel9 video was trying to deal with precisely that problem on the Channel9 site.
However, there has been a lot of talk on Christian sites over the past couple of days over the news that the same problem has occurred on the Christian site Ship of Fools. Among other things the site includes a Mystery Worshipper feature, where people can review Church services which they attended. Suspicion has fallen on to two glowing reviews by the same person, one for Westminster Abbey commented on the exceptional singing of the priest taking the service, the other for St Marks in Reading commented on the fantastic quality of the preaching. Suspicion was aroused when a parishioner at St Marks e-mailed the site to complain that the review was a fake because of the flattering compliments it paid to the preacher. After some investigation it was found that the self same priest whose preaching had been complimented, Fr David Peters, had also reproduced the Westminster Abbey review in the St Marks Parish Magazine claiming to be the anonymous priest whose singing was complimented.
Initially Fr Peters, who in addition to officiating monthly at Westminster Abbey also travels the world to lead services at major Anglo-Catholic shrines, denied that he had posted the reviews, although with mounting evidence he has now apologised to both his parish, and the Archdeacon and Bishop. On top of that, the story is even now flying around the blogsphere, even being picked up by some of the national media. Another example of bad publicity going further than good? Perhaps. But certainly a salutary lesson in trying to anonymously blow your own trumpet – especially over the quality of your sermonsâ€¦
As an aside, a little final note. St Marks in Reading is one of the local Churches that has passed resolutions A, B and C, and so is under the pastoral care of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet rather than Oxford. Indeed I knew that they were an Ebbsfleet parish already because when they hosted a Rockmass a few years back the Youth Group voted not to attend in protest at the fact that they wouldn’t accept women priests. However it seems that in disciplinary situations like this, responsibilities pass back to the Oxford Diocese. Probably a rather difficult situation if the local Archdeacon is a woman as it is in other parts of the Diocese.