Does the Church of England Need a Social Media/Blogging Policy?

Over the past few days there has been rather a furore over some comments by the Bishop of Willesden, Rt Rev’d Pete Broadbent (@pete173).

He’s most definitely a republican, as many people in the Diocese of London already know. He made a throwaway comment on Twitter when the impending Royal Wedding was announced about booking a trip to France on the day, which was then duplicated onto his Facebook page and kicked off a discussion where he made a number of other comments. All of this is on a Facebook page that is viewable by anybody. Comments included describing Prince Charles and Princess Diana as “Big Ears and the Porcelain Doll”, and the impending wedding as a bit of “national flimflam” and added in various other comments about the monarchy in general, and in particular their previous track record with marriages, and gave this marriage seven years.

Whilst it was public on the Facebook page it took a couple of days before it went beyond that, unfortunately what then happened was the Daily Mail found the discussion and wrote a front page article on it , and that article was picked up around the world. The Bishop issued a full apology on Monday, which many thought would draw an end to the matter. However he was absent from General Synod this morning and shortly afterwards his boss the Bishop of London, a personal friend of Prince Charles and rumoured to be a possibility for taking the wedding issued a statement saying that despite the apology he had asked Bishop Pete to withdraw from public ministry until further notice.

There has been much outrage online over the response of the Bishop of London, many feeling that he has overreacted, but is that justified?

The situation is not new, indeed the Robert Scoble (@scobleizer) and Shel Israel (@shelisrael) book Naked Conversations : How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers talks about exactly these kinds of situations in a corporate context. If you look at the Church as a corporate structure, Bishop Pete as a senior manager described the son of the Chairman of the Board (the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England) as “Big Ears”, poured scorn on a number of their marriages and was just downright rude. In any corporate situation he would be sacked, no question about it. As a senior representative of any organisation there is an expectation that even if you have some latitude to publicly express personal opinions, you publicly represent the organisation and are expected to act as such.

The real problem is that again like many corporations the Church doesn’t have a formal Social Media and Blogging policy – many organisations don’t get one until something like this happens.

My current employer now has such a policy, under which I can’t say who it is I work for. The policy was introduced amongst other things as a result of a newsworthy event that I blogged about here, but was subsequently asked to remove the post. Employees were also discussing working for the company on Facebook and elsewhere. As a result the most recent revision of the internet guidelines introduced a blogging and social media policy that banned employees from blogging about or talking about the company on social media. Hence I cannot say who I work for or give any details as to what I had posted about and was asked to remove.

The church has no such policy but plenty of members, clergy and several bishops blogging and actively using Social Media, Bishop Pete being only one such example.

So does the Church need a social media and blogging policy? I don’t think so. Whilst Bishop Pete is a high profile case, up to now there hasn’t seemed to be much need, the Church of England is so broad that there is always a breadth of opinion on many topics, and a good deal of debate goes on online. Whilst a policy would maybe give clearer lines for those of us blogging within the Church and on Church matters, up to now common sense has seemed to prevail. As a Bishop there is that same expectation of common sense, as someone who is supposed to be a uniting figure it is obvious that there will be a diversity of opinion amongst the people he represents. Whilst there are many who agree with his opinion of the Royal Family, equally there are those for whom the Royal Family are an important part of both our country and the Church of England, a Bishop sometimes has to put aside or restrain his personal opinions for the good of the whole. Probably the most high profile example of this is Archbishop Rowan who much to the frustration of many on the more liberal wing of the Church is steering a path for unity rather than following the agenda one would expect given some of his previous writings.

So was Bishop Pete fairly treated? It may not be a popular choice, but I think he was. He’s kept his job which is more than someone in business would have, indeed some were calling on him to resign anyway. Cranmer explains in much more detail the vows that Bishop Broadbent took, and as a senior representative of the Church of England whether or not you think it is right that church and state are so closely intertwined, having taken those vows it is quite right to expect that he should uphold them. Swearing allegiance to the Queen and her heirs and successors, doesn’t really sit well with referring to one of them as “Big Ears”. When you accept the post of a Bishop you give up some of your freedom to express your own opinions, you become a Bishop of the Church of England, and there is an expectation that you’ll toe the line. You have a lot of latitude to express your own opinons, but it’s not unlimited.

Finally, if anyone in the Church, particularly someone senior is considering becoming active in the blogsphere or social media, should this put them off? I’d say not, but it is a salutary warning. You need be aware of what is public and what is private. Certainly in any public forum you need to be watch what you say, it’s very easy to relax into thinking that you’re having a private conversation when in fact anybody in the world can see it – that is precisely the trap Bishop Pete fell into. You can bleat about how unfair it is, but ultimately people know what the British press is like. Certainly there is an argument to be had over controlling them but it’s very difficult to argue that from a position where you are under attack by them. I’d also recommend having a read of Naked Conversations, the book has plenty of examples of bloggers, Scoble included publicly disagreed with their organisations and survived, but also plenty who didn’t. Ultimately it all comes down to common sense, know your role, and know what your superiors will accept, and stick to it. By all means try and push the envelope, but referring to the next Supreme Governor of the Church of England as “Big Ears”? Not a good idea.

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