By issuing its first social media guidelines, the Church of England says it hopes to foster kindness online and help the church be a “force for social cohesion” in the digital sphere. In a live Q&A session at Facebook’s London office Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby issued policies that will apply to responses to the church’s accounts. Posts deemed abusive or inappropriate will be deleted, blocked, or reported.
The Church of England’s Social Media Guidelines
Welby also urged all social media users, regardless of faith, to abide by a voluntary digital charter based on “truth, kindness, welcome, inspiration, and togetherness.” The archbishop decries how “savagely social media can be used,” citing the “poison” often present in online comments.
Social media users should “put the truth out,” says Welby, who maintains “there’s no such thing as an alternative fact.” Opinions are okay, he says, but they should be expressed with kindness.
The church’s guidelines also emphasize accountability, safety precautions, and respect for copyright.
Witnessing Opportunities Abound, Welby Says
Christians must engage in ways that are “shaped by the example of Jesus,” says the archbishop. “I encourage all of us to consider how we live our lives as witnesses online. Each time we interact online we have the opportunity either to add to currents of cynicism and abuse or to choose instead to share light and grace.”
Social media helps Christians publicly “live out our calling to share the good news of Jesus Christ,” says Welby. “One of its many joys is that it is immediate, interactive, conversational, and open-ended. This opportunity comes with a number of downsides if users do not apply the same common sense, kindness, and sound judgment that we would use in a face-to-face encounter.”
One goal of the new guidelines, Welby says, is to “encourage regular and not-so-regular churchgoers, skeptics, and those who are surprised to find themselves interested, to be open to think and experience more of the Christian faith.”
“We don’t want people to lie, to act with cruelty, or to use religious jargon” in a confusing way, Welby says. “It’s the Golden Rule that Jesus Christ talks about: Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
Critics Say Discourse Will Be Stifled
Spectator blogger Leyla Sanai says those values sound welcome but “are only meaningful if everyone adheres to them.” Plus, she asks, “Who is the arbiter of what is appropriate, unsuitable, or offensive?” Online rancor, she points out, often “stems from fighting about very real social ills.”
Diluting the internet into “a primary school playground would be to deprive it of its energy and clout,” Sanai writes. “If we are all cowed into beatific ‘tolerance,’ none of the evils in the world would be challenged, fought, or overcome.” The Church of England should concentrate on its own problems, she adds, “rather than trying to be the touchy-feely policemen of the internet.”
John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, acknowledges there’s “a time and a place for complaint and criticism” but says it shouldn’t devolve into vilification of individuals or groups. “The church wishes to be present in the digital sphere, and the same force for social cohesion which it strives to be in the real world,” he says. “We want to work alongside social media companies in their work to make social media a safe and enlightening space for all.”