Bishops Tweeting ‘Truth to Power’

Pic: Diocese of Leeds

Bishops’ twitter rules: ‘Ask whether you’d like your mother to see your tweet. Then ask if God would like it’

By Rosie Dawson, 26 May 2020

At 5.24pm on Sunday, the Bishop of Ripon, the Rt Rev Helen-Ann Hartley, took to Twitter to express her views on the Dominic Cummings affair. “Integrity, trust and leadership were never there; just a driven misguided ideology of power that has total disregard for the most weak and vulnerable,” she wrote.

Half-an-hour later, her diocesan bishop in Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, tweeted: “The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs?”

By the end of the evening 13 more bishops had voiced their anger. They were joined by the Bishop of Durham the next day.

“It did kind of look like it was co-ordinated even if it wasn’t”, said Fr Marcus Walker, Rector of Great St Bartholomew in London, “and it makes it look as if bishops are on one side of a political and cultural war. There’s a lack of diversity of political opinion among them, so there’s a way in which the bishops then become the story even if they don’t want to be.”

But Steve Jenkins — who served 25 years as a Church of England press officer — dismisses the suggestion that the tweeting was orchestrated. He says the tweets were very personal and very different from one another, and he thinks they would have been carefully considered. He recalls the general guidelines put out by media training programmes during his time at Church House, the C of E’s headquarters.

“Before you post, read it. Read it again. Ask yourself how you would feel if you saw it in the media. Ask whether you’d like your mother to see it. Then ask if God would like it. I imagine that’s what bishops are thinking about before they tweet these days.”

Some of the bishops who were tweeting at the weekend are relatively quiet on the platform. Among the more prolific is the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Rev Peter Broadbent, known as @petespurs, and a self-described socialist.

His tweet simply read: “Johnson has now gone the full Trump.” He says he would have said the same of a Labour politician behaving in a similar way.

“There’s a kind of right-wing obsession that says bishops must never say anything about politics. I’m a human being who is Christian and a bishop and I’m political. Most of us do happen to have been of the Remain persuasion, as has been pointed out, but I do think bishops try to get things into perspective and there is no party line.”

But Marcus Walker thinks that there’s a danger that the Church of England could look like the Labour Party at prayer. Peter Ould, another Church of England priest and commentator from Canterbury, says there’s a definite left-of-centre bias in the House of Bishops.

“One Tory peer observed to me that none of them had asked for prayers for Dominic Cummings and his family or for the prime minister,” he says. “I think some of the bishops have slightly overstepped the mark by using the language of lying. It’s a serious thing for a bishop to accuse someone of.”

Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley has received death threats for the comments she made on Twitter. She told the Religion Media Centre that they were both shocking and unnerving. But while she says bishops pray daily for all those who hold positions of elected power and related responsibilities, they must speak out.

“I think it is important to speak truth to power in the context of the role in the public square that I occupy as a bishop. My comments were strong, but framed in the context of Twitter, conciseness often leads to opinions that are bold, and I make no apologies for that.”

Peter Ould also suggests that the Bishop of Manchester David Walker spoke without authority when he tweeted: “I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say sufficiently for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.” Speaking to the Religion Media Centre today, Bishop Walker drew a clear distinction between the government generally and ministers in particular.

“I didn’t say that we cannot co-operate with the government. I specifically singled out ministers and was saying I had lost trust. We will and I will work with civil servants, local government, police and other parts of civil society. But the way in which, around the time of the prime minister’s statement on Sunday — even other cabinet ministers seemed to be all rallying around to say there’s nothing to be seen, no wrong has been done after same people had been telling us not to push things to the edge — I felt that my trust has been broken.

“And what I was looking for and am still looking for is something from ministers which will tell me and others — not just bishops, not just church people — why we can now trust them.”

Asked about Bishop Walker’s original comment, the Bishop of Dover Rose Hudson-Wilkin told Channel 4 news that while she was not speaking on behalf of the church it had no choice but to work with the government. “We have to work with government in order to ensure that as a community and wider society that his pandemic is kept where it should be, so from that perspective we have to put aside the outrage and anger and all that we are feeling around this,” she said.

Other criticisms of the bishops have come from those who feel that they have been too quiet on some of the spiritual and moral questions facing the nation.

Steve Jenkins says criticisms should not be based on one day’s Twitter feed. “How many people have gone into the bishops’ Twitter feeds and seen what they have said about other things? They’re just reacting to what they saw yesterday. If you don’t bother to find out what Christians from different denominations people are saying in sermons and synods, then you don’t have anything else to base your reaction on.”

Former MP David Burrowes, parliamentary director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, told the Religion Media Centre that bishops had every right and obligation to get involved in politics but suggested that the church may be neglecting its core functions.

“I look forward to church leadership which takes just a high-profile a stance on the need to positively affirm and respect all authorities, and even those they don’t like”, he said. “I look forward to more church leadership on the particular issues that are in their portfolio; such as a national call for repentance and prayer, and how the gospel provides the only secure hope for our world.”