2011 saw the collapse of governments across the Middle East in a broad move later dubbed the Arab Spring. A major catalyst for this implosion was the strength of people connecting on the internet through Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The medium of the internet exposed these governments to scrutiny that had not previously existed. Leaders who were used to acting with impunity were suddenly exposed to a very public check on their power, and they did not respond well.
Former Anglican Archbishop Moses Tay remarked on this upheaval during the AMiA Winter Conference, where he said: “Global shaking [was] affecting the church as well. We had a year of global shaking in the Middle East and everywhere else and here we have the church being shaken as well.” Indeed, a distinctively Anglican social media, born during the initial struggles with TEC, gained its sea legs during the Fall of 2011 in what we might call the Anglican Autumn.
Strong Men Can No Longer Work in Secret
Time magazine named “The Protestor” as its person of the year for 2011. Protests across the globe were fueled by news on Twitter, Facebook feeds, YouTube clips gone viral and the grandfather of social media – blogs. The leveling force of the internet means that individuals can compete in many ways with the ossified media strategies of governments. The ubiquity of social media provides for transparency and open debate. Rather than approved messages flowing down from the top of the organizational pyramid, anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can shoot video, record audio, and type out their own take on events.
The asymmetric nature of communication means that President and Generals are more exposed to scrutiny than they were previously. In the past, the Watergate scandal was unfolded primarily through the vehicle of two reporters and an informant. Now, news can come from anywhere, through any channel, and is quickly picked up by an international social network. This can be good and bad, as we are more exposed to raw data, opinion, and sometimes wrong information in the fog of war. The editorial functions exercised by the old media are not in place, which can be a two-edged sword.
This social media revolution has precedents in the Reformation and the invention of the printing press. The Economist outlined these parallels in a December article:
The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.
Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. Contributors to the debate ranged from the English king Henry VIII, whose treatise attacking Luther (co-written with Thomas More) earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope, to Hans Sachs, a shoemaker from Nuremberg who wrote a series of hugely popular songs in support of Luther.
Predictably, those in power in Luther’s day were not impressed with this new technology:
“Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city.
The Anglican Autumn and the New Media
Bishop Chuck Murphy and others had come up with the idea of a Missionary Society working inside and outside the United States. For unknown reasons, an attempt was made to keep all discussion of this concept in-house, away from any public scrutiny. We are told that Murphy asked bishops “Rwaje and Mbanda [to] keep the concept confidential until he has discussed it with his colleagues in the States.”
When word of the proposal finally made its way to the internet via AnglicanTV, confusion erupted. The public relations strategy used by the Anglican Mission was alternately to attack the messengers or ‘the internet’ more broadly. During the Winter Conference, Bishop Murphy expressed that he had been taken aback by the furor on the internet claiming to have “been chopped up royally in recent months.” And yet, he did not address the substance of the arguments, but rather attacked blogs and the internet in a general way. He even used leaks to the press as a reason that he had to resign.
Susan Sontag wrote an essay about Abu Ghraib in which she talked about blaming the pictures rather than blaming the actions of people. It is similar to an abusive husband being angry because his behavior has been exposed rather than the fact that he sinned. The internet, blogs and YouTube are tools that can be used for good or ill. It is the substance that they carry that is wrong or right, not the tools themselves. Murphy’s attacks on the internet perhaps reflect the bemused nature of an older generation at the media revolution occurring all around them.
The Washington Statement asked for this discussion to come into the light:
We desire to walk in the light by bringing the ongoing conversation into the light. Our purpose in writing this document is to speak the truth in love, in hopes of fostering honest and open dialogue together, for the sake of our shared Gospel mission to North America. We have been greatly blessed by, and are indebted to, the AMiA and her leadership, and our hope is to see this mission continue as our Lord leads.
This didn’t happen until after the AMiA had separated from Rwanda. The proposal finally appeared in the London Communique, after the frenzy of meetings and letters had occurred. In retrospect, the entire proposal could have been laid out for the world to see, for clergy and laity to reflect on, and for the Rwandan bishops and GAFCON to mull over.
The lesson for AMiA, Rwanda, the ACNA, GAFCON and the wider church world is that transparency is generally a necessity. The best way to avoid internet wars is to value openness in the first place. Share the most information possible at the earliest possible time. Respond to questions with candor and don’t blame the internet for your problems.