Key Issues Highlighted for Conservative Evangelicals by the COVID Crisis - Part Three

At their meeting last week the Affinity Advisory Council had a discussion about the ways in which the Covid pandemic has affected our churches over the past eighteen months, and how we are going to address the ongoing challenges and opportunities into the future.

By way of introduction to our conversation, and to set the scene, John Stevens, National Director of FIEC, was asked to present a paper. We are publishing it here in three parts to share it with a wider audience.

In this final part, John considers the questions of the use of social media and the effect of the pandemic upon leaders:

Social Media

A further area in which Graham asked me to comment was the use of social media during the pandemic. Social media has been an extraordinarily powerful tool of communication and connection. It has democratised information, the ability to express opinions and to criticise others. It has provided a forum for discussion and debate. 

During the crisis, social media was a means of rapid communication with large numbers of people. It enabled an almost instant explanation of government rules and regulations to churches and leaders, helping them to make decisions and understand what was required of them. 

However, the sharpness of disagreements over COVID, and the anger at some over government policy, quickly made social media a very hostile environment. Rather than facilitating gracious discussion and disagreement, it became an echo chamber in which people could find confirmation of their own opinions and denounce and criticise others with whom they disagreed. A small number of activists sought to criticise every post or comment of those with whom they disagreed. Allegations of cowardice, false teaching, stupidity etc., abounded. Christian leaders were called the anti-Christ simply for having a different view on COVID. Some Christians seemed to delight in being polemical, rude, unfair, confrontational and offensive in their online activity. Strong feelings led to strong language. I doubt many of these have been rebuked or challenged by their church leaderships for their ungodly behaviour that has been a shameful witness to Christ. 

It is noticeable that a large number of church leaders who had formally been fairly active on social media, whether Twitter or Facebook, have largely ceased engaging with the medium. This is not just a result of the COVID crisis but also the way that some self-proclaimed ‘victim activists’ have sought to engage with the aftermath of the Smyth and Fletcher abuse scandals. 

Social media still remains an effective means of communication with wide reach, but fewer people are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. We need to ensure that we cultivate truth and grace in our social media engagement. There is great temptation to use it as a medium for immediate response to others. Very rarely is there any actual meeting or minds or genuine discussion on Twitter? Closed and private Facebook forums, rather than public posts, have emerged as a means of trying to preserve the ability of social media to facilitate genuine discussion and information sharing. It is also notable that the younger generation does not use platforms such as Twitter and Facebook so that they are increasingly the preserve of the middle-aged. 

Leadership

It has been an especially difficult time for leaders during this COVID crisis. They have had to seek to apply biblical revelation to a novel situation, faced with limited and conflicting information, divergent expert opinions and a rapidly changing situation on the ground. Many felt incapable of making judgements about the science and public health policy. Most had to navigate deep disagreement at multiple levels. Congregations were divided, local church leadership (elders, staff, PCCs etc.) were divided. Denominations were divided. Associations were divided. Unlike most situations where leadership involves making a choice between various possible courses of action, government restrictions meant that many options were not available without the choice to break the law.

It was both impossible and unrealistic for Christians to come to a common mind. There was no agreement on the appropriate Biblical response nor on the scientific data. No leader would be able to speak for the Christian community. Instead, various high-profile leaders advocated for their approach and sought to persuade the wider constituency.

Leaders were criticised both for what they did and what they did not do - being castigated for ‘sins’ of commission and omission. Some felt that a stronger stand should have been taken against the government by churches, and many Christians held an exaggerated view of their own importance to society which was not echoed by government or wider society. Some wanted Christians and the church to be treated as exceptional, which was an unrealistic demand reflecting our failure to appreciate our marginal status. Hospitality, entertainment and retail are far more important to the overwhelming majority of the population. 

In these circumstances, leaders faced the challenge of leading for the good of the body as a whole and not simply from their own personal opinions. They had to lead bodies of divided people in which is was impossible in practice to command and bind individual’s consciences, and questionable whether they should do so on such an issue as the response to COVID. It was easier to lead churches which had a strong or overwhelming majority of opinion in a particular direction, but this was rarely the case outside of churches that already had a strong totalising culture or agreement on a wide range of cultural issues. In most cases, diverse congregations experienced diverse views. Divisions were not simplistic or predictable by theological culture, as factors such as the age profile had a significant impact.

It was even harder to provide leadership in denominations and associations of churches, where there was disagreement between churches or church leaders. Often individual leaders wanted denominations/associations to provide support for their own particular position, perhaps to bolster their authority in their local congregation. National leadership was welcome by those who felt it represented their position but criticised by those for whom it did not. In organisations such as Affinity and FIEC, which are committed to the autonomy of partners/individual churches navigating this challenge was more complex. Leaders needed to some degree to set aside their own personal position and focus on providing accurate information on what the government regulations required, and to help leaders to exercise wisdom in the decision they would have to make. Those leading national associations could not easily join campaigns and petitions which represented the views of only some, but not others, of their constituent members - irrespective of their personal views. In practice, they could not separate their personal views from their organisational position. Their leadership and comment would inevitably, therefore, need to be centrist and cautious if they were to serve their organisations rather than split them. 

The COVID experience, therefore, has lessons of the limitations of leadership of associations where there is significant diversity of opinion. In just the same way that Affinity can provide united leadership on resisting the acceptance of same-sex relationships by churches (since this is part of our doctrinal position) but not on the proper mode of baptism (because we do not have a position on baptism as Affinity) in the same way it cannot provide united leadership on an issue like COVID and how to respond to government restrictions, but it has no right to speak with a single voice on behalf of its partner bodies. I suspect that the dissatisfaction some partners, and those who are criticising such bodies from the outside, feel about their COVID response is as result of a failure to appreciate this reality. New issues, such as COVID will initially inevitably fall into the category of a secondary issue. Over time a broad consensus of opinion may emerge as deeper theological and contextual reflection occurs. It is easy to judge leadership with hindsight without remembering the complexity at the time. 

It is a challenge to lead in such circumstances and to maintain gracious attitudes to one another through this process. It is vital that we make the effort to rebuild any loss of unity that has occurred. 

John Stevens


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