This week I wrote for The Guardian’s Comment Is Free (Tuesday 13 November 2012) on women bishops and the use of social media campaigning to potentially help encourage the process along. You can read it below.
A week from today, the Church of England’s General Synod will take a historic vote on women bishops. The sentiment from churchgoers is overwhelmingly in favour. The incoming archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is passionately committed to the legislation. So is the present one, Rowan Williams. Yet the vote still teeters on a knife edge and may well fail to pass. In an attempt to swing the vote at this vital moment, a small group of us have launched the Yes2WomenBishops social media campaign.
Social media is a strange animal. It sometimes appears as a winged horse, enabling our aspirations for free speech and people power to take flight, and sometimes as a hyena, sniffing out the worst of human nature, devouring our manners and vomiting up banal content. Scepticism about its value to campaigns is understandable; after all, millions of Twitter accounts lie abandoned and unchecked. Much energy can be spent lobbying in cyberspace, speaking to avatars that may be listening or may simply be the ghosts of people long gone. Yet despite their Schrödinger-esque limitations, these digital channels still possess the potential to rattle top-down institutions and give the masses a megaphone.
One institution ripe for some grassroots disruption is the Church of England. The voices of those in the pews are not always reflected in the policies made, and the election of leaders happens very indirectly. The decision about women bishops lies in the hands of the General Synod, so the rest of us are left waiting, wondering whether our wishes will be represented. For this reason we felt the Yes2WomenBishops campaign was vital. Our hope is to create an upward flow of information in a very top-down institution; to send a message from the grassroots to the leadership.
As the centre of power for the vote is the General Synod, our goal is to facilitate an easy, direct method of contact between those in the pews and their synod representatives. Most churchgoers have never written a letter to their synod reps and don’t even know who these people are, so help was needed. We created a website where this direct contact is facilitated in a simple way. The take-up has been incredibly positive; within only five days of the site going live, without fanfare or publicity, over 1,000 people have used it to urge their reps to vote yes. Responses have been coming back too, giving assurance that the opinions expressed will be taken into account.
We also want to provide a sense of solidarity for all in favour of women bishops; to encourage them to speak out confidently to their synod reps, fellow parishioners and friends. We are using Twitter and Facebook for this purpose and already have over 2,000 combined likes and followers in under one week. We’ve created a Twibbon and hundreds are proudly displaying it. Dialogue with those of opposing views is also happening on our social networks, all in an attitude of graciousness and genuine conversation.
Perhaps our venture will make a difference to the vote on women bishops. We certainly hope so. But it has also demonstrated that a top-down institution like the Church of England cannot remain that way forever. In a world where web 2.0 culture is the norm, the need for church 2.0 is urgent and critical. People in the pews want to be heard and change must come, whether the leadership wants it to or not.
[Read the original piece on the Guardian website here.]