What Is Wrong With This Picture?

Ah, what comes across the Facebook feed and provides material for reflection:  like this.

I know I’m not really supposed to ask the question, because it marks me out as a Luddite, but honesty and integrity require that I be brave:

What is wrong with this picture?

My short answer is, everything. And that’s not just my opinion. Another friend commenting (and then in “message” mode with me) made the following observations:

1.  That apart from the clergy attire, you wouldn’t be able to tell this from a U2 concert.  (That piece got deleted, but it was sort of my point.)

2.   Dude looks entirely too happy and distracted taking the photo. (NB:  This is the guy with the iPhone.)

3.  Guy next to him is clearly posing to be included.

4.   People behind appear to be craning to be in the pic.

5. Only person who seems to be paying attention to the service is the woman to the right.

Those are just the “starters”, from a friend who is very distanced from any participation in institutional religion.  I’ll get to my own in a little while, but it really raises the question of how well churches use social media to create a positive image in the minds of those who are not already heavily connected to ecclesial communities.

The event was the consecration of the Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland on 6 September 2014. The consecration of a bishop is one of the most sacred public rites of the church, and I have absolutely no qualm with having it shared–both live and after the fact–on any and all social media.  It is at least local-newsworthy (and it is definitely telegenic, as these are visually stunning events, with much pageantry and often very good music).  It is a wonderful ministry to allow people who could not physically be there, due to distance, age, infirmity, to “participate” in this important liturgical moment.

But should the clergy, whose real purpose is to participate in this sacred event, not be completely attentive to the moment?  What does an image of a priest with an iPhone–even (or perhaps especially) if that priest is an evangelism officer for the diocese–convey to those who aren’t part of the church?  Or, in my case, are theologically and ecclesiologocally educated, but are living with one foot and a couple of toes out the church door?

My friend’s U2 reference needs some picking apart here.  A popular music concert–even one with a Christian emphasis–is not a sacred event.  It is entertainment.  It may be uplifting, but it is not a moment of prayer and worship (except perhaps worship of the performers)  It’s not an event in which the expectation is that a particular person, duly chosen by the ecclesial community, receives a sacred trust and commission of care and responsibility to that community.  It’s not a public declaration of intent and promise-making.

But an episcopal consecration is both of those things, and so much more.   Who is served by turning a sacred moment, in which serious responsibilities are undertaken, into a rock concert?  My serious hope is that this picture was taken in a goofball moment prior to the service. It looks, however, as though the clergy are in place for the liturgy.  This means they have been part of the procession into the cathedral, and the service is underway.

This is supposed to be an “evangelism” moment, as Canon Webster is the chief evangelism officer for the diocese.  Evangelism, last I checked, is meant to be about Jesus, and about serving the world with the purpose of sharing God’s love where human hurt cries out most desperately. The Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, sums up its call to evangelism with the Five Marks of Mission, which are:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

To teach, baptise and nurture new believers

To respond to human need by loving service

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation

To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

Now, our liturgies–even our episcopal consecrations–only serve this in an indirect way.  They encourage and instruct believing Christians of this particular tradition to actually get off their backsides to do some of this.  But our liturgies, frankly, are of little to no interest to anyone who is not already a member of the church.  They might be of some interest to social anthropologists whose particular area of expertise is the study of ritual.  So, to make the claim that showing what Episcopalians do when we get all nutty in weird costumes (and that is what it looks like to the non-churchgoing eye) is somehow going to entice people to Christian belief and practice, is at best delusional.  It’s sort of like Comic-Con, except the people who role-play as superheroes understand that if you aren’t already that sort of geek, broadcasting the proceedings of Comic-Con is as likely to turn people away than it is to encourage them to join their ranks. Its purpose is to form bonds between the already-converted. And broadcasting or webcasting its proceedings–in real time or delayed–is more for the initiates than it is for spreading the message.

The church just does not seem to get that it has more in common with Comic-Con than it would like to admit.  Maybe the church needs to “fess up” and learn from other institutions.

Thinking that a bunch of middle aged people dressed in modified medieval academic garb (and that is exactly what clerical vestments are) capturing their glowing likenesses on their iPhones is going to draw non-Christians into the fold is, at best, kind of sad.  It’s certainly not a delusion that deserves a great deal of financial or human investment as a way forward for the church.

Watching clergy who do not appear to be fully attending the event at which their bodies are present–even if they claim (as Canon Webster has) that it is their “job” to behave this way–is at best unsettling.  The message my de-churched friend received is that the clergy are not expected to be fully present to the service at hand, and that they would rather be “cool” on social media.

The clergy are there (theologically) to demonstrate their assent to the authority of their new bishop, and their support for her in her new ministry.  Pulling out your camera phone gives the impression that you’d rather be somewhere else, doing anything but what you’re there for.  If, as claimed, “it’s my job” to do that, those of us with one foot and a couple of toes out the church door can hardly be criticized for probing what the hell the church pays people to do. Those who have left, or never entered, are confirmed in their belief that the church is not willing nor able to give them the care and attention that they might seek from institutional religion.

So, this is an image that makes no contribution to “evangelism”. At best, it confirms my earlier assertions that the churches don’t really understand where social media are the most useful to them, and how to apply those media effectively.  More tragically, it speaks to a mindset that the highest thing the human spirit can comprehend or aspire to is entertainment.

The churches have a real problem in getting their message out.  I hope that the message is really the one of God’s love for a world which is in desperate need of that love.  I wish that the message was delivered in ways that were more “hear-able” to those whom the churches claim they wish to reach.  Unfortunately, the church is the only institution on earth that believes it doesn’t have to listen to those outside its walls, or who have left its fold–the church believes that loyalty and trust are due to it just on its own word.  What it fails to recognize is that its word has become devalued, and that it is at least largely its own fault.

What does a photo like Dan Webster’s look like to the disaffected or disinterested?  That’s what should be attended to, not the narcissism that was so evident in the Facebook discussion about the picture.

People are hungering for real spiritual nourishment.  Social media may have an important role to play in delivering that, but not if the churches insist that they can really reach the people who have rejected the ways in which the churches use that tool.

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11 thoughts on “What Is Wrong With This Picture?

  1. Wendy, I love this post. I really couldn’t agree more with just about everything you said. Although I am not a church-goer this photo just shows me what I am NOT missing. I expect church to be a sacred event and people involved (especially clergy) to be respectful of that. Taking “selfies” makes it like any other public event (like a music concert) and that is not what it should be like. That being said, I have no issue with the entire event being filmed or photographed. In that instance you would have someone there to do just that, it would be their sole job to film and photograph. Having a member of clergy do it while participating is just horrible.

    1. I am beyond tired with “communicators” and “evangelism officers” who don’t realize that the perceptions of people outside the church might matter in whether their work is effective. And if their work isn’t effective (which means it has actual purposes, and achievement can be measured), why are dioceses and national bodies *paying* them? What other institution knows who it is they aren’t bringing in and yet so staunchly refuses to take into account the reasons those people give for not buying what they have to sell?

  2. Hi Wendy, the picture in question was not a “selfie,” the Rev. Canon was live tweeting pictures that can be seen at @episcomd on Twitter, posted on September 6. Since much of your commentary is based upon the false premise that the photo in question is a “selfie,” I’d be curious to hear if knowing that it isn’t changes your argument at all.

    1. I don’t believe I said it was a selfie (I can tell the difference)–I know I said he was screwing around with an iPhone.

      And no, your misconstrual of what I did not say doesn’t change my view in the slightest. The idea that there is anything more important for clergy to do during a service of sacred worship than actually attend to the worship is grotesque.

      My real problem is what it “communicates”. Church communicators need to learn quite a bit more theology if they think I am what they are “up against”. What they’re “up against” is their own stupidity in thinking this is in any way good for the church.

      The church needs to be quite a bit better than it is. That needs to be the focus, not “getting the message out”–and in this case (see Stacy’s comment) is a “message” that clergy are more interested in farting around with their phones and being photographed in a pitiful attempt at “cool”, than they are in really being present to the moment.

      I can’t comment as to whether the priests in the photo were or weren’t. But they sure didn’t look it in the least.

      1. Thank you for your reply.

        While I disagree with you on almost every point, we do agree on these: “most churches don’t really understand where social media are most useful to them, and how to apply those media effectively,” and also that we are supposed to be about the work of, “serving the world with the purpose of sharing God’s love where human hurt cries out most desperately.”

        So, on these we agree, and I do wish you well in your ministry.

      2. Effectively getting out a message is no good if the message is crap. And showing clergy in a sacred service who are more interested in farting around with gadgets than they are in attending to the event at hand is a crap message.

        And a diocese that pays a priest NOT to be fully in priestly capacity for the consecration of a bishop has seriously screwed up priorities.

        I know how old fashioned I sound. But that is bullshit. I want Christians–or those considering becoming Christians–to be smarter than this nonsense gives them credit for. And I want the church not to look so assholic to those who reject it.

        Because maybe, if it didn’t look so assholic, fewer people would reject it.

        THAT’S what church communicators are “up against”. Not what I said.

  3. Wendy –

    First, my personal gratitude for making your website so much easier for the vision-challenged like me!

    Second, I agree with most of what you have to say about that unfortunate picture, although I must deplore your manner of expressing it! Something about flies, vinegar & honey keeps echoing through my head. 🙂

    I disagree, however, with this: “our liturgies, frankly, are of little to no interest to anyone who is not already a member of the church.” Many people who are NOT members of the church (in some cases, any church) have been struck by the beauty / holiness of our liturgies. The liturgies have started several on a journey of inquiry. One person mentioned to me, that it was the invitation to participate, issued to him, an “outsider” that made him think Christianity might be real after all. It is because the liturgies are so meaningful, that I dislike seeing them trivialized by the attitudes displayed in the photo.

  4. Angie, glad you like the format, but about the manner of expression–you KNOW that if I feel passionately about something, there’s going to be a fair amount of snark. Like it, fine; “deplore” it, fine too–but if that’s how I feel, that’s what I write.

    I still don’t think that, for the most part, worship is particularly interesting to look at–especially sitll pictures or videos. Live, it’s another thing. It *may* be interesting and inviting to some; it may be entirely off-putting to others. But I would hold that mostly, worship is something internal to the church, not something that draws new people in. That’s not a criticism, but an observation.

    But we share a discomfort with the picture at the top, which is the trivialization of worship by people farting around with smart phones during the service.

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