The church and anarchyOct 25th, 2011 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Church of Ireland Comment
An elderly Roman Catholic parish priest once expressed the opinion that it would not be proper for me to pray with members of his parish; I remember feeling hurt at the time, (though perhaps I should have felt flattered at being perceived as so spiritually influential as to be a danger to the mortal souls of his flock).
In retrospect, it was of anthropological interest that someone in the 21st Century still believed that they could instruct people how to behave; that there were still clergy who believed that they could assume the attitude of the late Archbishop McQuaid and presume to govern every aspect of people’s lives. To be fair to him, he would have found numerous counterparts on the other side of the sectarian divide; there were plenty of Protestant clergy ready to voice opinions about the company one should keep; the places one could go; and the conduct one was allowed. In their own way, both the elderly priest and those on my own side probably meant well; they genuinely believed their strictures to be necessary.
If the social revolution of the past decades were not enough, their authority has been completely swept away by new technology; censorship, barriers and prohibitions have become mere punching at the wind. The Internet is an anarchic republic: ‘anarchic’ because it is without rule; republic because it is the ultimate ‘res publica’, the ultimate public thing.
The church is thrown back into the First Century, having to struggle for a voice, having to compete for people’s attention; it is compelled once more to speak to people instead of speaking at them. The church is no longer sustainable as a hierarchy, as a monolith issuing edicts everyone will obey.
Attending a conference recently, a speaker suggested I write something on a subject.
‘I have’, I replied.
‘Where?’ she asked.
‘On my blog’, I said.
It prompted a look of bemusement, as though I were an eccentric who had answered a question with a complete non sequitir. ‘I get more readers online than you would in your journal’. She looked doubtful and I decided an attempt to explain algorithms and rankings was pointless.
The church would prefer the times of journals with editors because control was possible; like the old priest anxious that my Protestant prayers would not sully his people’s ears, printed publications could be controlled, even censored when necessary. There is no possibility of controlling the Internet, no possibility of returning to the old days.
The church will step out into the anarchic republic and engage with people or the 20th Century will be its last.