Accidentally opening cans of worms

As part of my general musing on social media and our behaviour there, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s generally not the place in which to have an informed discussion about a contentious issue. Twitter especially – 140 characters is not conducive to erudite arguments. Regardless of the platform, nuances are missed when views are typed rather than spoken. There’s a tendency to type first, think later. To not care about the person whose avatar you’re responding to. To always reply, because you can.

A direct result of this was a decision to not get involved in such discussions, unless what I could bring to the table was helpful. For example, I recently stayed silent during a 150+ comment Facebook thread on feminism when one commenter ranted over many comments and in thousands of words as to why feminism undermined men. (Other people got involved, it wasn’t like their views were going unopposed.) I don’t get involved when friends who have opposing political views to mine rant on social media. There are times and places for these kind of discussions and quite frankly, I really don’t think Facebook or Twitter ever is that place.

That is not to say that I sit and let debate pass me by. That I don’t raise my head above the parapet on things that are important. [In fact, I have two defined areas in which I’m committed to speaking up, but perhaps more on that on another occasion.] I also have a huge amount of respect for friends/acquaintances/random people on Twitter who do stand up for their opinions and receive vitriol from total strangers in return. It’s just really, I’d rather be speaking my piece in real life, with the nuances of the spoken word and preferably the convivial atmosphere of a pub.

But, every so often, these debates come right out of left field and I inadvertently get caught in the midst of them. Like earlier this month when an innocent photo in my holiday album accidentally resulted in a can open, worms everywhere situation.

It was from my Parisian adventure in July and had actually gone entirely unnoticed initially, until a friend commented and I replied – throwing it into the newsfeed of many of my friends. All of a sudden, things went a bit mad…

Parisian Locks

I happen to have a VERY strong opinion on the issue of ‘love locks’ on bridges (anywhere, not just in Paris). I’d ranted about this during the Easter Chateau Duffy trip and had been shouted down by a couple of people who accused me of being a bitter single person, moaning about the things couples do to express their love. Now, if you’ve read this blog for more than a couple of months, you should be well aware that I am a hopeless romantic. That nothing pleases me more than gestures that could be taken straight out of the plot of a Richard Curtis movie. I am not bitter or twisted. My issue with love locks is that the bridges came first, the locks came later and the former was not designed for the purpose of the latter. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the locks are causing big problems for some bridges – so much so that some Parisians are calling for them to be banned. For goodness sake, in June, part of the side of the Pont des Arts collapsed because of the locks!

Anyway, this photo prompted a massive discussion as to whether it was right to remove them; whether people were right to put them there, whether those criticising it were being unromantic etc etc. As I was moving house at the time, I didn’t get involved until late in the day – right after a friend provided the scientific evidence for my argument being correct (thank you geeky friends), but by that point the photo had already been shared by someone I’d never met (a friend of a friend) who was criticising my views over on their wall.

(Oh, and someone suggested coloured ribbons would be an excellent lightweight compromise on the padlock thing. Happy couples of Europe, try that for a while and see what happens!)

It’s now died down, I think everyone’s happy, and we’ve moved on. But I mention it to demonstrate the craziness that can be caused by something that really, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t something to get your knickers in a twist about. And, if this can happen over an innocent photo, what on earth do we expect to happen when it’s genuine hot potato of an issue? 

All of a sudden, I’m a feminist…

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking more about the fact that I’m a woman than I have done for a while – or ever, in fact. [No, I haven’t been under the misapprehension that I’m a man in a rather feminine body…] I’ve never labelled myself as a feminist, but I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m now leaning in that direction more than I have done in the past.

Previously I’d been happy with my self-labelled post-feminist nature, however lately it’s seemed that this doesn’t quite cut it. An early indication was my violent reaction to misogyny on a building site (a site on which I was working, I’m not talking wolf-whistling builders). [In fairness, ‘misogyny’ might be a tad harsh, but I strongly disliked the assumptions made as a result of my gender.] Now, I find myself training for ordination in a church that’s divided on whether women can hold senior leadership positions and within a tradition that has a history of restricting women’s roles.

Over the last week an online discussion on the role of women in the church has erupted. It’s always an issue that bubbles under the surface in certain church circles and last week all it took was a Twitter debate (some of it decidedly ungracious in my opinion…) to get it going again. Subsequently, Krish Kandiah wrote a post on the subject, to which Jenny Baker responded, resulting in my being moved me to do something I rarely do – write a serious (and in all probability, very long) post on a contentious issue on my blog…

I don’t intend to get all biblical and recite all the reasons why believe that women have as much of a right as men to lead, but what I do want to do is to share my story and explain why even those who feel this is now a ‘non-issue’ actually do need to care about it.

My church background is Methodist – my parents, yes, both of them, are ordained presbyters in the Methodist Church – and until the summer I worked for the Methodist Church as a researcher (and had a few other jobs with them prior to that). But since 2005 I have worshipped in an evangelical, charismatic Anglican church and, as of September, am now an ordinand in the Church of England.

Growing up in the context I did meant that I saw women taking an equal role in the life of the church – women have been ordained as presbyters in British Methodism for decades. It was something of a shock to me when (while a pupil at a rather conservative CofE primary school) I discovered that not all churches allowed women to be ordained. For secondary school I was shipped off to an all-girls CofE comprehensive that is still known in London as being fiercely feminist – we had ‘Her-story’ classes when ‘History’ was deemed too masculine! This was in the early 1990’s when the ordination of women was finally becoming a realistic prospect. I vividly recall the day a member of staff interrupted an RS lesson with the news that General Synod had voted in favour of women becoming priests – it was a moment of rejoicing for the whole school – and I suspect I (naively) thought this was the end of the battle in terms of equality in the church.

My entire secondary education was spent in all-girls schools where we were urged to reach beyond the glass ceiling, but honestly, as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t see why there should be any problem in breaking through it. In fact, we saw it as a bit of a joke – would feminism really be needed in the 21st century? We didn’t think so.

At university I had my first encounter with a Christian woman who didn’t believe that women should be ordained – I was stunned. It was another black mark against the Christian Union and I labelled them as crazies and assumed they weren’t particularly common.

Then I had my spiritual transformation. [I jest, slightly. It wasn’t a road to Damascus experience, I simply found a church that was unlike any I’d ever experienced before and felt at home there.] I found myself in a church where I couldn’t take peoples’ views on women for granted – yes, the vicar supported women in leadership and spoke on the issue a number of times, but it couldn’t be assumed of everyone. After the vicar spoke to the men and women of the church separately on the subject, I found myself in the pub after church defending my beliefs (and, what was now emerging as my calling). One man even said that he wouldn’t want a woman leading his church because he knew a lot of stupid women. You know what? I know a lot of idiot men who shouldn’t be vicars, but it doesn’t mean that the whole gender should be banned from leading!

As I’ve pursued my calling to ordination, I’ve faced some interesting questions and conversations. One of my closest (female) friends belongs to a New Frontiers church and doesn’t believe in women holding leadership positions in church – but, she supports my calling. There have been friends in the Methodist Church who have questioned my move into a church where women currently can’t be bishops, to whom I’ve responded with a belief that things will change and that things certainly can’t change if women like me decide to avoid the very places where change needs to happen. Very recently I was at an event where someone asked “why do you feel called to ordination?” and I quickly realised that she wasn’t asking out of interest, she was asking because she believed women shouldn’t be ordained – it made me angry, but I answered rationally and truthfully.

Now I find myself in a place where I have to keep asking the “where are the women?” question. Not because my parish isn’t supportive – it very definitely is; and not because my theological college isn’t – it clearly is too; but because there just still aren’t enough women around. Yesterday I was bemoaning the lack of women on a list of ‘ordinand consultants’ [the staff were also bemoaning this, and asked for suggestions] – the one woman featured specialised in children’s work, thus confirming a typical stereotype. I am actively seeking out women who are in my line of work and who I feel I could be inspired by and who could inspire others. I am battling feelings of despondency when I look around the room at meetings and see that all the other women are vicar’s wives. I’m not going to stop asking the question until those situations change.

While I’ve been writing this, someone on Twitter has suggested that women in leadership is an ‘irrelevant’ issue – a (female, ordained) friend concurred and I weighed in with my opinion that for the sake of women where this is a relevant issue, we need to all keep fighting. Both the tweeters are Methodists and I agree, in Methodism it’s irrelevant. While conducting my Missing Generation research project last year, gender was never mentioned as an issue, something my Quaker research assistant found extraordinary – there are people in Methodism who like to think that it’s a massive issue, but honestly, it isn’t. Yes, you need to make sure that there is an even gender-representation at all levels of the church (and yes, there is currently just one women in its senior management team), but seriously British Methodists, you’ve got it pretty sorted! [Just please, please, please lay off the gender neutrality in liturgy/hymns issue!] It turned out that the tweeter actually meant that the issue of male/female equality was irrelevant to modern society – but I don’t agree there either. For as long as Iceland persist in using ‘That’s why Mum’s gone to Iceland’ as a slogan, we are not a truly egalitarian society!

To throw my own opinion into Krish’s theory that there can be a middle ground – I don’t believe there can be. As Jenny points out, such a middle ground requires a significant number of women to be denied doing what they believe God is calling them to do. What we need to do is to keep talking; to not get angry, defensive or abusive; to listen to differing opinions; and, ultimately, for people to be enabled in following their vocation. 

The etiquette of tweeting and following

Rather frustratingly, the weekend’s fun and frolics in a former convent meant that I had to miss an event that dominated my Twitter timeline for most of Friday night and all day Saturday (once the rugby was over) – the Christian New Media Awards and Conference (#cnmac11). All day (while not concentrating extremely hard during 5 hours of Church History lectures) I saw tweets between friends old and new; ex-colleagues; long-standing Twitter buddies yet to have been met in the flesh and total strangers. It was like watching a party I hadn’t been invited to through a closed window…

The good thing about the tweeting was that it enabled me to hear when the Methodists – represented by the fabulous Jo in even more fabulous glittery red shoes [Jo, I now have some nail varnish that would match perfectly!] – won an award for Tell, Show, Be. It also meant that I could witness some of the post-conference discussion and some of the blogposts that are being generated by it.

By all accounts, the Digital Nun was rather popular. Her post, the 10 rules for online engagement, is a summary of some of what she said, and I have to say it makes a lot of sense. In brief, there are 10 key words (click through for the full explanation, it’s worth it):
1. Pray
2. Listen
3. Respect
4. Encourage
5. Spend time
6. Share
7. Be Welcoming
8. Be Grateful
9. Be Yourself
10. Love

One that might need expanding upon is one I feel very strongly about – #6: Share: not only what you are doing, but also what others are doing. This particularly applies to Twitter — don’t use it just for self-advertisement!’. I’m really not a fan of people who re-tweet compliments sent to them, unless they’re amusing or it’s for something really special. Occasional sharing of such things is fine; too much and it looks big-headed. Also, one of Twitter’s qualities is that it’s an ideal platform for sharing things with lots of people that they might not know about, but might be interested it. It’s how I manage to distract myself for far too vast a chunk of time!

Another outcome of the conference was a brief tweet chat with Becca who had been there on Saturday. She had tweeted: “does limiting who u follow on twitter create exclusive groups that become counter productive? Is fb not better 4 developing relationships?” [sic]
To which I replied: “Think I’ve developed much better relationships on Twitter – am much more restrictive about fb connections. ‘Real’ friends only!”
[As a sidenote, Becca is a ‘real’ friend, though in a slightly bizarre way – I know her parents, siblings and husband better, but I feel like we’ve bonded over the years thanks to our virtual contact.]

It needed further dissection, so more tweets followed and I concluded that it was far too complicated a question to adequately discuss on Twitter, so felt a blogpost was brewing. Essentially, I had four points:

1. I don’t mind casual acquaintances (or total strangers) following me on Twitter – but I wouldn’t accept their friend request on Facebook. Twitter is public and I know that, so I tweet accordingly (though it may not look like that sometimes!). Which connects with…
2. I choose what I put on Twitter. Interestingly, this includes links to every post I write on here – which is not something I do on Facebook. On Facebook I tend to protect my world more.
3. Facebook is for actual people in my life – I choose who I want to be there.
4. Twitter’s helped me get to know some strangers or friends a lot better, especially colleagues and co-students. It’s also created groups of people that I can connect with about specific things, but don’t feel at all cliquey.

It’s this last point that’s the most important (or interesting – as far as I’m concerned). Twitter is far less obtrusive, I don’t often hesitate about following someone in the way I might hesitate about sending a Facebook request. Take today for example: I was lunching with fellow vicars-to-be at college and we chatted about Twitter, resulting in the sharing of names – we’re now all following each other. We haven’t had a similar chat about Facebook, but that relationship will in all probability come later – it’s a different level of intimacy.

In the run up to starting my new job, several of my new colleagues started following me and I reciprocated – it meant that they knew an awful lot more about me (perhaps too much?!) by the time I started work. In turn, I knew a little bit more about them and felt very supported during my summer of transitions. It’s also helped to maintain and grow relationships that began in human interaction – like a few of the people I holidayed with, who I can now keep up with via Twitter. Generally, I feel that Twitter relationships are better quality than Facebook ones. There’s a quality of communication and feedback (particularly on blogging) that I really appreciate and that I find very encouraging.

Something else Becca mentioned was a stat relating to followers and reciprocal following. My understanding (though I may be wrong) is that we are generally only followed by 10% of those that follow us [please correct me if I’m wrong!]. It seems I had got it a bit wrong – in a comment below, Becca says it’s more to do with our capability to have meaningful relationships with 10% of those who follow us. 

Interesting, but I’m not sure that I care. Sure, I’d be annoyed if an actual friend didn’t reciprocate, but I follow who I want to follow because I want to hear what they say. Who am I to impose my own thoughts upon other people who might not want to hear me? Watching a fellow Tweeter complain recently about people they followed who hadn’t followed them back irked me considerably – it is your prerogative who you follow and people shouldn’t get offended by it.

My general rule of thumb when unknowns follow me is that I’ll check out their profile and establish if they seem to tweet stuff I find interesting – if so, I’ll follow them back straight away; sometimes I’ll wait a while and check again when I’m sorting through my followers for bots; other times I’ll follow back after a couple of @ mentions that get me involved in an interesting conversation; sometimes I won’t follow at all – and I don’t feel guilty about it. Life is too short for following too many people. My feed becomes cluttered (and yes, I know I could move to lists via Tweet Deck, but I prefer everyone in one) and it gets unusable – especially if I’m out and about and can only check in infrequently on my phone.

So, those are my thoughts. Maybe next year I’ll get to #cnmac12 and can share them in person (though, knowing my luck, it’ll clash with another residential). In the mean time, I suggest you reflect upon Digital Nun’s thoughts and ponder upon whether you ought to make some changes in the way in which you engage online.