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Do you work for a fractured organisation that is busy avoiding the difficult issues? Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, does which is why I have been looking at anglican websites this week. And guess what – they are fractured and busy avoiding the issues too.
The Archbishop said last week that people may be able to seek justice in the UK under different legal systems, including Sharia. This caused quite a stink, and the news bulletins soon announced that he had published clarification on his website. I would guess it has never seen anything like the traffic.
The site, which is pleasantly designed if unremarkable, has a link under Latest News labelled “What did the Archbishop actually say?”. The explanation is subtle, as one might expect from Dr Williams. I wouldn’t criticise his office for that, but I would suggest that a bit more emphasis should be given to the issue. ‘What did he say?’ is a clear line, but it is tucked away among other links and could easily be missed by (for example) a journalist in a hurry. At the least it suggests that Dr Williams does not want to draw attention to the issue.
Nothing on the site either about one of the main BBC news stories on Thursday – that the Ugandan Church has decided not to attend the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference in the summer. The issue here is homosexuality, specifically that invitations have been sent to bishops who condone it (mainly in America).
First sign of online fracturing is that the Archbishop has a schism with his own organisation – no links I could see to the Church of England site. This is a cheerful affair, with a suitably purple theme broken up with brightly-coloured headings and small but bright photos – good branding if it wants to say what a friendly, accessible outfit it is. Now, what does it say about the Sharia affair, or homosexuality? Well, by using the search engine I found a news story on the Archbishop’s speech, and a link to his site; and also a section on human sexuality going into considerable detail on the whole issue.
Two problems though. First, neither subject gets onto the home page, which is lovely and fluffy but steers well away from tough issues. Second, more seriously, most people will not start from the home page but from Google (every site’s second home page). I typed in “church of england sharia” on Thursday morning, and found a mass of news stories, none from the C of E. Top result came from allafrica.com, with a piece from the Vanguard, Lagos, which thundered that ‘people like Rowan, in their liberal naiveté, are handing over their culture, their country and their Church to a rival culture which is strong, focused, determined and eager to take it!’. Memo to the C of E web people – get your SEO (search engine optimisation) sorted so that you at least get a show amid the massed enemy on Google’s home page.
There is one anglican site that does make it into the rankings – Episcopal Life Online, which is the newspaper of the Episcopal Church in the US. Its site carries a story filed from the Church’s General Synod in London; it links to the speech and an interview Dr Williams gave, but not to the defence on his site. I think this was posted after the Episcopal piece was put up – but it does suggest there is no attempt at active “reputation management” from across the Atlantic.
Perhaps this is not surprising: there are no standing links to either the C of E or the Archbishop’s site from the episcopalians. More schism, and more avoiding the issues too. The Americans are in the spotlight on the homosexual issue, because they have a gay bishop, but when I put “homosexuality” into the site’s search engine I found results headed by a bishops’ statement in the Congo in 2004. Digging hard I did find a page of links on human sexuality – the first to a BBC piece headed ‘what does the Bible actually say about bring gay? – but nothing from the church itself. Even odder, the news section carries a piece headed “four bishops” renunciations of ministry accepted by Presiding Bishop’, with no mention of why they were walking out; one can only guess.
So I headed to the other side of the debate, the African dioceses, to see if they were a little more robust. Quality varies greatly, from the basic to the slick. The Church of Uganda comes into the first category, so it is not surprising that it has nothing on its Lambeth boycott. The tone is religious (“We thank God that this Web-site is finally born to further the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.”) which should not be a surprise but does highlight the secularity of the western sites. The Church of Nigeria is one of the slick ones, and is also refreshingly frank. One of the Frequently-asked questions is “Why does the Church of Nigeria hate gays?”. The answer, that it doesn’t but that “efforts to bless same sex unions are unscriptural”, may not have the subtlety of the C of E’s response, but is at least easy to understand. Needless to say, I could not find any links from the Uganda or Nigeria sites to the Church of England or Archbishop’s site.
The web almost has a tendency to reflect reality – whether in business, government or church. But as businesses and governments know, there are ways of spinning reality. For one, the anglicans should create an online hub that holds their sites together (there is one, Anglicans Online, but it is not official). For another, they should use their websites to tackle issues head on, rather than sweeping them under the online carpet. “What did the Archbishop actually say?” is a good start; it needs to turn into a more general spirit of openness. Third, don’t forget search engine optimisation: if Google leads first to a hostile column in a Nigerian paper, that is where the people are likely to go.