LET US PRAY
Gossip is a significant inhibitor to pastoral care and is commonly found in churches, the very places which should eschew it most resolutely
‘Now I want you to be more careful with this secret than I was in sharing it with you’. As usual, Homer Simpson, the idiot savant of our generation, sums up perfectly the inherent fallacy of just trusting one more person with which to share a secret you have been told.
Churches are networks of high trust, where the expectation is that burdens can be shared with loyal friends who will pray for us and support us when we feel overwhelmed. Yet there is a flip side to this: the very level of trust to which we are called can collapse spectacularly with a careless word. Perhaps this is the reason we are reluctant to share our burdens as honestly as our faith might compel. As we walk along the narrow bridge that joins us emotionally with another person, we are drawn magnetically to the drop that lies beneath us rather than the arms waiting to embrace us.
Secrecy has a bad name now. In politics, the mere hint that information is being withheld suggests to the public that there is a cover-up where the elite protect themselves either from incompetence or from the exposure of fraud. Openness and transparency are the reflexive preferences of a public weary of political failure. There are even more powerful cultural forces which mould our attitude to secrecy. Digital aids enable people to express their innermost thoughts and feelings without the awkwardness of having to say it to another person’s face. A whole confessional genre has emerged where we can expose our deepest anxieties and neuroses. Some good has come out of this: we are less inclined to the pretence of coping when we are not and less embarrassed at revealing our inadequacies. However, there are fewer kept secrets in a culture of digital confession.
The use of social media in particular has made it hard to preserve necessary confidentiality. Most of us have kept secrets from some people but not from others from time to time for the very best of reasons, usually to ensure certain people are not hurt or upset. Social media makes it impossible to keep secrets unless everyone knows it is a secret, and even then confidentiality is not always protected. The naïve Silicon Valley philosophy that assumes distinctions between public and private faces are inauthentic and that we should present only one face to the world around us shows a staggering ignorance of the necessary layers of personality we surround and at times protect ourselves with. Digital advances may have made us a connected society, but they have also given spurious cover to snoopers and gossips which can trawl online and scoop up from the net all manner of fare for others’ consumption.
Though secrecy in most forms is frowned upon today, a judicious use of it can protect a person sufficiently while enabling them to find the support and help they need. This is where gossip, and the inability to maintain confidentiality, is so undermining of people in need. Gossip is a significant inhibitor to pastoral care and it is commonly found in churches, the very places which should eschew it most resolutely. No-one condones gossip; we simply deny that what we are doing is gossiping. We rationalise it in our minds with the thinking: ‘I’ll tell you as long as you don’t tell anyone else’. And that person proceeds to use the same justification until the news has rippled out to the circumference like the effects of a stone dropped into a pool. The further from the source the secret goes, the less the restraint on sharing it and the likelier it is to be a perversion of the truth (the phenomenon of Chinese whispers).
Until recently, there were simple rules to adhere to in supporting someone in need in a Christian fellowship: listen; keep quiet; ask if you should share it with anyone; pray. Digital social media may have complicated this ethic but need not undermine it. It has, however, created the potential for the worst kind of prurience and the most efficient kind of gossip. Unless we grasp this, Christian people will become less inclined to share their problems, not more, as our culture might suppose.
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