Church of England bishops who tweeted about Dominic Cummings’ alleged breach of lockdown rules were motivated by the need to “uphold the principle of truth”, a senior bishop has said.
The Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, faced questions on whether it was appropriate for members of the church to post about the Prime Minister’s chief adviser on social media.
At a meeting of the General Synod, which gathered virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Walker said that it was important to “speak out” in times of division.
A number of representatives from the church condemned Boris Johnson for standing by his top aide over a trip from London to County Durham during the national lockdown.
When asked about the social media posts, Dr Walker said: “I think in this particular instance, bishops’ tweets were a contribution to discussion that was pretty much of national importance.
“I think it was headline news for several days. Those tweets were, as I understand it, motivated particularly by a deep conviction of the need to uphold the principle of truth in public life.
“I think we would do well to remember that when our esteemed colleague Desmond Tutu in South Africa headed up a commission following the apartheid, it was called ‘truth and reconciliation’.
“And truth and reconciliation have to go together. Without truth, it’s very hard to achieve reconciliation.”
Dr Walker told the assembly that social media guidelines must not interfere with the ability of representatives from the church to make “appropriate contributions on matters of very high public importance”.
In a second follow question, Dr Walker was asked if serving bishops would be encouraged to reflect on whether, during times of division, a policy of “silence” would be better than “posting judgements” on social media.
“I think what we have found is that, in recent months, the social media platforms have been very crucial way in which the church is able to get across its messages around Covid-19 to share the Christian message more generally,” he responded.
“I think in the time of division, perhaps sometimes times of division are times when it is important to speak out.
“And I trust that bishops judiciously determine whether it’s appropriate on a particular issue to speak or to remain silent.”
Some of the church’s most senior bishops reported receiving hate mail and death threats after speaking out on the matter.
Bishop of Worcester John Inge tweeted that he received an email warning “stay out of politics or we’ll kill you” after he criticised Mr Johnson’s “risible defence” of Mr Cummings.
Helen-Ann Hartley, the bishop of Ripon, reported a similar threat, posting: “‘Stay out of politics or it will be the death of you’ was one of the emails I received today. Thank you to those who have sent supportive messages.”