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Gossip: the Traditional Method of Church Communication?

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Chris Sgaraglino (Flickr)

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Chris Sgaraglino (Flickr)

A old joke: one Thursday afternoon, a rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, and an Anglican bishop were out fishing in the ocean alongside their village. Distractions being what they are, the three lost track of both time and location, and as the sun went down, they found themselves lost and afraid: without food or fresh water, they were going to all perish. So they decided to prepare to meet their Maker by hearing one another’s confessions.

The rabbi was the first to go. After he spoke of a few minor indiscretions, he said, “But the worst thing I’ve done is that I’ve failed to keep kosher. For years I have eaten bacon or ham for breakfast. Oh, if my congregation only knew!”

The Roman Catholic priest went next. He spoke of a couple of little wrong doings and then he said, “But the one thing I’m most ashamed of is that for the last twenty years I’ve been dating a woman in the next town over. If my parishioners knew they’d be so shocked!”

Just as the bishop was about to offer up his confession, a Coast Guard ship appeared
on the horizon. Salvation had come, at least in Earthly form.

As they were being lifted onto the rescue boat, the rabbi and priest turned to the bishop and said, “You never told us your greatest sin.”

“Oh,” said the bishop, “That’s easy. I love to gossip!”

A good story, isn’t it? And all in good fun. But it’s also close to home: gossip has always played a role in human society, and it’s always been part of church life. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us: a group of people that agree to live in community with one another will necessarily be interested in the life events of others in that community. They’ll want to celebrate, pray, and grieve with those they call sisters and brothers in Christ. But where does it end? Where do the boundaries lie?

I found myself asking these questions a number of years ago, after visiting a parishioner that the prayer team reported to have been rushed away in an ambulance just days before. “I was not,” she clarified, annoyed, “and perhaps the gossip team should consider minding its own business.” To this day, I don’t know what happened. But the fact remains, the good will of one group of people had crossed over another person’s boundaries of comfort and confidentiality.

AST student Rachel Campbell has studied this phenomenon, as reported by CBC, and concludes that church gossip can be both “prophecy and profanity,” depending on the intent. Campbell notes that good communication is the key to addressing the issues.

I can’t help but wonder if interpretation is just as significant as intent. Or perhaps even moreso: after all, taken to its extreme, boundaries and common sense around bullying and sexual harassment favour the interpretation of the victim over the intent of the offender. Is the same true for gossip?

What do you think? How do we address issues of gossip in the church? If we, the Christian community, are who we profess to be, then how should our faith inform the way we talk about one another?

About Jesse Dymond

I'm a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.
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