In the beginning was the Tweet


The Reverend Richard Coles: more tea vicar?

I think we need to revise the notion that there are, at most, six degrees of separation.

The theory is that we are no more than half a dozen steps from anyone else on the planet through the introduction of a friend, friends of a friend and so on. It’s an interesting idea, and a fun parlour game. I know someone who claims to have uncovered familial links to Liam Neeson and Sinead O’Connor – now that would be an interesting family gathering.

With the arrival of the internet, I suspect we need to reduce the number of degrees of separation. That came home to me last night during a brief conversation with Radio Four’s resident vicar, the Rev Richard Coles. A former member of the Communards, he is one of the more prolific contributors to the micro-blogosphere. You can find him at @RevRichardColes.

With some 87 thousand tweets to his credit, and some 66 thousand ‘followers’ (such an appropriate term for a Christian clergyman), he is a reasonable sized beast in the world that is Twitter. Quite how he gets time for vicaring and broadcasting is anyone’s guess.

As vicars go, he comes across pretty chilled. He has a brilliant voice for radio; and I imagine his parishioners find comfort in it too. “Please don’t shout at me,” he says in his Twitter profile.

There’s a lot of shouting on Twitter. For some reason it seems to bring out the worst in some people. I have seen people I know and respect turn into foul-mouthed bigots in the course of less than 140 characters. Not, it must be said, the Reverend. His Tweets are the model of propriety. Today, he tells us, is the day dedicated to St Therese of Lisieux – The Little Flower – my granny’s favourite saint.

Anyhow, other than hearing him on the radio (not quite religiously) on Saturday mornings, and seeing his occasional contribution to the BBC’s other broadcast output, I have never met him, never mind had a conversation with him – until last night that is.

He had tweeted a picture of a sunlit interior of a church where he had been ministering to a grieving widow. I’m sure the moment had moved him, and he wanted to share it with the world. I am less sure why I was uncomfortable about that. Perhaps I felt I had unwittingly intruded on someone else’s grief – become a voyeur during a private moment between a woman and her minister.

I should have put my phone down, and snuggled under the duvet, but instead I tapped out a Tweet. “Somethings may be best not tweeted Richard,” I said.

The “Richard” is much too familiar, and reading it now, the sentiment is high-minded. Patronising. Pompous.

You don’t normally expect a response. But a few moments later my phone pinged at me. “I don’t follow,” the reverend typed back – breaking the glass wall between performer and audience. “Private moments often best left that way,” I wrote. “Just a thought.” You could see I was feeling guilty. “Hope she got some solace. Am sure she did.”

In the face of celebrity I, like most of the rest of us, tend to crawl. “Picture taken later,” he replied – as indeed he had mentioned in his initial Tweet. “And a nice picture too,” I fawned. My phone did not ping again. Like me, I imagine he decided bed was a better bet than a row about nothing with a complete stranger.

I will never really understand what drives us to confessional moments, opening out worlds to the views of others; or why others become judgmental presuming to give a gentle ticking off to someone we do not know in a public forum.

Let he who is without sin cast the first Tweet.