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More TikTok vicar?

Why is the Church of England like the Chinese Communist party? If you can answer that without deviation, hesitation or, frankly, libel, then a bishopric is yours. Let’s just say that both have intriguing links with TikTok, the short video-hosting platform beloved by teenagers.

Attempts by clergy to break into TikTok include the likes of Reverend Anne Beverley, who delivers brief sermons, and Reverend David Sims, who can be seen miming to dance and song trends, jumping in and out of vestments, and, in one video, pretending to do kung fu in a vestry. The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t have an account but a video of him saying “Oh God” at the funeral of the late Queen has been viewed millions of times.

There’s a temptation to frame vicars on TikTok as a weird clash of cultures, a story of the ancient meeting the current. Actually, it’s no surprise at all: organised Christianity has invariably gone wherever popular culture has taken it. From the reactions to the Antonine Plague, via the printing press to the spread of televangelism: Christians have seized on societal and technological changes as opportunities to spread their faith. The question is whether using TikTok to spread the Gospel to new and younger audiences is a good idea.

While 18- to 24-year-olds make up more than half of all content creators on TikTok, only 2 per cent of the same demographic in England identify as members of the national Church. Some clergy think that the best way to try and do something about that glaring disparity is to go where young people are, rather than praying that they come to the Church as is.

Beverley began her account to try to engage with young people in the small Lancashire town where she serves. She explains churchy terms and practices as well as participating in the odd meme. She is on record as saying that the videos where she engages in the dance trends and challenges are “actually quite a small part of what I do”. Tellingly, she has recently been appointed Director of Ministry for the whole Diocese of Blackburn. Clearly the higher-ups think there might be something in the app after all.

Some clergy have become accidental TikTok stars. Lincolnshire-based vicar Reverend Aiden Edwards was caught on mic at a wedding remarking that he was “sweating like a fat lass in a chip shop” and accidentally catching his lace cotta on the pulpit door, which made him an overnight sensation. Interestingly, underneath both deliberate and accidental clerical videos, “if this was my vicar I’d go to church” comments predominate.

The most popular videos come from extremes of the church — Reverend David Sims is a charismatic evangelical who jumps around in services and almost never wears formal clerical wear, while Edwards is an Anglo-Catholic who dresses in the finest vestments available. This perhaps suits TikTok’s general trend towards extreme interpretations of just about anything.

As a younger cleric, at the age of 32, I too have found that there are challenges to engaging with a generation that is more used to online communication than that which occurs in person. Many of my more evangelistic moments have happened via Twitter or online interaction rather than face to face.

Of course, statistically speaking, going to church is a weird thing to do for anyone under a certain age. I see the arguments for wanting to meet people where they are and know that it can work. But sometimes the weirdness is the point. What got me going to church as a teenager was precisely because it was not like everything else.

Where the weirdness is perhaps more of an issue is in how a ministry plays off with the parish system: on one level it’s true that any cleric with an area of interest beyond the patterns of parish life necessarily has to balance priorities, but with TikTok there is the specific issue that most parishioners probably have little idea about what it is and even less of an inclination to learn.

Indeed, there have been such vicars before in every stream of more modern communication. These range from traditional TV vicars, such as the Reverends Kate Bottley and Richard Coles, to Instagram clerics such as the Reverend Chris Lee, who is especially big in Korea, where they don’t have an established church but somebody did turn him into an anime character. There are Twitter vicars, vicars who have dedicated presences on Facebook or YouTube. There are even vicars who contribute to lifestyle supplements in respectable broadsheet newspapers. Surely TikTok is no different other than its distinct advantage of being the preserve of the young, with whom the church routinely fails to connect?

And for all the idea of it as a modern trend, the use of TikTok by clerics is remarkably traditional in two particular ways. First, the videos generally play into established narratives around vicars. From the deliberate goofiness to the off-guard comments, there is a sense of good, harmless, faintly eccentric figures embedded in the community. Second, the videos themselves very much play to traditional TikTok tropes of dance trends and lip-syncing.

When I have had deeper conversations with adults of my own and more recent generations, there has been a yearning for something deeper, something that offers a break from the round of inanity and pressure that can so easily be found on social media. It isn’t that younger people want clergy to be antisocial or staid or brusque in their personal interactions — quite the opposite — but they are no different to anyone in wanting religion to provide a sense of something beyond the day to day; something beautiful and, if needs be, strange.

TikTok is often framed as a threat to established modes of communication — indeed to the very concepts of truth itself. Interestingly, there was a time when Christianity was considered just as dangerous, for the same reasons. But therein is perhaps the point: behind the stereotypes and the silliness, something serious lurks.

Christianity has a remarkable ability to adapt to each age and technology that it encounters, all with the specific intention of changing the world to make it closer to the vision of God. I suspect that TikTok will prove to be just another tool in that never-ending mission.

How effective it will be at doing so remains to be seen. In the meantime, I suppose I better get practising my lip-syncing and working on my Mandarin.

Fergus Butler-Gallie is author of ‘Touching Cloth: Confessions and Communions of a Young Priest’

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