‘A sense of the person’: Intimacy seen as vital in fragmented landscape of online media

“I could be talking theology one minute ... then I’m posting pictures of my dog,” says the Rev. Daniel Brereton of his popular X account. Photo: Contributed
Published May 31, 2024

Second in a two-part series

The Rev. Daniel Brereton, incumbent at St. John’s Dixie Anglican Church in Mississauga, Ont., has more than 10 times the amount of followers on X (formerly known as Twitter) as the Anglican Church of Canada itself or the Anglican Journal.

As this article was being written, the Anglican Church of Canada’s account had 10,900 followers and the Anglican Journal’s had 9,348. By comparison, Brereton’s personal account @RevDaniel had more than 114,000 followers.

The vast difference in reach between the church’s official social media and that of an individual priest such as Brereton illustrates what online media practitioners and scholars say is a changing environment for religious media in the digital era—one characterized by distrust of traditional institutions, a splintered media landscape, greater focus on individual voices and a more intimate relationship with the audience.

With religious journalism in Canada’s secular mass media on the wane (see “Decline of religious journalism in secular media inspires new approaches,” May, p. 6), many of the country’s Anglicans have embraced alternative models. Social media and podcasting are two major ways in which individual Anglicans, often without any background in traditional media or journalism, are sharing their perspectives about the church and issues of the day with a wider audience.

Brereton, who describes his previous media experience as limited to “the odd letter to the editor,” tweets his personal feed on X separately from the St. Dixie’s account. Brereton describes his feed, which includes a fair amount of humour, as “everything from thoughts about this week’s readings [to] stuff that I’m working on in terms of sermons or Bible studies … I could be talking theology one minute and then I am talking politics the next. Then I’m posting pictures of my dog and then I’m complaining about my husband.”

“The key for me is realizing that people want a sense of the person behind the account,” he adds. “I think that’s always been the struggle with churches and with institutions and organizations having social media accounts… People don’t relate to organizations.”

Some of his followers, Brereton says, have told him his account is the only one they follow with any connection to Christianity. Many either have no experience of church or have had very negative, even traumatic experiences with it.

Brereton believes that as both an Anglican priest and openly gay man who speaks about his marriage online, he counters many preconceived notions of what the church and religion are like. Many connect with him because they appreciate his political thoughts or handling of online trolls, he says, but then end up hearing his thoughts on the Bible and theology. Social media, Brereton says, offer a way for people to see into the life of the church in a way that has not been possible before.

Podcasts can play a similar role, both in sharing views from within the church and looking beyond it. Two Anglican priests in London, Ont.—Canon Kevin George, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Rev. Rob Henderson, rector of the Parish of Holy Trinity-St. Stephen’s Memorial—have attracted thousands of listeners with their podcast The Vicars’ Crossing, in which they speak with guests about “where faith intersects with the public square.”

Clockwise from top left: co-host the Rev. Rob Henderson, producer Iain Stevenson and co-host Canon Kevin George interview chronic care nurse Kasia Kalarus on an episode of their podcast The Vicars’ Crossing.

The podcast began in October 2018, broadcast from the upper floor of the Crossings Pub & Eatery. Henderson is a former radio announcer, while George had no previous experience in broadcast media.

The hosts seek to incorporate diverse voices. Among the guests who have appeared on the podcast are retired Canadian general Roméo Dallaire; CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers; Episcopal priest Danielle Tumminio Hansen, whose book Speaking of Rape provides a theological perspective on how churches discuss sexual violence; and writer Ally Henny, vice president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, an organization that seeks to engage Black Christians towards liberation from racism.

George says publishers of books on religion and theology have increasingly contacted the co-hosts to arrange for authors to appear on The Vicars’ Crossing. “They’re looking for podcasters,” he says. “They’re looking for, sadly, shows like Tapestry [CBC Radio’s recently cancelled program on religion and spirituality] and others that are gone off of conventional media. But [podcasts are] where they’re looking to sell their product, because that’s where the listeners have gone.”

Alfred Hermida, a digital media scholar at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and former BBC reporter, says particularly among Gen Z and millennials, there has been a shift away from the “bundle” model of newspapers as people instead choose to access individual news articles online, often through digital intermediaries such as their social media feeds. However, while anyone has the ability to publish and distribute content online, Hermida says, “that’s not the same thing as being visible.” Traditional media outlets, he notes, still often dominate digital spaces due to their established brand identity and greater resources.

“One of the differences with online media is that in some ways to build an audience,” Hermida says, “you need to develop a relationship and develop the trust of that audience in terms of that what you’re doing is valuable to them.”

“There’s a bit more of maybe a healthy distrust of automatically assigning trust to people because they belong to an institution,” he adds. “I think the difference with digital and online is that you have to earn that trust.”

Another trend Hermida describes is a shift away from the “abstract voice of authority” in journalism towards greater emphasis on the individual voice. Researching X, Hermida has found that individual accounts by journalists have far more followers than institutional accounts because people want a sense of personal connection.

“That’s one of the things that social media, and podcasting particularly, is very good at,” Hermida says. Podcasting often feels more intimate than radio, he says, since it’s more likely to involve the deliberate choice to listen rather than passively hearing radio in the background. “Usually it’s through headphones, so this person is in your head talking to you individually. It’s different from a radio experience that’s playing on in the background.

“It’s certainly understandable why some priests might have podcasts that reach way more people than the institutional voice of the church or … journalism publications, because it feels that that person is talking to you,” Hermida says. “I think that’s one of the shifts we’ve seen, especially with Gen Z. They want a relationship; they want a connection … They want something where identity, who you are, where you come from—that all matters.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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