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Engraving by Henry HolidayHallo again to all.

Snark is an Anglican word, born in the heart of that Green and Pleasant Land one of whose great glories is Christ Church College/Cathedral, Oxford. The word comes into modern English through the fruitful and creative mind of the Reverend Mr. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, known best to most as Lewis Carroll. In the deacon-mathematician's telling, the snark is an unimaginable creature, 'a Boojum, you see', with great affection for bathing machines. Whether its name comes from the combination of shark and snake, or snail and shark, or of some other words—or none at all—is immaterial. Snarks are to be hunted 'with forks and hope'. Common snarks 'do no manner of harm', but there is a lingering sense that a real snark, once found, would be quite as dangerous as the quest for it, which is a full 'agony in eight fits'.

Lexicographers find no actual link between Dodgson's 1874 Hunting of the Snark and the modern use of the word snarky to mean petty, snide, hackneyed, caricaturing, nasty, undermining, arch-beyond-wit, cruel-simplistic. Yet last week, while reading David Denby's Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation, we felt sure we were reading about an Anglican creation and Anglican attitude, namely, the sorry state of discourse in the online Anglican world. We will not cite examples, because we know that you know where to find 'religious' snark if you want it. (Snark is easy this way; it falls in the comfy parameters of the Potter Stewart Doctrine, and we all know it when we see it.) We invite you just now to read the following lines by Denby, modified slightly in brackets for specialist vocabulary.

The platonic ideal of snark is something like this:

Two [bishops, priests, deacons, church politics enthusiasts] are sitting in a [pub, sacristy, refectory, diocese, province] putting down a third, who is sitting on the other side of the [pub, sacristy, refectory, diocese, province]. What's peculiar about this event is that the [bishop, priest, deacon, church politics enthusiast] on the other side of the [pub, sacristy, refectory, diocese, province] is their best friend. In that scenario, snark is abusive or sarcastic speech that operates like poisoned arrows within a closed space. Its intention is to offer solidarity between two or more parties and to exclude someone from the same group. [On television,] this is juicily entertaining, but in real life it's as hostile as spit. Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you by assuming that you get the contemptuous joke. You've been admitted, or readmitted, to a club.

We suspect you feel the same flash of recognition at a form of delicious and lethal Anglican schadenfreude we have all by now come to know too well. Blog-style comment and anonymity are like dry tinder for the fires of Anglican snark. Add a spark of web-tech ability, and you've got a fiery furnace, or the potential for one, given enough web traffic and like-minded folk with PayPal accounts.

Engraving by Henry HolidayA century ago, it would have been normal to hear the clergy of the then-new Anglican Communion referred to as stupor mundi—the amazement of the world—for their learning, gentleness, large-heartedness and wide accomplishments. That is gone today, and we're quite sure that the sea-change in a few generations' time has more to do with the wrong kind of snark than anything else. We have become, willingly or at least through acquiescence, something rather more diminished and rather than less wonderful than we could be and should be. The heart of the trouble is not in serious disagreement, not in honest difference, not in legitimate diversity of use and local development. The difference is in the wider influence of hearts that wish the ill of others rather than the good of others. We have changed from a people who can produce—in a fit of clerical whimsy—a rich poem like The Hunting of the Snark, into a people who take joy from a spirit of snarkiness whose hallmarks are destructive, non-creative, obscure, clubbish, blue rather than green, dark rather than bright.

In the most careful analysis, the difference between the hearts that made The Hunting of the Snark and the hearts that make today's snarkish communion can be reduced to the respective attitudes of hands. One set of Anglican hands is open, ready to calm, welcome, write, comfort, ladle a bowl of soup, or pour a cup of tea. Another set of hands is clenched, just ready to hit, closed to grasping in welcome, unable to share warmth with outstretched fingers, unwilling to pour anyone's coffee but its own, determined to use its energy to build a church that looks only into a mirror of its own polishing.

We try to make our hands the former sort, tending to our hearts like weedy gardens if they ever seem to be becoming more the latter. Tell us when we're off the mark, please, and we'll do our best to keep the home fires burning in a bright, gentle, warming, kind way. We would much, much prefer to hunt the mythical snark, to shun the frumious bandersnatch and to go snicker-snack than we'd ever want to find ourselves becoming really snarky.

See you next week. You'll always be welcome here, at the Anglican home of 0% bad snark since 1994.

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Last updated: 9 August 2009

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