Strangely enough, the word ‘gossip’ originally meant ‘godparent’ and it is connected with the word ‘sibling’. It is useful to recall, because it means that gossip comes about when people are too familiar, too close to each other. I think that in the hothouse of certain tiny convert groups, where relations are too close for comfort, this can be a problem. I have not particularly come across the problem of gossip in more ‘normal’, larger parishes.
The essence of gossip is pride, the wish to feel superior to others, it is smugness, pretentiousness, self-importance. Gossip always condemns others. Here we must distinguish between ‘judging’ and ‘condemning’. We constantly have to judge – judges have to do it, parents have to do it, priests have to do it.
The words ‘Judge not that ye be not judged’ refer to condemnatory, censorious, prideful judgement. When we hear harsh words about others, we should register them not in the front of our minds, but in the back of our minds. The facts in question may be true, they may not be true. They await confirmation. If people have done wrong, we should defend them, make excuses for them (but we never do this for ourselves – self- condemnation is the first baby’s step in spiritual life , the beginning of humility.
In any case, even if the gossip is true, people have done wrong, they do not need condemnation from us, they have already condemned themselves, they have punished themselves and will suffer because they have already renounced the protection of God’s grace in their acts and lack of repentance (if there has been no repentance). They do not therefore need condemnation, but compassion.
This last point about repentance is also often forgotten by gossipers. Their gossip is unChristian because they forget about the possibility of change, forgiveness and repentance. Thus, in their rancor, they dig up things done years before, long ago regretted and repented for. The evil of gossip comes from the possibility that the gossiper is saying things, only in order to make his own heart swell up with pride and feelings of superiority and arrogance. When we hear gossip (as is inevitable), we should always check the feelings in our hearts. What are we feeling? Superiority and the pharisaic, ‘Thank God I am not like other men?’. Or compassion and the feeling, ‘Ah so and so has fallen, look how weak our human nature is, I will be the next?’. If gossip puffs us up, we should walk away, because we are losing our salvation through it.
True, we do need to know things about Church life and individuals. This is not gossip, it is factual. Our attitude to this knowledge must be dispassionate, objective, humble, compassionate. These are the litmus test questions. What is happening in our hearts, what is the effect of ‘talk’ there? If the effect is spiritually negative and we are losing grace, then this is ‘gossip’. This is the meaning of that very important saying in the Gospels: ‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves’. (Matt. 10,16). That sums up the Orthodox (=Christian) attitude to gossip.
Always look for motivations, the why and the how are generally much more important than the what.