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Methodists And The Use Of Social Media

Richard Hall and David Hallam take differing views on a proposal coming to the Methodist Council laying down policies for how Methodist ministers and officials use social media – blogging, Twitter, Facebook and so on.

My own opinion of the document is somewhere in between Richard and David’s. Basically, it’s a paper that reads as if it is worried about protecting the church’s reputation.  Of course, in today’s online world anyone can gain an online presence and express their opinions. Naturally, there could be dangers in that. The paper is right to remind people that principles of confidentiality and so on should still be observed. With that I am with Richard – it doesn’t much change the existing situation, it simply applies it to a new situation.

Yet with David I have some reservations. I wish he wouldn’t use inflammatory language such as ‘fatwa’, but in a document that expects those who use social media to be transparent about their identity there are issues of transparency to raise about it. Not about the author – that is clear. It is Toby Scott, our Director of Communications and Campaigns. But there are two areas that seem vague to me. Firstly, the identity of the ‘selection of existing Methodist bloggers’ who were consulted (page 1). Who were they, who selected them and what selection criteria were used? The answers to these questions may be entirely honest, but without further explanation the online community is bound to start wondering.

Secondly, we know that the report ‘comes at the request of the Strategic Leaders and the Connexional Leaders Forum’ (page 2). However, it would be good to know the reasons why these informal private bodies requested a report. Without knowing the terms of reference, we cannot entirely evaluate the appropriateness of the document.

We live in a culture of suspicion that sometimes goes over the top, but without further explication of what has been posted as a public online source, it is little surprise that David Hallam (and others?) become suspicious. After all, there is much in the report that seeks to prevent church officers from tweeting during meetings. I can instantly think of one church officer who does this. Was this person a target for some of the report? Hopefully not.

It is certainly a paper that has a benign understanding of ‘old media’ in contrast to ‘new media’ – see the references to the Methodist Recorder moderating its letters page. Times have changed. The last time I read the Recorder (about two years ago, admittedly) it couldn’t get newsworthy press releases into its pages until three to four weeks after their publication. I know, I compared the date one appeared in the newspaper with when it had been reported in a blog.

This issue brings to mind something that happened while I was training for the ministry at theological college. Older Methodists may know there was an old tradition that the moment you began training for the ministry you were entitled to wear a clerical collar and be addressed as ‘Reverend’, in contrast to other denominations. During my training, that policy changed. There was an incident, we were told, where a ministerial student at another college had abused this. One friend of mine asked, ‘Is this the reason or the occasion for the change of policy?’ Given the questions Tony Buglass has raised in comments on both Richard and David’s posts about the negative publicity afforded to our denomination through the TV show ‘An Island Parish‘, I do at least think this question needs asking, even if it turns out this document has arisen for entirely good reasons. Once again, it’s the question of transparency.

UPDATE, WEDNESDAY 27TH JANUARY, 9:00 PM: Please also read Pete Phillips’ trenchant critique of the paper.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on January 26, 2010, in ministry, Television, Weblogs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I’m afraid I don’t understand the transparency issue. If this was a paper claiming to represent the views of Methodist bloggers I’d be with you, but as it stands it should be judged according to what it says. Certainly I don’t see the need for suspicion.

    Of course, times have changed. But the comment about the Methodist Recorder ‘moderating’ the conversation on its letter pages is relevant: most bloggers also moderate the comments that appear on their sites to a greater or lesser extent — and those that don’t, should!

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    • I think what I was trying to say late last night is that I understand some people being suspicious (even if I find David H’s language needlessly provocative). As I said, I’m with you largely on the content of the paper – it’s generally fine, and applies what we would expect in terms of our confidentiality ethic. Also, I might add, as an internal document, it’s fine.

      However, the fact of its publication on the web changes things, and opens it to inevitable questions of public scrutiny. If I write a public piece such as a journal article, as I occasionally do, and just say, ‘I have consulted a number of authorities on this subject’, I will not be respected. I will be expected to note who I consulted in the bibliography and/or the footnotes. I’m looking for that kind of backup. I don’t think Connexion have realised that the otherwise very helpful practice of publishing Methodist Council papers on the website has implications for how they communicate. The game has changed.

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      • Dave,

        “I have consulted a number of authorities on this subject’, I will not be respected. I will be expected to note who I consulted in the bibliography and/or the footnotes.”

        I think what you have there is simply different views of reflection processes. I suspect people are coming from three different directions:

        1. Private conferring (as in traditionally what has happened at Methodist Council and SRC). You confer and deliberate and then present your decisions. The whole team supports the final decision and confidentiality is kept about what people said in the process. It is not a process I am very used to but it is the traditional one within Methodism for these meetings and it is the one that has been followed in the preparation of this paper (and all the others before Council).

        2. Academic referencing. What you refer to in your comment about expectations of writing in a journal. Required for an academic paper but this is not that. Maybe in an ideal world there would be academic papers first and then governance conferring to decide what to do about it.

        3. Internet openness. The way the internet has worked out things from the beginning. Discussion open to everyone with people making their case, responding to each other and reaching a consensus. The whole debate available for all who have the time to read it. Easier with technical issues than with political (compare discussions about the development of the Atom Feed format with pages about Israel on Wikipedia).

        Bloggers want method 3. I can understand that but:

        a) Would we have got a paper for the February Council meeting that way? I am not convinced.

        b) Would we have been able to get something that non bloggers would be happy with? They would have been excluded from the “open” discussion. We might have got something they feel is as useless as self regulation of banks.

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        • Fair distinctions, Dave, I’m just saying that publishing on the web what began as a private paper changes the nature of things, and I don’t think that’s been understood. That isn’t necessarily sinister, but maybe there is a lack of understanding that different media require different methods.

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          • I agree that the practice of publishing Methodist Council papers on the web has gone through a step change this week. In my very limited experience I don’t think any other council paper has got this much attention. Not surprising really the blogging world is quite self obsessed 🙂

            I imagine that some reflection on this process will be done.

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            • That would be good, Dave. As I said, I’m not necessarily assuming sinister motives – I don’t think it’s Christian to do that of our sisters and brothers – but I have an inquisitive mind.

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  2. I can’t argue with that, Dave. I’d intended to wait to find out what Council decided before blogging about this paper, but I also felt that the way it had been represented by others needed a response. But I hope the Council will continue to offer its papers in this way as an encouragement to wider debate. I hadn’t thought of using the Council’s agenda as a source of blogposts before, but when you think of the range of issues that it will deal with there are some rich pickings there.

    I suspect that if bloggers were doing this more regularly, the wider church would be in much closer touch with the Council than it currently is. Then the game really will have changed.

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    • Yes, Richard, I hope some good comes out of this week’s events. I also take note of Dave Perry’s reassuring comment in the conversation on your post. I respect Dave’s opinion, both for the kind of person he is and as someone with a foot in both camps. I do wonder whether there are people who have been hurt on both sides of the discussion.

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