Methodists And Social Media: The Methodist Council Decision


Posts are starting to fly in on yesterday’s Methodist Council decision. Pete Phillips and Dave Warnock (both members of the Council) have blogged the result in some details, and Richard Hall has offered a brief comment with an appeal for grace.

Broadly speaking, the report was accepted, but with two qualifications. Firstly, Council has sensibly removed the words ‘after the meeting’ from the discussion of the Chatham House Rule, for otherwise people would have been prevented from discussing non-confidential matters together before a meeting. That would have been absurd, and conspiracy theorists would have eaten that for breakfast.

Secondly, this resolution was passed:

The Council adopts the guidelines (sc. sections 5 to 10 of the main paper) for use in the bodies and situations over which it has jurisdiction, and recommends them to the Conference for adoption in other parts of the Methodist Church. The Council further invites the Team to keep these guidelines under open review. The Council also directs the Team to produce a summary version of them similar to the Civil Service guidelines.

I find this hopeful, too. We shall see how Conference debates this in the summer. I might have preferred more than an ‘invitation’ to the Connexional Team to keep the guidelines under review, but I trust there will be people in the Team and on the Council who will take sufficient active interest in the matter to ensure this is not forgotten. I also think the summary will be a good move – so long as that concentrates on values, not legislation.

I’d like to echo Richard’s call for gracious participation by bloggers in monitoring and discussing this. There is no reason why that cannot be so. Indeed, it should be so for us as Christians. I know there are times when I’ve flown off the handle about something and clicked ‘publish’ or ‘send’ too quickly, but a Christian approach would involve consideration before publication. That needn’t mean a lack of debate, as I see it. We don’t need to become like the Chinese public looking over their shoulders at the secret police when weighing their words for the western media. Methodism can have authoritarian tendencies at times (and we inherit that from our founder!), but I don’t think we’re that bad.

How might we debate? Here’s how I see it as a minister: every year, I have to attend the Ministerial Synod, where I renew my promises to uphold the doctrines and discipline of our denomination. If I can’t make that affirmation, I have to resign – and rightly. I will be candid and say there are things in our practices I don’t like, and I wish to see changed. I can freely campaign for change, just so long as I continue to believe our doctrines and operate our discipline. I have to ask whether the things I dislike are life-and-death issues. If they did become matters of absolute principle, then resignation would be the only option. Thankfully, it has never come to that. I hope it never will. However, you never know. SoI could start a debate on one of my pet issues without fear, so long as I do not do so in a manner that means I am actively rejecting our beliefs and ways of doing things.

And in passing, for those of us who are ‘card-carrying evangelicals’. who have sometimes been upset by certain ‘liberal’ decisions in Methodism, let me just quote something I found helpful a few years ago from the evangelical Anglican bishop Pete Broadbent. He said, ‘Look to the title deeds of your church. Have the core doctrines been changed?’

Beyond that, I think we just need to stop and wonder what led us to this (at times) painful debate over the last few days. One major issue is about a breakdown of trust between local Methodists and the Connexion. It is a separate and big question about how we address that. Those who have a more positive relationship with Connexion have approached this and other issues differently.Without coming over all ‘hello trees, hello flowers’, we need to address and heal our relationships.

It is also about how Methodism moves into the new ways of communication. How well do we understand them and work within them? It’s about more than Marshall McLuhan‘s 1960s truism, ‘the medium is the message’, it’s more like Rex Miller‘s aphorism, ‘the medium is the worldview’. Internet values of transparency and openness (not all of which should be adopted uncritically – witness the storm when Facebook changed every user’s privacy settings recently) change the way we debate confidentiality and privacy. The libertarianism in major areas of the Internet (which again shouldn’t be accepted unthinkingly) affects how we handle laws, values, censorship, restrictions and all manner of things.

David Hallam’s angry tirades on this subject and others make both these points (in rather extreme ways, in my opinion). I checked his blog before completing this post. At the time of writing he has not yet written about the Methodist Council decision, but he has posted another item in his ‘Blogger Beware!’ series. I thoroughly dislike his jibes at other Methodist bloggers in that piece and others, and I do not like his immodest conclusion,

On Wednesday 25 April 2007 this blog changed British Methodism forever

but threads in his writing underline my comments. David, perhaps more than any other British Methodist blogger, distrusts the Connexion, and sometimes he has a right to do so. He is also acutely aware that the openness of the Internet democratises debate to a considerable extent, and Methodism must get used to that.I just fear his tone will give ammunition to those who do not understand or who dislike the world of social media and its ramifications.

If we could get on with discussing the values behind David’s writing but without the tone, we could make progress with this debate.


  1. >>“I also think the summary will be a good move – so long as that concentrates on values, not legislation.”

    That’s really important. I don’t think we need ‘legal’ language in the summary. A gentle reminder of the need for care will suffice. What we want is some encouragement.


  2. Dave,

    Thanks for this. One point I wanted to come back on is:

    ” One major issue is about a breakdown of trust between local Methodists and the Connexion. “

    I think this needs exploring. What do you understand by “the Connexion” in this context? Do all who believe there is a breakdown in trust understand “the Connexion” in the same way?

    In my understanding there should not be a separation between “me and them” when referring to “the Connexion”. All Methodist members are equally “the Connexion”, it is not something separate and “out there”.

    Instead I wonder if people who identify such a breakdown of trust mean “the Connexional Team” when they say “the Connexion”. If so being sure we understand where the problem is should help us address it (even if I have not a lot of ideas myself).

    For me I find it easier to trust the Connexional Team because it includes people I know and trust from before they were part of the team. I have been able to meet many in the team and work with them (for example having the September meeting of the Methodist Council at Methodist Church house was very helpful).

    Also I found attending conference as an observer very helpful, it does give a different perspective on the hard work of so many behind the scenes. For example the Communications department were so hidden away in a little office that probably many delegates busy with their role never found them or realised that the team arrived before them and left well after them each day. Equally those watching from afar via the various online streams would not have seen the technical and logistical challenges that the team battled with (such as when the rain started to flood their office where the streaming (literally at one point) servers were.

    I also have previous experience of being very busy with a huge workload while attempting to support open consultations on many different issues yet also needing to meet tight deadlines. There is a lot of pressure to achieve closure and get the results out which can mean the “openness” suffers. I wonder if Methodists around the Connexion can help by being much more proactive in

    a) encouraging their conference delegates to push for open consultations and to include in their resolutions recognition that these require work and time. Therefore they need to pay more attention to the volume of work they commit the Connexional Team to.

    b) doing more of the work of consultation themselves. This can be through the formal structures of Church Councils, Circuit Meetings and Synods. These could all be far more proactive in looking at Conference Agendas and Conference Resolutions and making sure they do pass their views, ideas, … to the appropriate people/groups (and any Methodist Member could take a lead in this). It could also be done through open use of Social Media so that the Connexional Team get to see open collaboration (without them needing to instigate, organise or manage) providing them with suggestions (that they will then still need to balance with input from other sources – we should not imagine that users of Social Media are the only ones who should be heard in an open consultation).

    Apologies for such a long comment.


    1. Dave,

      Thanks for picking me up on loose language. I partly mean the Connexional Team, and I partly mean the way the authority structures around that and the Districts, which can seem so remote from local churches, function from time to time – or are perceived to function.

      Thanks also for your constructive ideas about the cultivating of openness.


      1. Thanks for picking me up on loose language. I partly mean the Connexional Team, and I partly mean the way the authority structures around that and the Districts, which can seem so remote from local churches, function from time to time – or are perceived to function.

        I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be one of those flowery-flowery people. I suspect that at least one blogger thinks so but that is overly simplistic.

        I think I’m perfectly happy to hear about legitimate fact-based local gripes against The Connexion. What I don’t buy is the idea that there is a cabal based in London full of people who are mainly selfish and evil who are plotting the downfall of local churches.

        The other side of the story is that I also believe that the majority of Methodist congregations would really like to be congregational churches. There is a huge reluctance to work with other congregations in the circuit and often an inward-looking selfishness. Most of the complaining I heard about “The Church” (meaning the Connexion, because people aren’t even familiar with that word) was complaining about safeguarding. I also watched our circuit exercise their right to invite someone they felt was unsuitable.

        I am perfectly prepared to believe that The Connexion and The Council and The Conference make mistakes. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that some of these mistakes are big mistakes that adversely affect the lives of congregations or Methodists.

        The meme that I don’t believe, however, is “Local churches always good and always right, Connexion structurally rotten and filled with incompetent people who…fill in evil epithet of choice.” I can understand if people must keep a confidence and not tell me the details of their story, which might have made me actively sympathetic. But I do not buy the dualistic good/bad narrative.


          1. Just to say quickly Pam, no I don’t think of you as one of the ‘flowery’ people. I think what you rightly highlight here sits with the ‘All have sinned’ description in Romans 3:23. No group is more prone, no group is less prone. I know some of the stories our friend alludes to in his local context, and yet also I can tell stories of local abuse, by leaders or congregations.


  3. Thanks for this thoughtful contribution. I have watched the conversation with interest and at a couple of points deep anxiety. I tend not to wade in either in defence of or in criticism of the Connexional Team because having left only just over a year ago I don’t want to be seen as unquestioningly biased for or against them. I will say that they are ordinary folk who are doing their best in far from ideal circumstances. The long hours and very skilled work that the vast majority of the Team offer to the Church are extraordinary. I do worry about comments regarding splits between local Methodists and the Connexion – there is no Connexion without local Methodists, we are one and the same. If those of us in local church and circuit contexts want the Church to be a place of good, open, Christian communication, then we are just as responsible as those in the Team – because we are the Church. So it has been good to engage with the Council Papers in advance, just as we can with Conference papers. Love and respect for each other should always be the mark of our conferring. I’m sad that one particularly rude individual seems to have dominated the debate when most of us want to get on with bringing good news to the poor, feeding the hungry, freeing the captive…. proclaiming (even through social networking!) the year of Jubilee


    1. Thanks, Michaela. I’ll just reiterate to you the thanks I’ve expressed to Dave W for picking me up on my loose use of the ‘Connexion’ language. Please do not take what I say as being a criticism of the Connexional Team from me – it happens I know very few of them personally – but rather a sad observation on the state of affairs in which we sometimes find ourselves.


  4. Having got involved in all of this via initially saying “hey – see how the Civil Service did it” to Pete Philips, may I raise a couple of thoughts:

    1 – Did the open conversation beforehand go badly or well? I’m not sure that it matters especially – if its early days then mistakes happen.

    2 – One problem is that blog discussion is diffuse. Is there any way a recognised website (Methodist Recorder?) can be used to provide a focus. Online forum where anyone making a comment can flag it up?



    1. Matt,

      I’ll leave Pete or Dave W to comment on (1) above, as they were there. As for (2), maybe a forum would work – probably not the Recorder, because its site would need considerably beefing up and those who are strong critics of this particular process distrust it strongly anyway. There are various Methodist forums on Facebook, though. John Cooper, do you happen to be reading this? If so, what do you think?


      1. A supplementary question.

        The other aspect of the Recorder is that it is already part of the existing official reporting process, which was where my idea came from. So I’d say that being within/accessible to existing online structures is important – opening up new opportunities within the mainstream rather than trying to divert it. On ?

        Technically of course it can be anywhere – it is as simple as WordPress plus a Plugin or Joomla plus an extension.

        , then.


        1. ‘Official’ or ‘unofficial’ is a debate worth having on this. Technically the Recorder is unofficial, as it is an independent paper. It’s not always perceived that way, especially as our leadership use it (pragmatically?) to communicate with as wide a Methodist audience as possible.


    2. Matt,

      Re 1. My view is that the discussion before the Council Meeting was not very open, it allowed some feelings to be aired but did not take us very far forward. The time based clauses in the draft document constrained some of us. Others were concerned that the process was already closed with no options to be heard. There was no invitation to open conversation except that implied by the papers being available online.

      I found the discussion within Council helpful. However, the cultural gap between those living and working with Social Media and those do not was clear. I felt I learned a lot about the concerns that others have due to their roles and experiences. I have somewhat changed my views on a number of issues (and been confirmed in others).

      Re 2. Yes the diffuse nature of blogs can be a problem. However, it also offers richness. variety and freedom and I have seen it work well in technical areas such as the development of the Atom feed format.


      1. >Re 2. Yes the diffuse nature of blogs can be a problem. However, it also offers richness. variety and freedom and I have seen it work well in technical areas such as the development of the Atom feed format.

        I think I expressed myself badly – I meant “distributed” rather than diffuse.

        The thought underlying my comment was that a distributed conversation is hard to get to grips with and assess as a whole; for that it needs a focus. For that to happen there has to be enough of a network that those in the conversation can get some overall impression, otherwise there can just be a hubbub.

        All of the available tools have not yet – imho anyway – solved this.

        For those not familiar with individuals publishing blogs, it can be even more difficult.

        In the political niche – which is mainly where I live, if something comes to wider attention either for a debate or for a campaign, usually an individual will step up to be the hub for that issue on that occasion. It works, but that process can be confusing for people who only read blogs occasionally.


  5. “There are various Methodist forums on Facebook, though. John Cooper, do you happen to be reading this? If so, what do you think?”

    Thank you for the heads up. I do rather feel like I have neglected my online presence but slow and steady getting it back…as for the Facebook thought good idea but I’d want to hear more about the process first…

    Warm Regards



    1. Nice to hear from you, John. You seemed the obvious candidate if Matt’s idea has legs, given the UK Methodists group on FB.


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