Discussing Methodist Controversy In An Internet Age

A major controversy in recent weeks in British Methodism has involved the case of the Revd Dr Stephen Plant, who was appointed Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Unfortunately, ancient rules mean that appointment is only open to ordained Anglicans, therefore Dr Plant was ordained into the Church of England. Subsequently and inevitably, he had to resign from the Methodist ministry.
This has produced a lot of agony in Methodist circles, with criticisms of both the Anglican and Methodist establishments. I have followed it on the UK Methodists page of Facebook. What, not the Methodist Recorder? Funny you should mention that, because in today’s Recorder, Dr Plant’s friend, the Revd the Lord Griffiths, Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel in London, has had a potentially explosive letter published in the Recorder, in which he says he is so fed up with much of Methodism that he will effectively resign from it when he retires.

Now, how do you debate that? Look at the Recorder’s own website, to which I linked above. It is primitive. It has been the same for years. It might just have been acceptable in the 1990s, but that website is now an embarrassment. It gives you little more than an outline of this week’s headlines. It is stuck in an age before broadband, where debates would happen on the letters page. And I can tell you from personal experience, even that was slow. The gap between writing a letter and having it published could be four weeks. Press releases suffered a similar time lag. (And the one where I noticed that? It was about a New Media conference!) Four or five years ago, in frustration at this, I gave up subscribing. It coincided with a time when our household finances were tight, and so when they phoned me to ask why I wasn’t renewing my sub, I’m afraid I chickened out of giving them the kind of customer feedback I should have done.

Of course the Recorder is entitled to limit what it publishes online. It seems in this to be allied to Rupert Murdoch’s way of thinking, that if you publish content online you will lose the customer sales on which you depend. However, rather than either setting up online subscriptions as News Corporation have, or publishing interesting material when the print edition had expired a week earlier, it does nothing. Either you shell out for a weekly paper that hasn’t had a significant redesign or even change of font in thirty or forty years, or – well, nothing. It isn’t realistic in an always-on, Internet-everywhere age. You have to offer something.

Take a computing magazine like PC Pro. It reports news items on its website in a timely manner – after all, they will be discussed all over the Internet. However, it only publishes major articles online after the monthly magazine has gone out of date. That seems to be a sensible balance to me. And if using a tech mag as an example seems unrealistic for this debate, just look at how the premier Anglican publication, the Church Times, combines the PC Pro and News Corporation approaches, with some articles available to all surfers and others limited to subscribers.
So I can understand the frustration that controversial Methodist blogger David Hallam must have felt today, knowing this debate was going on, leading to his decision this evening to publish Leslie Griffiths’ letter on his blog. David has been taken to task on Facebook for breaching copyright, and the breach has been reported to the Recorder. Legally, I’m sure that’s quite correct. But it still begs the question about how people expect controversies will be debated today. We have people on Methodism’s Connexional Team who are well versed in contemporary communications methods. But our one and only newspaper is doing a fine impression of the music industry around the time downloading and file sharing became widespread. It’s hoping all this new-fangled stuff will go away. But that isn’t what will disappear. Luddite approaches to technology are what will die.

One thing is for sure in my mind. I’m not about to resubscribe to the Recorder in the foreseeable future. As things stand, the paper is part of Methodism’s past, not her future, and I’ll stick with Facebook, blogs and official emails to get my Methodist news.

Unless, of course, it can change …


  1. I subscribe to the Uniting Church’s Insights magazine (also available online). I’ll have to think deeply about why I pay for something I can access online – maybe my Luddite tendencies!
    I’m not as rapt in my denomination’s media attempt, The Southern Cross. At least I’m doing my bit for ecumenical togetherness.


  2. Dave, whatever your views on the Methodist Recorder – which, had you checked your facts before launching your tirade, you would have discovered HAS in fact had a makeover in the last year, including font changes – it is no defence in Copyright Law to say “Yeah, we copied their article onto our web page, but it’s alright because they are publishing dinosaurs and are crap anyway, so in reality we were doing them a favour”, and no judge would accept it as an excuse for not getting permission.
    I was the one on the Methodist Facebook page who pointed out to David Hallam his breach of the law (though not the one who reported him to the MR!) and I did so not to stifle debate nor to deplore his reasons for wanting the subject debated, but to try and prevent the very real dangers in doing so… I don’t know Mr Hallam, but his very ungracious, not to say rude, response gives me some cause to be grateful that I don’t. If he was less of a cyber-warrior and more local, I would have given him, to his face, the kind of robust response he presumably hides behind his keyboard to avoid.


    1. Alan, fair comment about any MR print makeover, but I didn’t say copyright breach was OK, I said I could understand it. I said legally what David did was a breach, but there is a dilemma here in a broadband age and the MR is not equipped for that. Of that there can be no doubt, just look at the website and compare with other denominational papers.


      1. The “makeover” took place in the spring of 2010. I was very familiar with what they were trying to achieve because it actually felt very 1980s and was the sort of paper I was producing then. It was an improvement. However I still noticed the slowness of the turnaround for press releases and letters. There doesn’t seem to have been any changes in working practices to ensure the newspaper is up to date.

        I’m sorry that Alan Jenkins, who I gather is a Methodist Minister in Milford Haven has used your blog to say “If he was less of a cyber-warrior and more local, I would have given him, to his face, the kind of robust response he presumably hides behind his keyboard to avoid.” This smacks of the threat of violence.

        I’m a church steward and local preacher in one of the roughest areas of Birmingham. I’ve been threatened with violence on many occasions. I’ve been a shop steward, a local councillor, I’ve confronted a gunman on Methodist premises, I worked on an ecumenical play scheme in Belfast where a couple of colleagues were murdered – I had to literally run out of the Ardoyne district. But I certainly don’t enjoy violence and confrontation and prefer to avoid both. Now I may have upset Mr Jenkins, but please understand that I certainly don’t believe I am someone who hides behind a keyboard to avoid anyone!


        1. Dave, I find it difficult to understand how you interpret the words “a robust response” to mean, by implication, a threat of violence, but let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth (although the fact that you could write that says much about your mindset, in my opinion). I wouldn’t dream of offering physical violence to anyone just because they disagree with me – but I do happen to think that very often people who, online, are casually rude and dismissive to people they have never met who disagree with them very often only do that when they do not have to say it to someone’s face: cyber warriors, in other words.


  3. Sad that a sensible question about MR got lost in a squabble between a couple of keyboard kings. Key point surely is that the only regular Methodist journal is no longer fit for purpose. It has several directors who are somewhat elderly in the 80+ range so the control de facto is in the hands of the editor/director/company secretary = Ms Sleight.
    [ see http://bit.ly/Ke3rQz for detail ]. This all looks remarkably cosy but totally ineffective. A reflection of something else perhaps?

    Is MR fit-for-purpose? Does it actually harm the image of Methodism and Christianity?
    And if it has a 22000 circulation, where do the profits go?


  4. My wife, also originally a Methodist, shared this with me after looking up an old
    university contact’s name (Steve Plant was Birmingham MethSoc’s president when I was its VP). We moved to what used to be called an LEP when we married, in 1992. It combines, unusually, three fragrances of Christianity: the “established” one, its outdoor-preaching offshoot, and the reformed Congregationalists. All this led, quite rapidly, to 18 years’ work in the Anglican Church, toward the end as assistant diocesan secretary. I spoke fairly fluent Anglican, while feeling distinctly nonconformist. Part of my work was in computer support, so I saw inside most functions, including the communications department. The Church Times certainly struck me as a clever marriage of light and heavy, popular and more esoteric, including down to the pairing of typefaces for titles (the stylishly modern Guildford Pro Medium, which I later bought to brand my own business) and Times New Roman (enough said). I hadn’t realised the MR had largely “staid” the same. The CofE websites have certainly kept up with the Times and, in a charming act of ecumenical support (and some reconciliation after 250 years?) the CofE have adapted the Methodist national database for their own population. I know this because I wrote its Anglican predecessor, in 1997, and have seen the replacement. For God’s sake, or at least his Church’s, can we not get our cyber act together? As a recent BBC ad put it, “If you want to communicate, speak in the language of your listener”. And that surely is via the news on the Internet on a smartphone.


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