Blog Archives

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 …

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.

Clay Shirky: Social Media And The Communications Revolution

In a wonderful TED Talk recorded last month, Clay Shirky details why the arrival of social media on a massive scale is a true communications revolution. His talk is prescient at a time when Twitter has been seen to be the most immediate way of delivering news from the front line of the Iran election protests.

Much of what he says derives from his fine book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ that I blogged earlier this year during my sabbatical. If you don’t have time to read the book, watch this video, which is only seventeen minutes long. It introduces you to some of his key thinking, and it is highly relevant. Here are a couple of salient points he makes in this talk.

It isn’t when tools are shiny and new that they are revolutionary; it is when they are familiar and boring – because then they are widely distributed and used.

Furthermore, the contemporary communications revolution works on a number of fronts. First of all, we are no longer passive consumers. We do not simply receive what the professionals and the powerful broadcast to us. The same tools that make us consumers also make us producers: computers are not just for looking at websites and receiving messages, we can send messages and create our own websites and blogs. Mobile phones are not only for telephone conversations, we can send SMS and MMS messages.

And not only can we reply to the powerful and the professionals, we can then network among ourselves. We are way beyond ‘one to one’ and ‘one to many’ conversations; we now have ‘many to many’ conversations, and their significance grows exponentially with each new participant.

When the last Chinese earthquake happened, Twitter was the first service to break the news, because eyewitness accounts could be uploaded immediately. The BBC learned of the quake from Twitter. The so-called ‘Great Firewall of China‘ which existed to censor unsuitable material from the rest of the world was facing the wrong way. It was a long time before the Chinese authorities reverted to their normal clampdown methods.

Ultimately, though, the nature of the new social tools is such that there is no point discussing whether we like them or not, professionalism versus citizen journalism and all that. The horse has bolted, and this is the new world. Not to operate in it is like refusing to have a printing press, a camera, a telephone, a radio and a television.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign understood the new world well when they set up the My Barack Obama site for supporters. When Obama announced his support for something unpopular, they formed a forum on the site to oppose him and lobby him. Obama had to reply, explaining he had considered the issue and come to a conclusion they did not like, and that he would take the hits for that. What the campaign never did was censor the supporters. It realised that in the new world they could only convene them, and that was their task on the website.

Where does this leave Christians? Firstly, ignoring the new world is not an option. Communications (in all directions) are key to our faith. While we shall want to beware any values that might be inimical to our core beliefs (for example, the ‘instant’ or ‘real time’ nature of this stuff cuts both ways, between news spreading fast – good – and stunted reflection – bad), we cannot opt out. Churches that just want to set up static websites and think they are hip are behind the times. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Flickr (I simply name the ones where I happen to have a presence) are now critical. We need to be active there. They are about more than the popular stereotype of Facebook and Twitter updates of saying what we had for breakfast. It is heartening in my own denomination to see that this year for the first time the Methodist Conference (which happens in a couple of weeks’ time) will have a Twitter feed. It’s already up and running. It will be the primary way in which I stay up to date with debates and decisions. Why wait two weeks for a Methodist Recorder report? Our weekly newspaper has instantly been rendered even more moribund than it already was.

By virtue of where I am publishing this article, I am probably to a considerable extent typing to the converted. But the argument needs to be carried elsewhere. I am not suggesting that every ninety-year-old in our churches buys a laptop and sings up with Twitter (although plenty with lively minds certainly could). However, it is as essential for the church to embrace the life in this new world as it was for the Jewish exiles to embrace life in Babylon. Not everyone will like it, but it is where we are right now, and we need to be involved.

Secondly, we must recognise that these different forms of communication will affect our worldview. Rex Miller argued as much, if not more, in his book ‘The Millennium Matrix‘. He said that Marshall McLuhan‘s famous dictum that the medium is the message wasn’t radical enough: the medium is the worldview, Miller claimed. Social media moves us from one-way proclamation of the type I engage in when I preach on a Sunday to an interactive and conversational approach. This must affect how we do church and especially how we do mission.

Thirdly, while some will be bewildered and confused by the new world, I think it gives us cause for hope. If others can get their message out so quickly and broadly, then we can too. And we should be at the forefront of the revolution, not merely copying a new trend but innovating. We are the children of the Creator God. The Church’s history of arts patronage is something we could recover here, in that we could be leaders, not simply followers in the social media world. Why not?

Anyway, I said this was a conversation, and I’ve rattled on for a thousand words now. Over to you. What do you think?

Michael Eavis Of The Glastonbury Festival On Methodism And Faith

When I used to read that dismal publication the Methodist Recorder you could guarantee that every year when the Glastonbury Festival came around there would be a reference to its founder, Michael Eavis, as ‘a Methodist’. Well, we learn exactly what kind of Methodist Eavis is in an interview published in the July 2009 edition of Word Magazine. It’s in their ‘Word to the Wise’ column, where well-known people dispense the ‘wisdom’ they have learned over the years. It makes for depressing reading. He says:

I’m a Methodist, we’re chapel people. That’s strange in the 21st century, but Methodism is the social side of religion. We don’t care whether there’s a God or not, really. We’re not that interestested; it’s all about the social side. Charles Wesley, our founder, was a believer in love divine. I’m a believer in love but my love is not divine. I believe in love on earth. We need love for breeding and procreation. Without the love factor on earth we could all be rapists, and that would be dreadful. Love is the most important thing to me personally – but it’s not divine. As Methodists we have enormous social responsibility bred into us. If we make any money we have to spend it on our fellow humans – not all of it, I hasten to add – but most of it. We’ve just built some social housing in Pilton for 22 salt-of-the-earth working-class families with children. And that’s the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life. We have fun, too – we enjoy ourselves, we’re not bearded Mennonites. I’m all for praising nature and you have to tell someone, so we sing loudly and with excitment about creation – we just don’t care precisely how it came about (explodes into laughter)! (Page 60)

Later, he says this:

But with drugs it’s just not my job to stop people doing what they want to do. It’s the Methodist in me. We have broad shoulders. We put up with everyone! (Page 61)

Well, where do I begin? Methodism may – for good or ill – be a broad church, but one thing is for sure: Eavis’ Methodism sure isn’t mine. Yes, my Methodism breeds a sense of social responsibility (although it’s a curious one that cares about homelessness but not about drugs). But to disconnect it from belief in God and God’s love kills the roots of it. (Oh, and to nit-pick: our founder was John Wesley, not Charles.) Eavis might just be a’ cultural Methodist’, to coin a term, much in the same way that we might say there are ‘cultural Catholics’, who have been brought up in that faith but who do not embrace the core beliefs, but that’s about it.

You could say that the Eavis article is typical of much contemporary malaise. The idea that someone famous can dispense wisdom and pronounce on weighty matters such as religion and God is ludicrous and shallow. Much as I might welcome the fact that he still has some kind of social conscience, he is typical of a society that wants social projects but without the religious capital behind many of them. Then, what do we make of his attitude to drug use? Would I be being too cynical if I suggested that it wouldn’t be in the interests of the Glastonbury Festival’s founder to oppose it? No, it must be a coincidence.

Perhaps I am being hard. Maybe I should be more sympathetic and compassionate. I just think the Methodist Church should speak for Methodism (even if I disagree with our hierarchy from time to time). Letting a Michael Eavis trumpet his ignorant views of Methodist Christianity perpetuates ignorance of the Gospel.

But then a ‘secular’ magazine should not be responsible for the Gospel, of course. So maybe this becomes a cry for all of us who do find the core experiences, values and doctrines of Methodist-flavoured Christianity to make them more well-known. Like the need for all to be saved; the belief that no-one is beyond that redemption; that anyone can know they are loved by God in Christ; that personal and social holiness is possible, and we can have an optimism of grace for just how much transformation the Holy Spirit can bring about in and through us.

Because when it comes down to it, God doesn’t rely on the famous. God isn’t dependent upon celebrity culture to spread the Gospel. God calls the ordinary and the obscure to do that job. If you’re as mad as I am by the nonsense spouted by Michael Eavis, let’s rise to the challenge and do it better.

Sabbatical, Day 39: Ministry And Personality Type Surveys Are Ready

Yes, at last, the surveys are ready for completion. I shall be making them known in various quarters, but here for your clicking pleasure are the links:

Ministry and Personality Type: Congregation Survey – please complete this one if you are not a minister.

Ministry and Personality Type: Ministers’ Survey – please complete this if you are an ordained or probationary minister.

I’ll add more about my day later, but for now I just want to get these links uploaded as soon as possible. They are also on my Facebook profile. I shall be asking whether they can be circulated in my District, and emailing the Methodist Recorder to see whether they might plug them.

UPDATE: 
I have now also created a Facebook group to promote discussion of the matter. It is entitled Christian Ministry And Personality Type.

Hymns

Fat Prophet points to a preliminary list of hymns and songs for the new Methodist hymn book, due to be approved by the Conference next year. You can click to read PDF files of the initial 702 titles, either in thematic or alphabetical order.

Some important features:

1. It’s a ‘baseline collection’, presumably because the moment a new hymn or song book is published, it’s already a fossil. With the rate of composition today, combined with digital distribution, we also need some kind of rolling update to be maintained. I don’t read the Methodist Recorder any more, so this point may have been covered there, but it seems we need that kind of an update, at least if some of our traditional people are to have confidence in newer material.

2. It’s true to its promise of being theologically diverse. From the near-Calvinism of Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristyn Getty to Sydney Carter (a Quaker), Brian Wren (liberal URC) and at least two hymns addressing God as ‘mother’. As such it may do well for middle of the road congregations, but I imagine the evangelicals, charismatics and liberals will all retain their own varying preferred supplements. There was never a chance of anything commanding the respect of all Methodism, though. It is a mark of our diversity/division/fracture (take your pick).

3. It’s good that a hard-working group has opened up this preliminary list for consultation. They will have put blood, sweat and tears into this; now they open themselves up for all sorts of comments, some of which may not be particularly Christian in tone. Thanks to them for being open and vulnerable.

4. One area is difficult to evaluate, though, and that is the large number of unpublished texts suggested for inclusion. I don’t know the work of Marjorie Dobson or Gareth Hill in hymnody (although I know about Tubestation), and very little of Andrew Pratt. Others will know them better. It’s hard to know how to deal with this, unless the group were to have special copyright clearance to quote the words or link to them on other websites. The awkwardness is that these hymns will therefore be subject to less scrutiny than published ones.

Just some initial late night thoughts: what do you think? Some of you will have closer knowledge of the project than someone like me, who lives on the fringes of Methodism. I’d love to hear your opinions.