Right, I’m back to topical blogging. If you’ve followed my Twitter feed, you’ll know where I’ve been – Disneyland Paris. With Debbie and the children, of course. It was an advance present for a rather big birthday I have looming in the next fortnight. Too big, in fact, for my liking.
I’ll blog a bit about the experience soon, but in the meantime let me just put a marker down for something I came back to discover when I was wading through my Facebook feed. The remarkable Sir Peter of Phillips has blogged today about an excellent new initiative set up by the Methodist Church, called PrayNow. Send a text saying PRAYNOW to 82088 (at your network’s standard message rate) and you will receive free weekly texts with personal and topical prayer requests. (To stop, send STOP PRAYNOW to 82088.) Small church groups have been doing things like this for ages, and it’s good to see it taken up on a national scale. And having been somewhat wary in recent weeks about some official Methodist attitudes to social tools, it’s only right I praise what looks like a positive initiative.
Do read Pete’s article for links to other Christian-flavoured social tools, especially ones that help people interact with the Bible.
I’m just using this post to draw together different initiatives in the wake of Monday’s Methodist Council decision. There is a discussion happening on my post yesterday about areas where we might draw discussions together. Matt Wardman has suggested the Methodist Recorder’s website, I have suggested using one of the existing Facebook groups for Methodists.
But meanwhile, Dave Warnock has set something up. Hats off and show your receding hairline (if you’re a man) to him! In Opening Consultation: Social Media Guidelines he tells us he has set up a Google document. If you give Dave your email address he will authorise you to edit it. Between us he hopes we can come up with a set of values for social media that authentically reflects Methodist spirituality.
And I also wanted to draw attention to something on David Hallam’s blog. In his brief post yesterday he helpfully draws our attention to an article on the Social Media Examiner about IBM’s attitude to employees’ use of social media. Essentially, it’s one full of permission and blessing, albeit backed up by guidelines. I’ve only had time for a quick skim, but at first glance it looks like a creative approach from an industry that has to understand social media. As indeed must we.
How thankful I am that people are thinking of these initiatives in order to take us beyond debate to action.
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.
The debate I mentioned on Tuesday continues. To mention some:
Richard Hall interviewed Toby Scott on Wednesday. Fat Prophet sees the document as similar to standard policies issued by ‘secular’ employers. Pete Phillips was consulted (as Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee) but isn’t happy. Like Pete, Matt Wardman contrasts the lengthy Methodist document with the much briefer Civil Service guidelines, which concentrate on principles and permission rather than details. Steve Jones, observing from South Africa, knows that such guidelines are normal in industry but wonders how we distinguish between legitimate debate and bringing the church into disrepute.
Other figures with something to say haven’t done so on their blogs, but in comments on other people’s posts. For example, Dave Warnock and Dave Perry. Both are members of the Methodist Council and may have therefore felt it tactful not to post before the meeting next Monday.
I know of two cases already where blogging Methodists have face harassment and bullying by certain senior church officials (I stress certain, many senior Connexional officials would be shocked if they knew the full story). In the case that I know best extensive efforts were made to resolve the issue by the blogger concerned but to no avail. The Matthew 18 procedure was exhausted.
If true, this is worrying. I do know of one person who felt they were being implicitly criticised in the paper, but I don’t know anything that would fit the ‘harassment and bullying’ description David talks about. I’m still not sure I like some of David’s language – he compares the Methodist Church to Iran and China towards the end of the post – but if he has come across cases of bullying, it is little surprise he is angry.
So where are we up to, before Methodist Council discusses this issue?
Firstly, there remains disagreement on the transparency issue. Broadly speaking, those who are favourable towards the policy see the naming of the bloggers who were consulted as a red herring, while those who have reservations see it as important. In my limited surfing, I have only seen some Methodist bloggers say they weren’t consulted. I have not yet seen anyone say they were. Please let me know if I am mistaken.
Secondly, the debate so far illustrates the problems we have with confidentiality, privacy and Internet openness. In today’s piece, David Hallam fears that Dave Warnock is alluding to a potential retreat from publishing papers online as a result. I hadn’t read Dave that way, and I don’t see him as ‘authoritarian’ as David describes him – that’s not the Dave I know at all. But perhaps we need to distinguish between confidentiality and privacy, if that doesn’t sound too strange. What I mean is this: as a minister, I am committed to confidentiality apart from in exceptional circumstances (for example, if someone made an allegation about child abuse). However, even if the discussion papers for Methodist Council were once private, it must have been the Council that agreed to them being publicly available ahead of time on the web. Once you’ve done that on the Internet, the genie is out of the bottle, and any retreat – if that is indeed contemplated – will look very bad indeed.
Thirdly, we have an issue about acceptable behaviour in meetings. Can you text, tweet or surf during a council, committee or conference? I am no multi-tasker and I would find that difficult. However, I have to accept that others can – unlike me – multi-task. Everyone will agree it is important to give attention to the business being discussed, but we have to face up to personality differences – and to the fact that not everyone can find every minute of every business meeting riveting. And yes, as a young minister I’m afraid it was my practice to take a good book to District Synod!
Finally, in the long run, this may prove to be a storm in a green Methodist tea cup, or it may involve serious issues of principle and practice. My prayer is that we can all ‘speak the truth in love’ as we work through it. One commenter on Richard’s original post is worried about the tone he has seen on Methodist blogs, so it’s incumbent upon us to consider carefully how we conduct ourselves. If we turn this debate into a flame war, there could be every reason or occasion for the church authorities to consider strong guidelines. We need an authentic Christian witness in blogging that carries passion without flaming and love without wimping out. Surely we can do that?
I picked up from Mashable the Pope’s message of three days ago encouraging and urging Catholic priests to use the digital realm and especially social media as tools for the Gospel. His whole message is here. I just thought I’d pick out one of two things I liked about Benedict’s approach:
Firstly, in addition to all the language of ‘proclamation’ and ‘catechesis’, he talks about ‘dialogue’ and being ‘faithful witnesses’. It seems to me these are important approaches on the web, especially in the social media. They are digital conversation tools more than digital proclamation tools. Within that, he sees the opportunity for the use of ancient wisdom.
Secondly, there was an image that I think builds helpfully on that attitude. Near the end he says,
Just as the prophet Isaiah envisioned a house of prayer for all peoples (cf. Is 56:7), can we not see the web as also offering a space – like the “Court of the Gentiles” of the Temple of Jerusalem – for those who have not yet come to know God?
I like that idea. Jesus was so taken with the ‘Court of the Gentiles’ that he defended it against the moneychangers.
With all this, the Pope brings a healthy Christian ethic to the Internet and social media. Elsewhere, he says:
In my Message last year, I encouraged leaders in the world of communications to promote a culture of respect for the dignity and value of the human person. This is one of the ways in which the Church is called to exercise a “diaconia of culture” on today’s “digital continent”.
Again, all good stuff. He calls for competence and spirituality to go hand in hand, the latter leading the former, for he calls priests
to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.
OK, as a ‘Protestant’ I’d express it slightly differently, but the core point would be the same.
So a big thumbs-up from me to Benedict XVI today. Let’s hope other Christian traditions can be as positive as he is.
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.
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?
Tags: Babylon, Barack Obama, BBC, blogs, Chinese earthquake, Clay Shirky, exile, Facebook, Flickr, Friendfeed, Great Firewall of China, Here Comes Everybody, Marshall McLuhan, Methodist Conference, Methodist Recorder, Rex Miller, social media, TED Talks, Twitter
A day that has been filled with bringing Rebekah back from her two-day sleepover in Kent (so successful, she’s been invited back for a week in the summer. Yippee!), the main thing I noticed before leaving this morning was the news that Ashton Kutcher had beaten CNN to a million followers. It had become some kind of competition.
To which my main reaction has been, ‘Who cares?’ There are people on Twitter who are obsessed with gaining as many followers as possible. Heaven knows, I’ve had enough strange Internet marketers start to follow my tweets, probably in the hope I’ll be another sucker who follows them and bolsters their figures. I put this alongside those stupid experiments like the ‘I bet we can find ten million Christians on Facebook’ groups. Which proves exactly what? Is truth being decided by a popularity poll? It’s hardly the narrow way of Jesus which, he said, few would find.
If the Kutcher/CNN face-off proves anything, it’s simply that Twitter has gone mainstream. It’s reached way beyond the geeks now. After all, Oprah Winfrey tweeted for the first time today. That means the service will change and become more populist, just as Facebook did when it broke out beyond the student communities. It’s like when a cult band suddenly gets mainstream success and the select few who have followed them from early days become disillusioned and accuse them of selling out. I think we’ll see something like that over Twitter now. There already is a move by some geeks towards FriendFeed. (Yes, I’m on there, too.)
Yet even if numbers are used for facile publicity stunts or immature spiritual exercises, there is also a place for them. OK, my major subject at school was Maths, but there are obvious biblical examples: a whole book called Numbers, and Luke’s interest in the numerical growth of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles. (They need to be set against the troubling story of King David’s pride in numbering the nation, of course.) There is rejoicing when more people embrace the kingdom of God. Statistics can alert us to important trends we might otherwise have missed.
The problem comes when rejoicing turns to obsession. Ask any Methodist minister who has to go through the annual trudge of the ‘October count’ of statistics.
How about we keep our numbers as useful tools rather than instruments of dehumanisation or proof of our banality?