Methodism and the new media

by Richard on January 26, 2010

There’s a paper going to the Methodist Council next week containing advice to the church on the use of “social media”. David Hallam has read it, and he doesn’t like it. That’s his prerogative, of course. Unfortunately, his dislike of the paper has lead him, unknowingly I’m sure, to rather misrepresent what it actually says. His headline, “Blogger Beware! The Methodist Church will issue a fatwa” should be something of a clue. The very idea is beyond preposterous.

What this paper seeks to do is offer some guidance to connexional staff, ministers and church officers on their responsibilities when publishing material to the web. (It’s not the first time this sort of thing has been considered. Methodist bloggers gave it a little thought ourselves a little while ago) There’s nothing in it that is this least bit controversial: “All involved should do nothing to bring the Church into disrepute. Members of governance bodies have particular responsibilities in how they report from or during meetings” are hardly earth-shattering revelations, but the reminder does no harm.

Far from being an attempt to stifle debate, this paper recognizes that constructive disagreement has been a feature of Methodism which these new media will further encourage.

These guidelines should not limit or prevent constructive debate or discussion through social media. People should be free to engage in discussions and debates within and beyond the Church on any topic, but should also remember their responsibilities to the Church or to any bodies they are members of when they do so. There is a wide range of opinion within the Church on some topics, and one of the attractive features about Methodism is our ability to disagree constructively.

There is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour online, and this line will move with time. One of the benefits of a healthy online community is that it is this community that provides the best guidance to
others and to itself. The aim of the Church should therefore be to foster healthy and active online and social media.

This last point is really important. A healthy community will not need censorship, even if that were possible. But if you blog as a Methodist, that places a responsibility on you not to write anything that might harm the reputation of the church. It isn’t complicated, and there’s nothing new here really.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }


Tony Buglass 01.26.10 at 2:51 pm

The question for me is when ‘healthy debate’ becomes ‘bringing the church into disrepute’. I wonder whether the reason Council is receiving this paper now is because of the public (and deserved) embarrassment following last year’s “Island Parish”, which showed up some of the nonsense of our reinvitation process and the damage it can do. There were some discussions following that, in which the Church was criticised - did someone at MCH twitch and think “This is too uncomfortable”?

Perhaps I’m being too paranoid about it, but I can’t help wondering. The stuff about “how to email” is really so basic and obvious that most people affected by it knew it years ago. Yes, ‘threatening a fatwa’ is the sort of joke which fits, but I think MP was more curious about this band of “selected bloggers” - nobody seems to know who they are. And that’s what makes people who have already had a run-in with authority feel suspicious.

Let’s wait and see what Council makes of it. Could be interesting.


Richard 01.26.10 at 3:17 pm

The line between healthy debate and the other thing might sometimes be hard to draw, but most of the time I’m pretty sure it will be pretty clear. I doubt that this paper has anything to do with “Island Parish”. As I said, there’s been talk of this kind guidance for some time. I don’t agree ‘threatening a fatwa’ is the sort of joke that fits, mostly because I don’t think David was joking. As to the bloggers who were consulted, they know who they were. Again, I don’t think David is so much bothered by the *who* was consulted so much as irritated that *he* wasn’t. But I agree — it will be interesting to see what the Council makes of the paper.


Will 01.26.10 at 6:56 pm

My district chair spoke of this to me last week when I mentioned to a friend who had to leave early from a (open) meeting that I would tweet him what we are doing. He then brought up tweeting/blogging in meetings and this paper, and he mentioned something about a person tweeting something quite negative during conference (I won’t mention what was said, but it wasn’t appropriate). I don’t think that incident alone caused this paper, but a number of incidents like this, and where people seem to have forgotten the confidentiality of certain meetings (like closed ministerial ones).


Richard 01.26.10 at 8:05 pm

Now you mention it, I think I heard something about that. That would explain the concern about tweeting from meetings.


fat prophet 01.26.10 at 8:38 pm

I am not sure if the comment about the fatwa was a joke or not but I tend to think the use of the word ’selected’ in relation to the bloggers consulted opens us up to accusations of only those who blog in a pro Methodist Church fashion being chosen and those who dare to question or challenge in any way being sidelined.
I have to say too that it appears none of us who have commented either here or elsewhere were consulted unless of course the folk have been sworn to secrecy.
I am not sure how many British Methodist Bloggers there are but it can’t be a large number and I would have thought a reasonably wide consultation could have taken place, after all you can always omit the negatives that might come out.
I am about half way through the report and it doesn’t strike me as anything that people in many areas of business have to do and sign up to do on a daily basis. If I thought the organisation I work for were absolute rubbish I would certainly not put that sort of comment on my blog. I tend to adopt the same sort of attitude to my blog but I do have a disclaimer in respect of comments I make not being made in any of my official roles in the Methodist church.
I am sure we will hear a lot more about this topic, lets just hope it can be reasonably positive and well reasoned.


Dave Faulkner 01.26.10 at 11:28 pm

I came in from a retreat day with the President to read about this - wish I’d seen it before meeting David G! I’m somewhere between you, Richard, and David H on this - I think there are issues of transparency to address in the report. See here.


Richard 01.26.10 at 11:44 pm

I’ve put in my two penn’orth at your place Dave.


Blue, with a hint of amber 01.27.10 at 9:35 am

I have been surprised reading methodist blogs, not at the criticism of Methodism, far from it.

The tone of language used between some different bloggers in posts and comments does not sound gracious from the outside looking in. Sometime not even courteous.

For a movement so highly valuing ecumenicalism the level of criticism of other Churches has come as a bit of surprise. Sometimes it feels like I know more of what you don’t like than what you stand for.

I am in no way referring ot this blog BTW, which is why I feel I have the freedom to comment in such a way here.


dave perry 01.27.10 at 11:38 am

Hi Richard. Thanks for your level-headed comments both here and elsewhere. The ‘who was consulted’ firestorm is a red-herring lost up a cul-de-sac. I was not consulted personally but was present as a member of CLF for the discussion with Toby. Those conspiracy theorists who see command and control stalinism at work are simply wrong. Like so much in the Stationing Good Practice Guide for example, what we have here has become necessary not least because of those occasions when people have been badly treated or hurt by others. At its heart I take these guidelines to be an exercise in care, courtesy and compassion. That is how they have been presented, as an aide memoire of what should be intrinsically and naturally good about our practice as Methodists as we engage in the great opportunities provided by social media. This is not about the Kremlin but about Koinonia.
And by the by, I get annoyed when folk are using laptops in meetings, or tweet, text or take incoming calls. That is hardly being present and giving good attention to each other or the subject in hand. This is obvious to me, but it seems not so to others, so maybe it is time we had an open and honest discussion about such matters. A little bit of shalom-making goes a long way….
love and peace


Richard 01.27.10 at 12:12 pm

“That is how they have been presented, as an aide memoire of what should be intrinsically and naturally good about our practice as Methodists as we engage in the great opportunities provided by social media.”
That’s nicely put, Dave.

“Blue” - I hope your comment will give all of us who call ourselves Methodist bloggers pause.


DaveW 01.28.10 at 12:33 am


I agree with your view of the ‘who was consulted’ storm in a teacup (glad I don’t live in a cul-de-sac - I imagine that by now those red herrings are a bit smelly).

On the other hand when you say:

“And by the by, I get annoyed when folk are using laptops in meetings, or tweet, text or take incoming calls. That is hardly being present and giving good attention to each other or the subject in hand. This is obvious to me, but it seems not so to others, so maybe it is time we had an open and honest discussion about such matters. “

I have used laptops in meetings since the late 80’s (yep those huge compaq lunchboxes). In the “old” days it was often to fix bugs in the software being demonstrated/taught in the meeting or update data in budgets to immediately reflect decision. But now my handwriting is horrible so it is a much better way for me to take notes and draft thoughts to contribute.

Also nowadays with internet access everywhere it is immensely useful for checking stuff that will otherwise be left unresolved. It helps stop meetings suffering from FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) which can paralyse them.

For example someone might say something is going to be too difficult to do, or maybe it is against the rules, or maybe conference once said something about it. With a laptop on the internet you can often check and give an accurate response that allows the meeting to move on constructively.

Now as for incoming (or outgoing) phone conversations or chatting to your neighbour - that I find really irritating.

Texting - no problem providing no keyboard beeps. Often better than when people keep getting up and going out to make phone calls.

Don’t get me started on meetings with inadequate or inaccessible power sockets or Wifi :-)

Or those hotels with heavy felt coverings on cheap tables which have a leg every 5cm!


PamBG 01.28.10 at 4:05 am

When I worked for a secular employer, we had guidelines about who could and could not speak for the employer. As I understood them, these guidelines included the concept that regular “trashing” of the company on social media could be grounds for termination.

The guidelines seem like perfectly sensible guidelines to me for employees and ministers.

The point, I think, about traditional media is that editors only have so much appetite for certain grudges to be aired. Whether it’s John Smith complaining about the new hymn book or 300 people writing to complain about the new hymn book; at some point, a lot of those letters are going stop being published. Whereas on the internet, there is nothing to stop an individual with infinite interest in their own grudge from publishing their grudge for years.


Richard 01.28.10 at 9:16 am

DaveW - you’re right about Twitter, of course. I didn’t realy have Twitter in mind when I made my comment. I think the other Dave has a point about laptops etc, but I’d not want to exclude anyone from using one for note-taking, fact-checking etc. But in the ordinary way, I’d want to strongly discourage texting, tweeting, emailing and so on by participants in a meeting. Not forbid or say “never”, but my default position is that participants in a meeting should be focused on that meeting.

Pam - your point about editors is a good one. I suppose in the blogosphere, the community is the editor: if someone pursues for years a hobby horse that no one else is interested in, they’re not going to get or keep their readers. On the other hand, by keeping the issue a live one they might be doing the church a favour. That’s a question that only the passage of time can answer. I’m more concerned about the manner in which hobby-horses are pursued: it ought to be possible to be controversial with grace, persistent with kindness.


Tony Buglass 01.28.10 at 10:09 am

I’m not happy about texting or tweeting from meetings. In the first place, it is in effect a separate conversation going on, which means at least one person’s attention is divided to some extent (even for a competent multi-tasker, if such a person exists).

More significantly, if the tweets are about the business of the meeting (which is by definition not yet resolved) it is including other people in a conversation without being able to include them in the context. Tweeting, blogging, egrouping, etc all develop a conversation in a particular way, which generates its own context. Verbal conversation and interaction within a meeting develop in a different way, using several layers of communication (verbal, non-verbal). Tweeting can only pass on one thread of that woven fabric.

If I am preaching or addressing a group of people, and two of those people begin to have a conversation while I am talking, I find that discourteous. Two people comparing their written notes of what is happening may be less discourteous, but can be distracting. Tweeting, texting, or blogging from a meeting can be just as distracting or discourteous.


Matt Wardman 01.28.10 at 11:31 am

I’ll be posting about this in the context of the Civil Service guidelines, which are one page long.

It is perhaps more about validating what people do, and stating that they are allowed to do it - i.e., it is also a message to those sceptical about Social Media - and saying “please extend our Methodist principles” to Social Media, rather than trying to say “do this and this and this”.

I’d suggest that the different groups are key - employees, Ministers, members and others - and that there need to be different degrees of automony for each, and that argues for a principles-based approach rather than a rules-based one.

There’s also an interesting analogy with “sending out disciples” - they were allowed to make mistakes, and perhaps the need for the centre to approve of inovations.


Matt Wardman 01.28.10 at 11:33 am

PS And of course different degrees of automony in different situations - tweeting conference debates may be excellent, but tweeting a prayer meeting may not.

Consider how Parliament has tried approaches, and has ended up, for example, with MPs adding value to PMQs by Tweeting it. That some comment is negative surely allows a more rounded picture of the debate to emerge.


Richard 01.28.10 at 12:16 pm

On tweeting in meetings, context is everything. I’d not be happy about it happening in a Circuit Meeting, for example, but more comfortable with someone tweeting from the Conference floor. We need to decide together what’s acceptable - that’s what I think Toby’s paper is trying to help us to do. (Remember, it was for discussion at the Council, not the final word)


Richard 01.28.10 at 2:18 pm

Matt - I’ve linked your post in an update to piece I wrote earlier today.


PamBG 01.28.10 at 5:19 pm

It is perhaps more about validating what people do, and stating that they are allowed to do it - i.e., it is also a message to those sceptical about Social Media - and saying “please extend our Methodist principles” to Social Media, rather than trying to say “do this and this and this”.

I’m not entirely certain, Matt, if you’re saying that this is what the Methodist paper should do but doesn’t? Or whether you’re saying that this is what the Methodist paper does.

Looking at the link to the paper, I very much get the impression that it is a set of guidelines and that it is not a paper giving rules-based orders. I think the paper certainly does validate that some people are engaged with social media and I think it is precisely saying “please extend our principles to social media”.

Specifically, in the “Subject and aims” section, the paper says: “The background paper shows how the Church is already active in
social media. The guidelines paper sets out how staff or officers of
the Church should behave when using social media.
The goal is to ensure that the Church and individuals engage
positively with social media but do nothing to harm the reputation
of the Church.”

The paper constantly refers to itself as “guidelines” and it specifically states that these are guidelines apply “to all employees, officers and ministers of the Church.”.

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