The 20th century United Methodist Church ran headlong into the 21st century United Methodist Church at General Conference 2012 in Tampa last week.
The new world of pluralism and hyper-connection met the old world of authority and Robert’s Rules of Order, and the two didn’t mix well. The Rev. Jay Voorhees remarked in his blog that this was the first Twitter General Conference. And so it was.
The discussion about proportional representation was about more than political posturing. It was about the desire of many concerned, faithful United Methodist people to have a voice in decisions about the future of the church. Time after time, delegates from Africa, Asia and Europe, women, young adults, LGBT and ethnic delegates spoke of their desire to be included, to be recognized and to participate in the decisions that were before the church.
They were pleading for inclusion. They want to participate in the decisions that affect them. They want to be heard. They care about the church and its future course.
This desire for voice comes as the world is undergoing breath-taking change. New media empower individuals and give them the ability to project their ideas to people the world over. They allow those with similar interests to coalesce around common concerns and speak in a unified voice. They enable protests to be organized and conducted with an immediacy that was unknown in the past.
This desire to be included is as much about the positioning and procedural processes that frustrated so many General Conference delegates as outright political machination. The ability to use media for self-expression, to build awareness and to advocate for one’s ideas has created new, stronger expectations that all the voices will be heard.
The new transparency
At a time when the world yearns for transparency and participation, the willingness of the church to open its proceedings to the world through digital media is a sign of strength and maturity. The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.
These media carry other implications as well. Twitter, Facebook, SMS texting, email, Google Plus and live streaming made it possible to monitor what was happening from a distance, report and comment on it, and to some degree, influence it.
When Bishop Mike Coyner announced a rule that would allow the May 3 afternoon plenary to be closed due to an ongoing protest that was disrupting the proceedings, the feeling of shock and dismay inside the hall was palpable. In the digital world, Twitter lit up like the Fourth of July.
“The General Conference was willing to allow itself to be on display, warts and all. That deserves respect.”
I began to receive text messages and direct messages on Twitter instantly. It was clear that in light of the transparency made possible through live streaming, the threat to close the proceedings to the public was, to put it mildly, not a popular alternative.
A last gasp
Inside the hall, protests were immediately lodged with the secretary of the General Conference. One delegate threatened to organize a walkout if the plenary was closed. Members of the Council of Bishops huddled at the center of the main stage to confer.
After several minutes of deliberation, Bishop Scott Jones told journalists assembled at the foot of the stage that the afternoon session would be open, and calm returned.
He asked journalists to get the word out through social media as quickly as possible. It was clear in that moment that the conference that had been accessible to the world through live streaming could not afford the devastating possibility of going into a closed session. The cost in public perception was too great. The realities of the digital age superseded the rulebook that allowed those in command to exercise control by shutting people out, even if they were justified in doing so to establish order.
Social media and the Internet had played a role in shaping a crucial decision about the nature of the deliberations. It felt as if we had heard the last gasp of the 20th century and said welcome to the 21st.