Welcome to the 21st century

The 20th century United Methodist Church ran headlong into the 21st century United Methodist Church at General Conference 2012 in Tampa last week.

Irene Innis , spouse of Bishop John Innis from Liberia, checks her cell phone during a plenary break at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

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.

9 Responses to “Welcome to the 21st century”

  1. Erik Alsgaard May 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Well said, Larry. I was ready to go on a “sit down” strike if they closed that afternoon session… They were going to have to physically remove me as a member of the media. Thanks for reporting that others felt the same way. The church should be transparent in it’s decision making, and I’m glad we have folks like you (and many others) who will help keep it that way.

  2. Anne Scahill May 9, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Dear Larry:

    Nothing to do with above article but a question. I have seen no report with regard to the election of Bishops – normally a specific task for the General Conference. Have I overlooked a report?

    • LHollon May 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

      Bishops in the U.S. are elected at Jurisdictional Conferences which occur in late spring, early summer. These will be convening starting next month in the U.S. They occur at different times during the year in Central Conferences around the world.

  3. Mark West May 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    You make it sound like the decision to keep the conference open to the public was due purely to pressure. But wasn’t it also the case that those behind the front table also realized, albeit slowly, that carrying out Coyner’s threat would be a violation of the denomination’s open meeting regulations? Simply put, it would have caused the conference to meet illegally, which would have possibly invalidated all the decisions and actions taken during that session.

    • LHollon May 17, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

      Mark, I raised this question during the noon recess with the Secretary of General Conference. I was told (and shown) the rule cited for closing General Conference supercedes the open meetings clause in the Book of Discipline.

  4. Teri May 11, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Wouldn’t it have been liberating if some of the African delegations had truly had their own voice and vote instead of voting as a block?

    The Liberian UMC has a post on their webpage about a four-day “prayerful consideration” meeting in which they agreed to cede their individual voices.

    Things might have been different if those delegates were each allowed to make up their own minds.

  5. Victoria Rebeck May 15, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    The cost of a “closed” General Conference session would have been much greater than the challenge of handling protests (which the bishops ultimately handled in a caring and care-full way), from a public relations standpoint. Echoing Erik: It would have been harder to evict the journalists than the protestors! I’m grateful for the bishops who understood the urgent need for transparency and encouraged Bishop Jones in his decision to keep the afternoon session open. I’m grateful for the women bishops who established communication with the protestors, which led to a peaceful resolution. I’m grateful to Larry Hollon for being a major advocate for journalists at conference.

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