One of the great things about social media is that it can be compared to a grapevine on steroids - very little happens without a wide group of people getting to hear about it virtually within seconds.
Two recent incidents involving disciplinary action taken against ministers by the MCSA are a case in point. While one has gone relatively unnoticed by those not plugged into the online community, the other has made national news. Unfortunately, in both cases "official" communication has been poor - at the time of writing this post, the Presiding Bishop's office has communicated with the media concerning the action taken against Paul Verryn, but so far not a peep to any of its ministers on either issue.
In the meantime, members of our congregations are asking questions. They read the newspapers. They watch TV. They read newspapers. And they participate actively in social media. And as their ministers, we are not in any position to give them any feedback beyond what has already been played out in the public arena.
Now granted, one cannot realisticly expect the PB's office to issue statements on EVERY matter, but official silence leads to a "gripevine" that goes bananas. And by the time any official communication is issued (if at all), the flames of speculation have been fanned so much that this gets lost in the din.
The British Methodist Church (MCGB) seems to be grappling with the same issue, especially since some of UK Methodism's bloggers are just as controversial as many of ours - and although, just like here in SA where the issues being discussed are real, the MCGB's feathers get ruffled (just like ours in the MCSA - we're not so different after all!)
And it seems that the MCGB has recognised the phenomenon of social media - the tremendous benefits it has when it comes to communication and comment on matters affecting the Church and wider society; but also the potential damage it can cause to the institution's reputation - and in response, the MCGB has issued a draft document providing guidelines to the appropriate use of social media by those connected to the MCGB (such as ministers and deacons, officers [stewards, Local Preachers, and the like], and lay employees). The full document can be found by clicking here.
True to form, two of Britain's finest Methodist bloggers have been quite vocal about this document, and hold fairly diverse views. David Hallam (a Methodist local preacher based in Birmingham), views this as an attempt at censorship by the MCGB, and the title of his post, Blogger Beware! The Methodist Church Will Issue A Fatwa, makes his feelings on this matter quite evident. He states: "It [the document] refers to public discussions 'as moderated by the Methodist Recorder' (the MCGB's equivalent of The New Dimension). Ah they were the days, when Methodists could only express a view through the pages of the Recorder, who could then be relied upon to 'moderate'. Those days are gone. The issues we need to address are transparency, legitimacy, and building relationships within the denomination. The days of a handful of well-connected people being able to control internal discussion and decisions are in the past. No amount of 'guidelines' and 'disciplinary action' will stop that. If countries like China and Iran are struggling to stifle online discussion how on earth does anyone think the Methodist Church can?"
On the other hand, Richard Hall (a Methodist minister in Wales) has no problem with the document, stating on his post, Methodism And The New Media, that "[f]ar 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" and that "[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".
Given that here in South Africa there are many connected with the MCSA (clergy as well as lay folk) who are quite vociferous online, seldom shying away from robust debate about various issues, I wonder how we would feel if the MCSA were to put forward a document similar to that currently under discussion by the MCGB? Would we view this as censorship or good practice?
Every organisation I have ever been involved with (which includes four corporates as well as bodies ranging in diversity from The Welsh Male Voice Choir of South Africa, Toastmasters International, and the Scouting movement - and, of course, the MCSA) has, somewhere in its constitution or rules, a requirement that its employees / office-bearers / members may not do anything to bring the organisation concerned into disrepute - and this is a reasonable requirement.
The question, though, is this: When organisations get things wrong - and this is bound to happen in all organisations from time to time - where is the fine line between "speaking out" and "bringing the organisation into disrepute"? I have found that the more open the lines of communication are within an organisation, and the more the "top brass" are available and willing to listen to people's views, the less there is reason to air one's grievances on a public forum.
And while every organisation has its whinge-bags, much of what is written online is a cry highlighting what the writer perceives to be grave injustices within the organisation, which the "powers that be" are perceived to be turning a deaf ear to. And if that is "bringing the organisation into disrepute", how much of this "disrepute" is in fact self-inflicted? All organisations would therefore do well to ensure that its own communication channels before trying to regulate the use of those outside.
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