By Wendy Johnson
Somewhere about the middle of the recent House of Bishops meeting it became clear that something was very different. In the past, the bishops met in relative privacy, some may even call it secrecy. As a rule, very little information about any House of Bishops meeting was made available until everyone was headed home. The result? The interested public received mainly finished product -- reports, statements, and maybe the opportunity to view a video conference with a few of the bishops reporting on the meeting’s outcomes.
This time, however, we had a handful of bishops (and maybe even more) communicating in real-time -- Twittering, blogging, and using Facebook to keep folks back home and around the Church up-to-date on what was being said and done. I counted at least five bishops actively using Twitter, Andy Doyle of Texas, Greg Rickel of Olympia, Kirk Smith of Arizona, Brian Prior of Minnesota and Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Tweets ranged from video links to quotes from Phyllis Tickle to the actual reporting of voting and election results.
Before this meeting, I don’t believe that anyone in official communications channels anticipated any bishop choosing to stay connected online, much less Tweeting. After all, it had never really happened before. Perhaps there was some unstated expectation that bishops would turn their electronic life off. However, it seems that the information age has caught up even to the House of Bishops. Through Tweets and blogs, this handful of bishops have grabbed the reins of authority and changed communications patterns and expectations, I believe irreversibly.
If you think about it, it had to happen. In our continuously connected realities, private meetings with controlled communications are far from an acceptable norm. These days everything happens out in the open, everything is publicly debated, and all news is distributed in real-time. Events that don’t embrace this criteria? Frankly, they’re suspicious, driving folks to connect around their shared consternation with the closed nature of the event. Not a good thing…and these bishops who chose to Twitter probably know that, at least intuitively.
The church as an institution has been slow to fully adopt the social media platform, mainly (I would guess) due to the effects it has on the organization. Sure, we’ll webcast news conferences and Tweet headlines, but embracing true and open peer-to-peer interaction is still a novelty. The uncontrolled nature of social media can be unsettling and the redistribution of authority that ensues is downright revolutionary. When the opinion of a little ol’ individual like me can appear next to one from bishop (as it could in Twitter) we are certainly living into a new paradigm.
With this landmark House of Bishops meeting now behind us, the question about ramifications of these events return to the wider church for parsing out. I suspect that in the past the ‘powers that be’ in the church would simply put a lid on these interactions. But I don’t think that is a realistic response and I don’t think the church is foolhardy enough to go there. So the question becomes one of how far the church will go in embracing this new media reality.
Will bishops be given limiting Twitter protocol or will we see the free and open use of hashtags at the next House of Bishops meeting?
We will wait and see.
Wendy Johnson is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.