House of Twitter

07.03.15 | by Kimberly Durnan

House of Twitter

    Twitter use gained traction at the Episcopal Church's General Convention with breaking news, clever comments and the occasional barb.


    The Episcopal Church has the House of Bishops, the House of Deputies and apparently an unofficial legislative body — the House of Twitter.

    The social media platform became a perceived authoritative reservoir for news, photos, complaints, celebrations, clever retorts, vacuous thoughts, funny asides, and hostility during the 78th General Convention, held in Salt Lake City June 25 though July 3.

    Daylong meetings where about 400 deputies and 300 bishops voted on resolutions regarding the operations of the Church provided rich material and mindless downtime for propelling staccato chatter into the Twitterverse. At times it seemed like tweets controlled the convention, not the other way around.

    During the election for the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, the House of Bishops was sequestered at St. Mark’s Cathedral several blocks from the convention center so bishops could vote privately in a controlled environment. A chain-link fence surrounded the church and bishops were warned by church leadership not to reveal the name of the winner until the name had been forwarded to the Committee to Elect the Presiding Bishop and then to the House of Deputies for consideration.

    However, once the bishops elected Michael Curry, the results were leaked and quickly reported on Twitter. Deputies learned that the bishops had elected Curry about two hours before they were officially notified. The information eventually found its way to news organizations such as CNN and deputies found themselves in the unenviable position of responding to the unverified information.

    Jordan Haynie Ware @GodWelcomesAll tweeted, “Everyone following #pb27, the HOD has heard no news of an election. We do not have a PB until HOD confirms. Stand down.”

    Megan Castellan @revlucymeg said, “Just so you know — there are no bishops in sight. I have no confirmed info on the #pb election.”

    The Episcopal priest who was among the first to leak the information on Twitter, the Rev. Alberto Cutié @padrealberto, eventually removed the tweet and later offered his “apologies to those at #gc78 who are upset by my earlier announcement. I am not there — and just happy to report what I had heard.”

    Cutié, who was working at his parish in Florida, said he learned that the bishops had elected Curry when a CNN producer called him for comment.

    “The producers knew it was Michael Curry. Somebody had already told them,” said Cutié, who is a prolific and experienced communicator on social media. “I’m in another time zone and had no clue it wasn’t announced. I was not listening on the floor. I was in Florida.”

    Not all conversations on the media platform generated as much excitement or warranted coverage by a national news agency. Many comments that were favorited or retweeted came from those using humor as a vehicle for delivering information.

    For instance, Jimmy Abbott @RevJAbbott, wrote “#gc78 has run out of Ipads for deputies. Math is hard.”

    Scott Gunn @scottagunn wrote about his support of B009, a resolution that would increase the Episcopal Church’s presence online. “If Jesus Googled himself, would he find the Episcopal Church? No, as it turns out.”

    Father Tim Schenck @FatherTim wrote, “Please don’t refer to the House of Bishops as the House of Lords. They’re touchy about that sort of thing.”

    During a debate about a 30-year-old policy on alcohol in the church, commentators in the public sphere kept pace. “I believe we just became Methodists,” tweeted Winnie @wsvarghese. “I always wanted to debate something containing the phrase ‘exclusively normative activity,’” added Gunn.

    “I try, although I may not always succeed, to use humor in a way to get us to laugh at ourselves,” said Gunn, who is Executive Director of Forward Movement. “If we take ourselves too seriously as Christians or Episcopalians we are doomed.”

    Social media reports also accurately captured the sights and sounds of convention through photos and video, bringing a far away event to life for those back home.

    “I’ve been able to catch quite a bit about what’s going on through Twitter, said Chris Holley, who attends Transfiguration in Dallas. “I follow Jordan Hanie Ware, Father (Casey) Shobe and the Diocese of Dallas. “When I get home I check the timeline and see what’s been going on.”

    Photos and videos chronicled a tribute to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the procession of a bishop’s march against gun violence and numerous selfies with Presiding Bishop-elect Curry.

    Social media brought more to the convention than breaking news and entertainment value—it also brought utility.

    For instance, the deputies considered a resolution regarding Forward Movement and because Gunn works for the publication he wanted to recuse himself from the vote. Instead of writing a document and having it delivered to the deputies’ president for permission, Gunn was able to make his request and obtain a response quickly through Twitter at #HODplatform.

    “I’d like to give a shout out to the House of Deputies leadership for being on their game,” Gunn said. Anyone on the floor of the House can ask a question and get a response without having to go to the podium and waste everyone’s time on a procedural question.

    While tweets advanced the dissemination of information during the conference, they also brought public attacks. Emotional resolutions and inexperienced communicators resulted in the unfriendly barbs.

    For instance, when the Very Rev. Neal Michell, dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas, spoke about a resolution changing the way bishops are elected, his comments were soon followed by personal insults instead of commentary on the resolution.

    “One of the challenges with social media is that it is not nuanced and it’s easy to give snarky comments without having any accountability,” Michell said. “I was the subject of a snarky comment. I went the extra mile and arranged for a meeting with the person who made the comment and worked out the relationship. Ultimately the church is about relationships and not about winners and losers.”

    Not everyone is a skilled communicator, Cutie noted, particularly in the Church. “If you are deliberately hurtful in the way you communicate publicly, it expresses a problem that person has,” he said.

    Gunn agreed, saying, “In the life of the Church, every deputy and bishop needs to come with the gifts of communication.”

    While the occasional tweet or Facebook post can be hurtful, social media can also unite people in prayer and hope, Cutie said, and the information is often more immediate.

    During the debate on the marriage resolution in the house, people who were not at convention and were following the live stream said they learned of the vote results more quickly through tweets.

    “Twitter is ahead of live-streaming,” said Margaret @meggie2ny. MeredithGould @meredithGould added: “And again I thank GOD (and technology) for Twitter which delivered voting results many secs before livestream.”

    It’s all in how people use the medium, Cutie said. “What people say on Twitter is being paid attention to.”