We moved south last month! It was a little manic. A last minute decision rather than something planned over a millennium! But I suppose that's what life is like post-pandemic.
This move has meant that I have moved from the Darlington Synod of the Methodist Church down to the South East District of the Methodist Church which incorporates parts of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and even parts of Hampshire and Berkshire. So, I'm getting used to new churches to preach in and minister to and a whole new group of Methodists to work alongside. As part of the getting to know you process, I was invited to attend (in person) this weekend's (hybrid) Synod in Worthing. I thought I'd write up a few reflections on the event as part of our ongoing consideration of what makes a Hybrid Church and to follow up a couple of recent videos by Penny Pullan and Richard Hardy exploring how we might best do our business through a hybrid environment.
What's a HYBRID synod?
Well, hybridity means both online and onsite. So about 50 people met onsite in Worthing and another 50 or so on zoom. Those of us in onsite were, at times, able to see all the dear people on zoom and when votes were taken, polls were used on zoom to mirror the votes taken by hand in the church. The people in zoom were able to see the speakers in the church and when someone spoke on zoom, the people in the church were able to see and hear the people in zoom.
So we had two environments interlinked with one another - a church event both online and onsite. Indeed, the drawing of all the congregation into one was strengthened by us celebrating communion together as part of the Methodist Church's new "trial period" of allowing Online Communion. Those online were invited to bring their own bread and grape juice, while those onsite were given pre-wrapped wafers and grape juice. David Shincliffe, Chair of the District, spoke movingly of his own experience during the lockdown, of the benefits of joining together as hybrid congregation and the missional power of digital.
During the day, there were different ways to engage with the Synod. One of the most important was in a reflection around the Mission Plan of the District, which had already been through the District Council and was now presented before the Synod for comment. Synod broke into workshops - eight onsite (in different areas of the church premises), eight online (breakout rooms on Zoom) - all provided with a facilitator to go through a series of questions. After lunch, all sixteen groups had two minutes to feed back their thoughts (mostly very positive).
The mixture of online and onsite worked well and the ability to hear of how the breakout groups went on zoom was informative for those of us in the church building. Good conversations had been had and there was clearly a consensus across the District to move forward in a slightly amended form. It must have been good as well for a group of technologically-distanced people to see how they too were an essential part of the consultation process and saying much the same as those onsite. In other words, onsite and online did not affect the way Methodist people conferred or voted.
In her talk (being sent out later this week in the Premier Digital e-send), Penny Pullan argues that those engaging online need a level playing field with those engaging onsite. This is so important because "all the cards" is with those meeting onsite - they can pop over and chat with people, have informal conversations, react to what is going on "in the room". Indeed, I reflected on this at the end of the meeting when lots of people were chatting and interacting with people onsite but the zoom had been turned off. Synod is a place of social gathering as much as it is a place of business. (Let the reader understand!)
Sadly, for me, this was one of the few weaknesses of the Hybrid Synod. I think that the District hadn't explored enough in terms of the social aspect of hybridity for those online. So, those on zoom were not given chatting rights (order, order!) and couldn't interact with others in the zoom rooms or in the church building rooms. Indeed, those in church couldn't engage with those online. There was a digital moat established between the two parts of Synod which only the Chair of the the District and other podium speakers could bridge.
Compare this to another way of handling the issue. In a hybrid teaching environment at Spurgeon's College for MA in Digital Theology last week, we had some students in a class room in London and some online - and in different countries. But we made everyone go online even if they were onsite. We wanted everyone to be able to see the presentation through zoom (it was also mirrored in the room), to have a joint chat facility, and for them to see the other students online. Indeed, we allowed everyone to chat freely with one another and to hear each others voices. I know the numbers were less. But how much richer it was a social opportunity.
Penny's concept of levelling the playing field should be the first thing we think of when it comes to hybrid anything. How do we make the experience of being online excellent both for those onsite and for those online - but especially for those online because the proximal presence of the onsite contingent will always put those online at a disadvantage. We are so used to engaging in the same place with other human beings. We haven't yet learnt everything we need to learn about being social online.
So a huge round of applause to the South East District and the Synod organising committee. A great experiment, well organised, well delivered. Just let's be a bit freer next time in allowing everyone to have a social experience of synod and to give lots of opportunities for those online and onsite to chat with one another and so confer together about the business.
And how about zoom rooms for sharing lunch too...