Amongst other things, General Conference is a sort of theatre, with specific conventions expected from the genre. The use of the teleprompters, the darkened background, the cadence, the structure of talks: we all know what we’re getting and very few conference talks depart from that formula. There are many reasons for those conventions – some are technical requirements, some grow out of our love for tradition, and some are an extension of our anti-liturgical fear of distraction in religious spaces.
(Are these conventions just the ethos of conference, or is there a written guide for those who speak or pray in conference? And if there is a written guide, when did President Packer write it?)
One of the most pronounced conventions of conference performance is the presence of the fourth wall. The speaker is standing in front of thousands of people live, but besides laughter, there is no response from them. I imagine the houselights are low if not entirely out and the lighting needed for the broadcast make the audience invisible to the speaker. The use of the teleprompter gives a semplance of looking around the room, but the moments of intimacy come from the speaker’s interaction with the camera, not the live audience.
That’s why I was so struck with a little moment from the end of the Priesthood Session. President Monson had finished a strong, focused sermon on the need to see the potential in others rather than just the state they are in now, transitioning seamlessly to the need for missionary work. He said, ‘The responsibility is upon us, bretheren.’ And then he stopped, looked up and scanned the audience, and then held up his hands to indicate the people there, in the same room as him, and then he ended the talk.
It was a break from convention, a gesture that indicated a recognition of the audience that was there, not just in word (which is completely conventional) but in silent gesture. The silence is as unconventional as the gesture.
What I realized about President Monson is his desire to reach beyond the gulf between himself and his audience and indicate that yes, he is actually talking about them, as individuals, as people, not as abstractions. It reminded me of his blessing during the last conference, and his desire to show that he was really, literally blessing the people there (and which was so unconventional that he flubbed it and it got a nervous laugh from those present).
Some of you will accuse me of watching too carefully, of reading the tea leaves of conference, of making too much of too little. But this man is my prophet, and I have agreed to sustain him. I live nine time zones away from Salt Lake City. My only access to him is through conference and the church magazines, both of which are so steeped in convention and correlation that getting a sense of humanity is almost always impossible. That small moment of silence, as he looked at the faces that surrounded him and gestured to recognize that they are his ‘bretheren’ and they literally bear the mandate of which he spoke, well, that’s all I’ve got. And it was for me maybe the most touching moment of conference.