A few of the attributes I appreciate most among public speakers in religious settings are honesty, openness, and vulnerability. One example, might be Elder Jensen’s remarks in
San Francisco Oakland a few years ago which were subsequently widely shared.
This unfortunate episode – the sharing and not what Elder Jensen said – demonstrates that it has (potentially) become increasingly costly for visiting authorities to demonstrate these qualities because of the availability of social media and also the tendency among the membership to hang on even throw-away comments. To some extent, the church have begun to embrace these changes and have attempted to harness them. Not only are General Conference addresses made publicly available but so are sermons and discussions from other settings and in various parts of the world. Embracing these changes in a church which is very concerned with PR has had some unfortunate side effects. For example, presentations can be so carefully worded that they become staid and uninspiring.
However, these dynamics are not unique to Mormonism. Many academic conferences are, laudably, recording and distributing presentations that are given as part of the proceedings. And yet, there has been another trend – at least one I have noticed over my admittedly recent involvement in the world of academia – that has tried to combat the reproducibility of any flippant comment. In response to this problem, a number of conferences are using Chatham House Rules.
When the rules are activated participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. These rules allow and even encourage the type of vulnerability, openness, and honesty that I described earlier.
In fairness, the church has tried to encourage this type of activity in the past. In the CHI, we find this:
Church members should not record the talks or addresses that General Authorities and Area Seventies give at stake conferences, missionary meetings, or other meetings. (CHI, Book 2)
But this is not an explicit part of our culture and I think it does not go far enough. When sharing with others what we may have heard at a Stake conference we need to refrain from identifying the speakers by name or even by calling. One could argue that if the words are pertinent they will be meaningful in their own right regardless of who said them. I would like to see this become a more tangible part of our culture because I think it would allow those leaders who are visiting us to invoke these rules and speak with a different register than if they know (or at least expect) they are being recorded, for example.
Certainly there are costs with adopting this. Sadly, it would mean that I would probably never have heard about Elder Jensen’s remarks. Even if I did I would never have know whether they came from him or even whether it was a GA. It may mean that there will be some parts of the world that will potentially hear less from our leaders. However, in practice, I think this rule would make very little difference to issues of availability. A more serious concern however, it that there is also the possibility that radical or unusual views might be expressed with greater frequency by our visiting authorities. While recognising these costs, I would still rather have our leaders express themselves to us in a manner that refuses the concerns and constraints of the PR department.
Explicitly adopting Chatham House rules for local meetings would, I hope, unburden visiting authorities and allow them to speak to us with greater candor and also greater vulnerability.