One of the things that really impressed me about General Convention, technogeek that I am, was the wide use of electronic devices and communications for convention business and connection.
This convention was billed as “a convention of screens” in a lot of the preparatory reports and materials. It was intended to be as nearly paperless as possible; and in most cases that intention was carried out quite successfully. Every bishop, deputy, and first alternate was issued an official iPad upon registration. The iPads were rented from a company that owns the machines, contracts with conventions or organizations to preload the machines with convention materials, distributes the gadgets to the attendees, and then at the end of the event gathers them all up again, wipes their memories, and rents them out to another group. It was a very streamlined and efficient operation.
For General Convention, the iPads were preloaded with the “Blue Book” – the reports of commissions, committees, agencies, and boards that propose resolutions to the Convention – along with other supporting documents. The iPads also came with an app called the “Virtual Binder.” This was perhaps the most marvelous app of the whole experience. In past General Conventions every bishop and deputy had a huge 3-ring binder, with a spine at least 3 inches wide, to hold all the paper copies of resolutions, agendas, calendars, amendments, floor reports, minutes, and various and sundry documents produced in the legislative process. That amounted to a lot of documents. Many thousands of sheets of paper. At the start of every legislative session, deputies had to go to the front of the meeting space and collect the new pages for that session: copies of amended resolutions, copies of rescheduled business, copies of legislation passed by the House of Bishops that now needed to be considered by the House of Deputies, and so on. These pages had then to be inserted into the binders in their proper places, according to day, session, house of origination, and resolution number. It took half an hour just to get ready to do business, let alone doing the business. And the sound of 800+ binder rings clicking open and closed at the same time! It was deafening.
But at this Convention we had the Virtual Binder. This was a web-connected app that took all those resolutions, amendments, calendars, agendas, concurrences, and supporting documents and made them appear on the iPads – sorted and numerated and properly placed – with the merest tap on the screen. It updated instantly during the sessions, and preloaded each day’s business the night before, allowing deputies and bishops to review important documents before they came up for discussion – something that had not been possible when the updates were only available in that half an hour before business began. For a gadgeteer like me it was a source of constant wonder. And for everybody it was a vast simplification of the process of doing Convention’s business. There was even one day when we finished all the resolutions ahead of time and had to adjourn for the day because we’d caught up with the business – something I’d never heard of happening before! – and the ease and speed of the online binder was what made that possible.
Another use of the iPads was in worship. General Convention has Holy Eucharist every day, with close to 2000 people attending each service. Rather than printing paper bulletins, complete with prayers, scriptures, and music, for all those people, the worship bulletins were preloaded on the iPads as PDF files. Visitors and guests who had not been issued iPads could download the PDFs to their own devices at home, or even print them out on paper, and bring them to the service. Now I have been known to raise an eyebrow or two at Trinity for leading Mass on the Grass from my smartphone, or for preaching a sermon from my Transformer Pad. But here were thousands of Episcopalians, of all levels of techno-comfort, praying and singing and making communion without a paper bulletin in sight. It was convenient, quick, saved a lot of paper, and rescued a lot of trees.
In fact, I was so impressed with the way the electronic bulletins worked that I would like to introduce them at Trinity. I want to try the experiment of offering all our worship bulletins as PDF files linked to our website and to the weekly email. Those who want may download the PDF for the service of their choice to their own device, and then bring it to church instead of a paper bulletin.
Don’t worry: paper bulletins will still be available for all who come to church! And I imagine that most people will prefer to use the paper bulletins. But a few adventurous (and geeky) souls like me will want to try using a screen instead of a paper to guide their worship, and I’d like to see how it might work within the congregation. Be bold! Bring your tablet or smartphone or reader, and let your screen light shine! Perhaps in time we can print fewer bulletins and save on paper and ink.
The other impressive gadgetry of General Convention was the live streaming of worship and legislative sessions. Direct video from the convention floor and the convention worship center was available through the “media hub” at the General Convention website. For the first time ever, people who were not physically present at the events could watch them happen at the same time as the deputies and bishops who were there. Facebook posts and Twitter tweets kept friends and contacts right up to date with things as they happened — along with the sometimes quirky commmentary provided by the poster. People back home told me they got to hear Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the same time I did, and we commented on what we thought of it. People across the country followed the debate on the marriage canon, and commented on Facebook as points were made and the vote was taken. Where the General Convention has often been a mystery to people who haven’t attended, like a smoke-filled room to those who don’t know its workings, the prevalence of live streaming and instant communication made this Convention much more transparent and much more open to the Church as a whole.
One person even told me they were watching the live stream of Convention worship one day and recognized the backs of Shelby Owen’s and my heads! It was almost like being there!
GC 2015 was a convention of screens and streams. It was not afraid to use new technologies in new ways to do the age-old work of the church: to pray, to sing, to worship, to deliberate, to take counsel together for the mission of Christ in the church and in the world. It made my geeky soul glad!