Christianity in the Digital Space: St Johns College Durham July 13-15

Durham2 I had forgotten this event was happening but picked up the #digisymp trail on the blogosphere yesterday. And won't have time to review much of the content.  But for me the most interesting aspect of it was the confrontation (or should I call it exchange?) between the delegates and the Bishop of Durham Tom Wright which you can browse on youtube if you wish. You get the flavour from the video - a scattering of geeks in the conference room busy blogging and tweeting with a worldwide audience on their laptops facing a working bishop.  Tom Wright is probably the heaviest weight theologian in the UK at present. Like Cardinal Ratzinger – before he became the Pope – he plays the role of bruiser when it comes to theological controversies and normally he doesn't pull his punches. This encounter was interesting because by the bishop's own admission – his expertise in the digital sphere is akin to knowing being able to play Twinkle Twinkle little star on the Durham Cathedral organ. So there was quite a lot of talking at cross purposes – with the bishop offering a number of observations (for example – the blogosphere is puerile) which reinforced the limitations of his knowledge. I found the exchange interesting because this was a dialogue which I don't think we hear often enough. Here are the key points I took out from what the bishop said.

Ntwrightpicture Digital space is playful and the terrestrial church hasn't made enough of playfulness.

Virtuality is suspect – it is implicitly elitist, self selecting and selfserving.

By way of retort – the geeks pointed out that this is exactly what the bishop of a geographical territory would be expected to say.  That geography is considerably less important than it used to be. That virtuality also plays its role in the terrestrial church – the middle classes conventionally drive past other churches to attend their own clubby churches – therefore virtuality is not confined to the online world.

Tom Wright's central point is that the church is located in time and space. In response to an invitation to run a televised Eucharist where the bread and wine could be held up to the TV screen to be consecrated remotely his response was that the congregation had to share in a physically broken loaf.  That churches have a responsibility towards mutuality – he gave the example of a congregation of 100 where only 4 had jobs which was being financially baled out by more affluent congregations in the diocese. Where is mutuality online if not based on similarity rather than difference and dependence?

Now this could be written off as a presentation by Bishop Ludd – but I think his challenge does need to be taken seriously. It is not a question of replicating the terrestrial online – though the fact that the delegates took themselves off to an Anglican cathedral in Second Life for an evening service(!) is not I believe what the bishop had in mind. If mutuality, power relations – ie the difference between rich and poor – if these are not replicated online then the online world will remain an interesting but narrow slice of the real world. The church for all its faults is trying to address the complexities which the digital world usually opts to route around. And makes those demands of those who turn up with a laptop demanding online church with everything.

Cath1 But the Bishop missed out several things from his bunker. Durham Cathedral is the burial place of St Cuthbert – a 6th century saint. Who spent much of his life as a contemplative first on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and then on the Farne islands. In other words Cuthbert (also a working bishop) opted for virtuality in order to be more effective. After his death Cuthbert's bones were moved around in a casket for several hundred years as a kind of talisman for healing and a protection against Viking attacks before being finally placed in teh cathedral. Virtuality has been a part of spirituality long before the internet was thought of. The danger of a polarised debate between those resolutely offline and those resolutely on it is making fundamental category errors about virtuality being earthed in the technology. Which it isn't.  Terrestrial living can be virtual and online existence can be grounded. Kind of amusing to hear Durham described as a bit of a theme park – well with a castle and a cathedral situated on a bend in the river  – it looks a little more virtual than real from some angles.

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