The Church Times this week ran a story about a plan to fit all Church of England buildings with WiFi. The idea had been promoted by none other than Andrew Lloyd-Webber and comes with the offer of funding from his own pocket. So what’s not to like? Ancient, often disengaged buildings, no longer at the centre of our worlds, physically or virtually, brought rapidly into the 21st century with a ready source of funding from a celeb to back it.
Well, I am ambiguous about it. I agree with the premise that churches need to act more and more like community buildings, in a way that (as is often cited) they were in medieval times. Indeed many village churches are being creatively reimagined to reengage with their communities, opening up Post Office counters, cafés etc. WiFi is undoubtedly part of our modern connected world and it would be a bit daft to deliberately disconnect ourselves even further by allowing this resource to bypass us. Except that the thousands of ecclesiastical buildings up and down the country are part of a Christian tradition of worship and witness that is both incarnational (engaged with its culture and seeking to be relevant within it) and radical (often living in in committed contradiction to the prevailing culture). And one of the ways in which Christian spirituality and Christian practise is increasingly offering a challenging but life-giving alternative to the modern age is in suggesting the need for non-engagement with the world, disconnection from a world of overwhelming connection in order to tend to an increasingly neglected part of who we are – our soul. The soul needs space, quiet, a gentler pace, the benefit of our full attention, in order to be refreshed and in order that it remains connected with the more external elements of our life, what we say and what we do.
In short we need sanctuary in the midst of all that life throws at us to attend to ourselves. In our modern culture where the value of ‘staying connected’ has been exalted to the status of an uncritiqued axiom, the value of places of disconnection, or solace and quiet, free from the distractions of the world becomes crucial. It is the distracting nature of the ubiquity of mobile internet technology that provides the greatest challenge to us, whether we want to disconnect or not. Those who break into a mild sweat whenever WiFi is unavailable, or whose first thought when entering a building or a train is ‘what’s the WiFi code?’ are challenging themselves to ever find a place of ease in themselves that is free from distraction. Or indeed from the thought of distraction, that something might be happening that I am unaware of and might either need to attend to or miss out on. For those who value the need to disconnect on a regular basis, the rolling tide of free WiFi that has swept the UK along with the near impossibility of doing life without a smart phone or other perpetually connected device, means that there is a constant need to work against the grain of a culture that would have us stay connected. As an example, as I wrote this my computer blooped at me to tell me that a message from Facebook had just come in. After a minute or so I found the setting that enabled me to turn this distraction off – but the point is that the default was to have this turned on rather than off. That is the reality, very soon the default of our culture will be a perpetual state of connectedness. Indeed in many places it is already.
So the question is to what extent churches want to remain places that offer sanctuary in the midst of modern life that is increasingly crying out for it? It is no small thing that the church offers, in the context of a rentlessly noisy and constantly accelerating world, a national resource of quiet places of sanctuary where it becomes easy to rest, undistracted from ourselves and therefore more able to attend to our souls and to the presence of God. I am not arguing for a blanket resistance to the endless call for seamless wireless connection. There may well be a case for introducing WiFi to church buildings to enable greater connection with the community in which it sits. But surely it would be good to give individual churches, who know their communities, and who are listening to the needs of the people around them to discern the impact, for good or ill, that installing this technology would have. One of my particular places of sanctuary is a retreat centre that, because of its geographical location requires guests to walk to the top of a nearby hill just to send a text message. If by whatever means a 4G signal were made available I think I might go somewhere else. I go there precisely to disconnect not stay connected.
So perhaps we can resist the accelerating tide of WiFi and mobile connective technology a little, and not be seduced by the opinions and money of Lord Lloyd-Webber or anyone else. Churches, PCCs etc. might do well to go somewhere quiet, free from distraction and discern with one another and with God whether this might be a good decision for their particular building or not.