I fear for Anglicanism, or at least the liberal, discerning version that we practice in our rainy corner of Northern Europe. Above all I fear for its relevance. More Britons play chess each week than go to church.
Though a Scots-Irish descendent of the Manse on both sides of my family, I’ve come to love Anglicanism’s delicious variety, its broad and colourful sweep from feisty Evangelism to fusty Anglo- Catholicism. But, to the outsider, the Church, once a power in the land, is tearing itself apart, lost in ancestral quarrels and incomprehensible points of principle that defy both legal reality and easy explanation. Above all, and most tragically, its charms and relevance are lost on its most important demographic, the young. More young people can name Lady Gaga’s hairdresser than name the Archbishop of Canterbury. And fewer than one million in the UK are now what my parents would have called “proper, practising Anglicans”. Yet the Church of England still claims a heroic role for itself on our national stage despite being, as in T S Eliot’s poem “The Hippopotamus”, “wrapt in the old miasmal mist”. Relevant to a 15 year old? Hardly. If our three teenage children are anything to go by, this generation’s grasp of theology is as thin as a communion wafer and every bit as nutritious. (How shocked I was when not one younger member of our church knew who Moses and Elijah were, let alone their symbolic roles –the law and the prophets- in Our Lord’s Transfiguration).
Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown’s critique of the Church (“That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People”) and the latest bums-on-seats statistics make for depressing reading for a modern Anglican. Isn’t it all now hopeless? How does Anglicanism triumph in the market place for ideas and more importantly, become relevant to its younger followers? What are the new bottles into which the old wine must now be poured?
Maybe human ingenuity brings us some good news, some “gospel”. New technology means that it’s far from hopeless.
Modern social media technology has a vital role to play in the “reincarnation” (sic) of the Church. This starts with Lambeth Palace further recognizing the vital role technology has played in the past: Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press, better social mobility via canals and railways, television etc.
But with a change in technology comes a change in behaviour. Has Mankind itself changed? Maybe not, but Mankind’s behaviour has.
More than two billion people are now online. This number will soon double. The average person has 24 apps on their smart phone, but uses only 8. That’s the trouble with technology: winner takes all. So what do modern social media offer Anglicans and –the critical question- how can a religion “app” get into the top 8? The answers to both questions are the same.
First, one must offer community, a New Community. St Paul and others criss-crossed the Mediterranean and founded the communities, the networks, from which Christianity sprang. A modern social media community has significant advantages over one from the Middle East of the first century. It’s not limited by weather forecasts in Cyprus, ship technology in the Aegean or even censorship. And it can instantly cross time zones and include demographics, from young to old. Imagine being on a train journey and joining a live prayer group composed of Anglicans in Abuja, Adelaide, Atlanta and Acton. Or, before you sleep, how about plugging in to a discussion group practising the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola?
Second, one must offer “Bible”. “Scholarship” to the few, yes, but “Bible” to the many. And social media can break new ground here. It can transcend linguistic barriers via software packages that compare and interpret meaning. It can take ancient tongues and convert them into modern expressions. Software now exists to analyse unstructured data and use natural language processing to understand grammar and context. This is perfect for textual comparison and Bible study. This aspect –Bible- must be at the heart of the New Community (obiter dicta, can anyone tell me why most Anglican churches don’t even offer you a Bible when you enter the church? Totally dotty. And why not hand out a fun iPad instead of a noisy piece of paper for crinkling behind my ear? Just asking.)
Third, one must offer help. Help to find a church. Help to pray. Help to buy presents for others. Help to send Christmas cards. Help to discuss life’s Big Questions. Help to find a place to baptise a baby. Help to find a Christian “Au Pair”. Help to get married. Help to find like-minded people when you move. Help with depression. Help with catering. Help with finding schools. Help with booking pilgrimages. The list is as long as the human longing for help. Social media, in some of these areas, can be more helpful than a church.
Fourth, one must offer fun. Make someone smile and you win their heart. Lighten someone’s day and they’ll pay attention to what you have to say. Amongst UK politicians, Boris Johnson understands this better than anyone. Social media can make people smile; comedy, jokes, videos, games, fun occasions. To look at our 3 kids coming out of church, I don’t think they always had “fun” on their faces or joy in their hearts.
New technology can ally new experience to old ideas; we’re forming “Ananas” to do just that. “Ananas”, “Pineapple” in English, is one of the most frequently recurring words in all languages, nearly 30, from Hebrew and Arabic to Icelandic and Esperanto. It’s a verbal image of what we want to achieve, a cradle to grave app for all ages and all shades of belief, customized to the user, non-judgmental…..in other words, very Anglican. Ideas to make religion relevant are sprouting like fruit in due season. We now need partners to help us grow our pineapple. They can speak any language they like as long as they share our mission and our sense of fun. Young and old can now find both reverence and relevance.
- Iain Little, Chairman of Ananas (Chairman) / email address email@example.com and +41 79 359 2720
- Bio. “Iain Little studied Russian at Cambridge and became a banker and investment manager, living first in Japan and Asia and, for the last 16 years, Zurich. His day job for 36 years has been looking after other peoples’ money. His current night jobs include helping people better connect with their religion, “Ananas”, and a venture growing furniture directly from trees which he hopes will revolutionize the way people all over the world connect with their environment. He has a wife and 3 university age children.”.