Martyn Percy: A Progressive Union for a Precarious ChurchJanuary 13, 2022
What did Jesus actually do?January 15, 2022
Like many conferences planned for 2020, the Modern Church conference was postponed and re-organized to fit a digital medium. This was, for the most part, a pragmatic choice; to keep members safe. But I want to argue that moving online has unlocked a new way of being Modern Church. A new way of gathering to support one another in our theological enquiry.
Before the pandemic, I had the privilege of talking with some pioneers of online gatherings. In these conversations it became strikingly clear that the typical narrative of online spaces – that they are detached, sterile and false – did not apply to these pioneering spaces. Instead, the participants demonstrated that the world of the online was transformative, especially to our understandings of presence and distance, time and space. This is because online, presence and distance do not behave as opposites like they might do in an offline context. As we are all familiar by now, technology has the ability to compress time and space, allowing people who are far away to act as if they were in the same space; muddling the typical ways we locate people and things.
But technology can do more than this. It shatters the tethers that keep presence and distance on opposite poles, so that presence and distance can operate together to create unique and complex spaces for people to gather within. During the pandemic, we have become somewhat familiar with this kind of space. We have experienced being able to ‘dip’ in and out of being present, or distant. We can alter the way we act online to be closer to one another, or not. And we can use these new dynamic choices to tailor our online presence to what we need.
This new kind of space that online gathering can provide has shown us that though the pandemic can disrupt many of the ways we might typically do things – on site gatherings and working arrangements specifically – it cannot stop people from being together. For instance, despite ‘normal’ life revolving around people gathering in a specific geographical location, in order to have meetings or to socialize. Covid has shown us that we can do those things just as well – if not better – online. For some, this has been obvious for a long time, but for others, this is new ground and troubles their previous notions of what normal togetherness can be like.
For Modern Church, digitally mediated togetherness has allowed us to preserve much of the conference’s community feel whilst preventing the transmission of Covid-19. By being able to see one another on the zoom gallery, share our thoughts on the chat, and meet in breakout rooms between talks, we were able to be together, but at a distance.
There is an extension of this insight that trailblazing online church practitioners have known for years. That the boundary of the screen can make us be together better. What I mean by this is that the togetherness which contemporary technology allows does not replace or exclude distance. We are still sat in our pajamas at home with our own mugs whilst on zoom with our colleagues. The zoom call did not negate the ‘from-home-ness’ of our conference. Though I’m sure some longed for the thrill of travelling and the escape from day-to-day life that a residential conference can bring. I, for one, found conferencing from home a far better experience.
One delegate commented that we were able to feel closer to one another at an on-site conference, because we were not just bringing ourselves to the conference, but also our homes, offices and family. Through the screen, we were able to catch a glimpse of life beyond the conference; to see where our friends and colleagues live; what they find important; where they feel safe; who they share their life with. If anything, we were about to be more together than we ever, precisely because of our distance from one another.
Alongside being present better, we were also able to make steps towards being together differently. Before the pandemic, the ‘normal’ ways of doing things allowed some people to gather in one geographical location. This – sadly – had become the default for social understandings of togetherness, presence and ‘in-person’. The togetherness that technology mediates breaks these normativities, allowing those who would otherwise be excluded from social gatherings to be included; and included equally. By moving the conference online, gatherings are able to be – implicitly or explicitly – inclusive and accessible to those who cannot get to the conference center, or for whom large gatherings are inaccessible. As a result, the conference was able to create a better standard of togetherness. Of course, accessibility is hardly ever that simple, and by moving the conference online some were excluded too. However, my hope from this conference is that it provided a catalyst for a new approach to organizing conferences. One which strives to continue the accessible togetherness that online conferences enable, whilst finding a way to include those who find these inaccessible.
The last benefit of Modern Church’s online conference that I want to talk about is its coincidental performative aspect. In a conference focusing on hope in the Climate Emergency, it was fortuitous that we were able to provide a conference which was run in an environmentally conscious way. By gathering by zoom, people were not expending fossil fuels to travel, and are using the heating, lighting and Wi-Fi that they would have been using if they were at home anyway. We were able to be together in a way that was appropriate for our conference, and set the tone for our corporate, and individual, response to the climate emergency.
Additionally, we were able to think about the climate emergency in our own environments. Throughout the conference, we were asked to take a walk outside, and to bring a stone with us to a lament for lost species. These simple acts of taking time out from our screens allowed us to bring the conference into our own natural environments, and to being them into the conversation. This was a profound opportunity for this conference, and I hope we had better conversations because of it.
In all of these ways, technology allowed us to gather together in a new way; to unlock new ways of being together. To be together in a way which keeps members safe, protects the environment, includes all and increases the quality of our togetherness. This is not something that we should confine to our annual conference, but depicts a new way of being Modern Church.
Though our experiences over COVID we have learned as a society that togetherness does not have to be temporally or spatially tethered. Nor is it the reserve of the able-bodied. Instead, digitally mediated togetherness can surpass our understandings of togetherness, facilitating gatherings that are inclusive, dynamic, accessible and expansive.
What might it mean for us, as Modern Church, to gather in this way more often? What has an online conference shown us about being a supportive community doing liberal theology? I hope that it has shown to us the fragility of previously rigid social boundaries around togetherness, and that the COVID experience has allowed us to unlock new ways of doing what we do. This is an exciting time, and we would all be remiss to neglect the capabilities that our contemporary technology has – and will continue to – open up for us.
By Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts, Lancaster University.