"THERE should be WiFi in every church," Andrew Lloyd Webber
suggested recently. I wonder whether you think that taking up his
suggestion would be an imaginative way to use 21st-century
technology to propagate the gospel, or yet another example of the
Church's capitulation to secular culture.
To answer that question, perhaps we should return to first
principles, and consider what churches are for. I hope that it is
fairly uncontentious to argue that their purpose is to assist with
the proclamation of the Kingdom, although some people are convinced
that they don't. They see the Church of England's 16,000 churches -
or most of them - as a millstone around our neck: at best, a drain
on precious resources; at worst, themselves the focus of devotion
bordering on aesthetic idolatry (or just plain idolatry).
Although both of the above can be true, I am convinced that the
vast majority of our parish churches, and our cathedrals, assist in
proclaiming the gospel just by being there. Their very existence as
places of worship is significant - literally. The skyline of our
country is dotted with their towers and spires, pointing
heavenwards as witness to the fact that this world is not a system
closed to itself.
The distinguished anthropologist Professor David Harvey writes
that "it is correct to argue that the social preservation of
religion as a major institution within secular societies has been
in part won through the successful creation, protection and
nurturing of symbolic places." If most of our churches were to be
closed, the message this would send to our society would be that
the Christian faith has had its day.
That said, we do need to think about how our churches can best
be used for the Kingdom. It seems to me that we have often
forgotten that both parts of our Lord's summary of the Law have
repercussions for church buildings, as they have for disciples. The
first purpose of churches - as with human beings - is to worship
God. Although we might argue about the style of worship offered,
churches generally do reasonably well on the first Great
Commandment. But the second Great Commandment - to love our
neighbour - when applied to churches should surely mean that they
are vibrant centres of service to the community; and there the
record is not so good.
Historically, our parish churches were at the heart of the
communities in which they stand, in both a human and a geographical
sense. The trouble is that, over the years, a pietism has crept in
that has tended to exclude from them everything but public worship,
while all other activity is transferred to village halls, community
centres, and so on. Far too many churches stay locked, and stand
like mausoleums, except when open for worship, becoming
increasingly marginal to the life of the communities that they are
Nevertheless, the picture is far from hopeless. There is a
rising wave of imaginative adaptations of our church buildings for
community use, which is breathing new life into them.
An increasing number, like St Giles's, Langford, near
Chelmsford, now house a village shop or post office; many, as, for
example, St Stephen's, Redditch, are home to a foodbank. Some, such
as St Mary's, Ashford, in Kent, have been reordered to become
community arts venues as well as places of worship.
The examples are myriad, and should serve as an inspiration. New
and ever more imaginative schemes, are constantly springing up: All
Saints', Murston, Sittingbourne, is the first to host a community
LORD LLOYD-WEBBER, when first making his suggestion in the House
of Lords last June, argued that, with WiFi, "the church becomes the
centre of the community again." It would certainly help; and in
some places it is already happening. The diocese of Norwich is
working on just such a scheme with a network provider, and now has
35 installations. Elsewhere, churches such as St Mary's,
Stannington, near Newcastle, now incorporate an IT online centre,
used by groups of mainly elderly people in the week.
The Government has expressed its determination to improve
high-speed WiFi provision throughout the country, and I hope that
we shall be able to work with it, and with Lord Lloyd-Webber's
Foundation, to make the vision of WiFi in every church a reality.
It would be a small but significant step in unlocking the huge
potential for mission which our churches represent.
This follows the recent government announcement of £15 million
from the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund to make our
churches watertight, safe and comfortable: a vital first step
towards increased community use. Advice on the Roof Repair Fund,
WiFi, and other ways to enhance community use is available from
diocesan buildings officers; and the Cathedrals and Church
Buildings Division (Church Care) at Church House, Westminster,
stands ready to help.
The Very Revd Richard Giles writes that a church building should
"leave the visitor with something to chew on, something to make
them think that perhaps there is something in this Christianity
lark after all". If all our churches properly embodied a commitment
to both the first and second Great Commandments, they could achieve
that, and fulfil their potential in assisting the people of God to
proclaim the Kingdom.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester, and lead bishop on
cathedrals and church buildings.