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Silent witnesses, pointing heavenwards

16 January 2015

WiFi networks can enable church buildings to testify to the Kingdom in the community, writes John Inge


Interfaith network? The minaret of Hagia Sofia behind a WiFi hotspot sign in Istabul

Interfaith network? The minaret of Hagia Sofia behind a WiFi hotspot sign in Istabul

"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 to serve.

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 bank.

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.


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