Should the churches use more data or less data?

The trouble with data is not what you can do with it – it is what else you can do with it.

There are so many interesting things that one might do with data these days which were simply not possible a few years ago. The question is, how many of them should we attempt to do?

For example, a few years ago we started using dedicated customer (or, I suspect we should say, congregational) relationship management software to manage our congregational roll rather than it being kept on a piece of paper in the office or even keeping it on a spreadsheet. All of a sudden it was possible for those of us who need access to the congregational roll to all be able to access it from wherever we were and know that we were dealing with the most up to date data and we wouldn’t get into a cycle of version control trouble where no-one knew which was the most recent updated list of members of the congregation.

All of a sudden though we could do things with that data that we couldn’t do before and perhaps the most striking thing was that at the push of a button we could have a map which showed where everyone lived. I can print off or save a map of how to get to a house if I am visiting though this is largely superceded by having gps on my phone. What was much more interesting was seeing where the congregation lived as a whole.

As soon as the map came on the screen, I remember saying, “Oh look, our congregation doesn’t cross the Clyde to worship”.

Now there are a few people who do come from the dark far side of the river but by and large, most people worshipping on a Sunday at St Mary’s don’t come from over yonder but live over here.

They shall come from the east and from the west and from the north, but not, in large numbers, from the south.

And that was quite interesting.

But what else could be done with data?

Well, the technology exists to do things that would be acceptable to me and help me in my ministry enormously but which I don’t think would be acceptable to members of the congregation and which might overtread the boundaries of legality.

For example… Most (but not all) people who come to a church would like it to be noticed, perferably by their minister or priest if they should be absent from church for a bit. If you do research on why people leave churches, not being noticed if you are missing is something that does often come up.

But of course, that’s hard to do. Some people are better at it than others, but pretty much no cleric in charge of even a moderate sized congregation can get that right all the time.

Now, new technology exists which would, with the addition of a couple of discrete cameras allow facial recognition technology to track who has been in church from week to week.

How lovely it would be for clergy to have a printout on Sunday afternoon of who was there this morning and a list of who has been missing for the last few weeks. And who could object to that?

Well, the trouble is not what can be done but what else can be done of course and there’s all kinds of people who might not like it to be known where they have been and with whom they have been associating and who would probably not like it to be thought that the clergy of St Mary’s had an accurate database of who has been turning up.

It is complicated too.

Some asylum seekers would be very concerned at being tracked by cameras, whilst others would be delighted that their presence had been recorded, the better to prove that they were integrating into society. And what of that group of the most anxious visitors to St Mary’s – Church of Scotland Ministers Having a Day Off? They, generally speaking are happy to be with us but are sometimes less happy to be seen to be there. (And I did at one point suggest that we build little booths around the walls so that they could worship with us without being seen by Other Members Of Presbytery Also Having A Day Off).

I don’t think that facial recognition technology is going to be acceptable in church any time soon. However, it is worth remembering that we used to have the communion token system whereby communion tokens were distributed to members of the congregation who would bring them when they came to worship. It was partly a way of keeping tabs on who was there and partly a way of keeping people from receiving communion whom others thought should not be receiving.

It was simple technology and acceptable technology.

The current rise in the use of data is far from simple and not always acceptable.

Very recently the General Synod Office in Edinburgh issued some guidance for congregations in Scotland of how we might best keep the new GDPR – General Data Protection Regulations that are coming in next month.

These have been issued far too late and seem to have been devised from the point of view of trying to ensure that clergy and vestries don’t get sued for the way that data is used rather than trying to ensure that people’s data is protected and that the data that the churches keep can be used most effectively in mission.

Oh yes, data use can be mission. I mean it can really be employed for mission, not simply that it is mission in the banal way that everything in any church meeting has to be described as mission in order to get people’s attention). Data can be mission gold.

Just think – all those endless (and ridiculous) times we’ve been told that the best form of mission is to get people to invite their friends to church. Is all that “friendship evangelism” rhetoric not superfluous if we can invite friends of friends of facebook ourselves directly? (Though whether Facebook’s business model survives current scandals is anyone’s guess).

The GDPR materials that we’ve been sent don’t seem to me to be remotely adequate for what we are in the business of and it was very clear that when we discussed them at Vestry recently we would not be able to follow the guidelines from the province anyway. (And I found myself wondering which of our Boards had seen sight of these guidelines – Admin Board or Information and Communication should certainly have had a hand in them and the Mission Board too, I think).

But it is clear that they are difficult for us to implement.

For example, some time ago, the General Synod resolved that clergy should display the contact details for everyone in a congregation for a couple of weeks before the Annual General Meeting.

The new guidelines from the General Synod Office suggest that we now must all go and get everyone in the congregation’s permission to do this.

The truth is, the culture around data has changed completely.

If I made the public publication of everyone’s contact details a condition of being on the roll I’d have no roll left.

If I went round asking the congregation for permission to do so, I’d decimate the formal membership of the congregation instantly. Vestry were very clear that I shouldn’t do anything so stupid. We won’t be publishing everyone’s data and we won’t be asking everyone’s permission to do so. It would harm our mission even to try. And General Synod should revisit this resolution urgently.

Nor will we be asking people’s permission to pass their contact details onto the diocese or the province as we’ve also been recommended to do. We don’t share data in this way. The culture of our times suggests that people would turn away from us if we did do this kind of data sharing. It is against the spirit of the whole GDPR revolution. And so again, we find ourselves having to develop local policies which are legal and fit both with who we are and the culture in which we live.

I fear sudden drops in the recorded membership of the Scottish Episcopal Church if clergy and vestries implement what they have been told to do by the General Synod Office.

There’s also a lack of any kind of conversation about the retention of data.

I’d quite like to see an animation of where the congregation lives on a map of glasgow over a period of 50 years. It would help me know which parts of the city we are reaching and particularly whether we are reaching more affluent or less affluent places. That kind of use of data fits with out ethos. Our church is telling us that we should delete the data that would make it possible.

Data use is tricky. We need to talk about it far more. We need to use it legally with appropriate levels of permission and consent. And we need to use it well.

Should there be missile strikes on Syria?

It has taken me a little while to work out whether or not missile strikes against Syria are justified by the UK at the moment.

It seems to me that there are quite a lot of people who don’t seem to need to take their time and know instinctively that military action either should or should not take place. Certainly those who are against missile strikes seem to be dusting down their “not in my name” T-shirts and getting ready to oppose military action.

If you are a pacifist then the answer is clear. If you are a pacifist then you are going to be opposed to military action come what may.

As it happens, I am not a pacifist. I think that there are situations when military action is justified but I think you’ve got to cross quite a high moral bar before you can justify the use of force.

There’s three tests for me – classic just war theory, intervention for humanitarian purposes and enforcing international law.

Let’s take them one by one.

Just War Theory

There’s plenty to read about Just War Theory. Some people don’t buy it at all but I think the tests are useful.

The idea is that certain conditions must be met before a war might be considered legitimate. Such tests are laid out, for example, in the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

They are:

  1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. there must be serious prospects of success;
  4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

In this case, I think that the first test is partly but not wholly met.

The use of chemical weapons is lasting and grave. However, the public doesn’t have certainty about how they were deployed. If governments have such  proof they have not made it public yet. There may be circumstances in which it is wise for governments to keep secret how they know things but it is the case that in modern times, simply saying “we know best and we are not telling you how we know” is a difficult place for governments to find themselves with their people.

The second test is difficult for me to assess. Are there any alternatives to military action. If military action is just about the use of chemical weapons and not about taking sides in the war then I don’t know whether there are any alternatives. There certainly don’t seem to be many.

The third test is more of a struggle I think. Is there really a serious chance of success? This doesn’t mean a chance that, for example, Western missiles might hit particular targets. The test is whether by hitting such targets, the use of chemical weapons would cease. Given that there were similar strikes by the US some time ago and we now appear to have further use of chemical weapons, I think we have to say that there are serious doubts about whether there is  realistic prospect of success.

The fourth test is perhaps the most grave. It seems to me that the use of force might well produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. We don’t know and we cannot know whether this test can be met in this case.

So, I’d say that Just War Theory offers little support for military intervention at the moment.

Intervention for Humanitarian Purposes

The UK has intervened in some countries in recent years for humanitarian purposes. In some cases it has gone well and in others perhaps less well. The Bosnian and Sierra Leone campaigns were said by many to be classic uses of force for good.

The prospect of missile strikes in Syria does not seem to me to be entirely about intervention for humanitarian purposes. Certainly it would be good to stop chemical weapons being used but far from certain that this can be achieved. I see no plans to be involved in building the peace after the bombing. I see no plans to intervene for anyone’s good.

Humanitarian concerns do not seem to be met by this proposed military intervention.

Enforcing International Law

The use of chemical weapons is illegal. Whoever used them committed a crime and should be brought to justice in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Military intervention that was designed to bring perpetrators to justice could, in my view, be justified.

However, I don’t think that what is currently apparently being considered comes anywhere near this.

My conclusion

So, my conclusion after looking at this proposed action through these moral lenses is that military action cannot be justified at this time.

That is not to say that I think this is easy. I may be wrong. I think that it behoves everyone to support military personnel involved in any action that is taken. And I have much sympathy with the politicians who have decisions to make.

I once wanted to be one of them.

They have a hard job to do with partial information and some information that cannot be shared.

So far as I can see this military action cannot be justified. However, I’m very aware that this is a view based on my limited knowledge of events.

My thoughts are with all who have decisions to make which affect the lives of others.