Overseas Links – some questions

Lots of churches have overseas links. Individual churches, dioceses, even whole provinces of the Anglican Communion often have links to places far afield. They are sometimes successful, sometimes not. But they are often built on the curious last century notions that relationship depends upon physical contact and that travel is easier than communication.

Of course, the world has changed.

So what would international links between churches look like if we took as our starting point the modern world with all its potential and did not simply base our expectations on Victorian (colonial?) ideas of partnership?

Firstly, I don’t think it is about doing it all online and never travelling. It is probably both/and rather than either/or. (Isn’t it always in our lovely postmodern world?)

Secondly, I think we might expect relationships to be shorter in length rather than longer. What if we decided to twin our diocese to another for a short period – Lent, say. And what if we got the geeky ones to do it by arranging for skype video or google hangouts. How about a small group from one church meeting with a small group from another church on the other side of the world for a Lent study group rather than the dreary weariness that can characterise such groups if we keep doing them the same way with the people from round the corner every year? Or what if clergy from matched churches just got together once a week for an hour’s coffee and a chat – boiling the water thousands of miles apart but sitting down to chat through what their week was like, peer to peer, distance no object? Bible study, coaching, chat and gossip are all possible. They feed off one another anyway.

Thirdly, I’ve been learning recently not to underestimate time differences when doing real-time stuff in the interconnected world we now live in. However, I’ve also been learning not to be defeated by it.

Fourthly, would doing this kind of thing disenfranchise those who don’t do internet stuff? Oh yes, but then the need to travel to do linking work used to disenfranchise far more people who couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t travel or indeed, those who just couldn’t raise the money to go.

Finally, it is worth asking the question whether this kind of linking would be better organised formally in a structured way or simply to just let it happen in a kind of free for all environment? (And is it either/or or both/and, once again).

It’s the Internet, stupid…

Quick quiz question to begin the day:

Which is greater – the number of people who have visited this blog this year, or the number of people who are present in the Scottish Episcopal Church on a typical (ie the week before Advent when the figures are counted) Sunday?

It is an unfair question in a number of ways because it compares one day with a whole year and doesn’t measure engagement or committment. However it is a question that ought to make us sit up and take notice all the same. The answer is of course that this blog has had considerably more visitors this year than turn up at Episcopal churches on any normal Sunday.

I pose this teaser as a way into saying something about Christmas attendance at St Mary’s. There’s no getting away from the fact that we’ve had a busy Christmas. Numbers were significantly up at all services, the new service we put on for children on Christmas Eve was a runaway success and collections were double (yes, you heard me) what they were last year.

Now, there are some reasons for this. Last year we had a lot of snow, so that makes comparison difficult. (Though Christmas Eve was horribly wild this year too). Then there is the fact that we’ve a new member of staff this year and increasing numbers was the very reason we took him on.

However, one thing niggled away at me through Christmas. How did those coming to St Mary’s know about the services? After all, we changed the timetable quite radically this year – the Carol Service was on a Thursday evening instead of the Sunday before Christmas. How did the people know when to come? The new service for children and accompanying adults was a success and drew in people whom we’d never clapped eyes on. Who were they and why did they come?

There seems to me to be two forces at work. Word of mouth is one. (And one which I don’t underestimate). The influence of the internet is the other. (And most people I know considerably underestimate that).

The truth is, we don’t do much publicity these days that is not on line. We used to advertise in the Herald, but that form of communication was left by the wayside long since.

I was particularly struck this year by people whom I’d not met before saying that they came because they couldn’t find a church to go to near them. These were people from posh South Side (stop sniggering those of you in the West End, I’m being serious), Kelvinside and Anniesland. Particular comment was made about the fact that churches in other parts of the city did not appear to have Christmas services and that there was nothing for children.

I was so surprised about this that I started checking out what other Episcopal churches were up to.

It seems to me that we have a problem. According to the websites of quite a lot of our churches, there was nothing on at Christmas at all. Moreover, the Diocesan Website seemed to give out a message that the diocese was closed.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to help congregations engage online in easier ways. It seems to me that the mission of the church depends on it.

However, I am a lone voice whom no-one takes any notice of. (Well, except the tens of thousands of visitors this site gets).

There is almost no mention of online engagement in either the Provincial or the Diocesan mission planning processes. Nor in most of the mission literature I read.

If that continues to represent the reality in congregations, and they simply don’t engage with the way the world communicates then I draw a rather obvious and bleak conclusion.

And you all know what it is.