I have written here a few times under the auspices of the title #digidisciple, a label that I have perhaps accepted with less thought than was perhaps warranted. I identify myself quickly as within that nomenclature and did so at the start of this project, but have not done it the credit of deeper thought or of asking the simple question: ‘why’?
In this, the octave of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, I have pondered how history will class this considerable era. The regnant name of previous monarchs have become synonymous with the historical era, and with those periods of time so labelled, a sense of a common characteristic. The Victorian period, that of Queen Victoria, became synonymous with great industrial advances. The Georgian era, preceding the Victorian, was a time regarded as significant for social reform. The first Elizabethan period was one of significant religious upheaval as well as other major world developments. What will the second Elizabethan era conjure in the minds of those in the distant future?
I am a child of the second Elizabethan period. I was educated in systems enhanced during that same time, my health attended to by institutions that found their genesis during that same time, my personal wealth created in a commercial environment that flourished under the monarch of the period, and overseen by establishments that enjoyed their greatest and lowest days in the sixty or more years of the Second Elizabethan. Perhaps most significantly, I express myself outwardly by means invented during that time – means that will, I believe, characterise the entire period.
The Second Elizabethan era will be regarded as the great technological age. During the reign of our monarch, the world discovered, harnessed and exploited the silicon chip, lived beyond is first substantial challenge at the turn of the millennium, and it now substantially infra-structured by its abilities. The society in which I live, mindful that there are still communities that can claim a different position, is now thoroughly dependent upon the technology that, in the early 50s didn’t exist. My life, work and much of my personal expression is formed within this technology that will characterise our present age.
Discipleship under God is, inevitably, affected by the age in which the disciple lives. More bible-centric expressions of Christianity were not possible before the advances that followed the King James Bible, and the greater hymnodies largely impossible before more people read music and more churches had aspirated three-manual organs! The charismatic movement enjoys many of the fruits of the technological age and so their worship is increasingly synonymous with the equipment of the age. The scruples of the age were also in direct relationship with the Christian experience of the day, with the moral fibre of the Victorian period being a helpful example. Even the more fundamental changes in social and gender emancipation are reflected in the faith expression of a given era, with the drive for gender equality being a significant initiative in the present day. I could only guess, but would imagine that the mere notion of female priests, let alone bishops, might have seemed simply preposterous before the Suffragettes. The age and the faith of the age are, then, inexorably linked. That is no less true today and for me, now.
If the Second Elizabethan age is the great age of Technological Advance, then discipleship will inevitably absorb some of that. It is interesting, that said, that most expressions of Christianity are quite detached from technology where it exceeds an electronic organ. The majority of English churches vary little from how they may have looked, felt and practiced a century earlier. There is, however, a growing body of those for whom technology is a means to express faith – and some of those who would only do so by those means. Whilst I am not of the latter disposition, my understanding of myself as a “digital disciple” is deeply ingrained within me, and it’s expression a lively source of strength. As a public practitioner of Christian faith, I am bound by many conventions. As a “digital disciple” I enjoy a lightly enhanced freedom.
There is a danger for “digital disciples” however. The invention of the telephone didn’t create a generation of telephone churches. The years following the printing of the Penny Black didn’t bring to birth a mail-order church. People still gathered as a single body, to worship together. The danger for the present pioneer disciple is that technology is so much more than telephone or postal system – it allows proximity from a considerable distance. I can see, speak and interact with people, in real time – people who live at the furthest reaches of the planet from my own. While this is a great advance, it is not teleportation as that proximity is in many ways illusory.
Digital discipleship is, and no less for me personally, a very new direction in the life of Christians. New communication brings with it new rules of engagement, new protocols and it is likely that many have even yet not been written or even considered. We are, by necessity maybe, still bound to words on a little digital screen. This newness doesn’t diminish it’s inevitability or it’s great potential, however. While the Queen will give her name to an age where so much of this became possible, it is for us to determine why and how it should be.