"Only Connect..." wrote E. M. Forster as the opening to Howards End, his critique of a London beset by the automobile and other machines, changing at an enormous pace, a city of "anger and telegrams". It was good advice. "If only I could connect..." we still cry; no telegrams now, but spinning blogs like cotton candy, conferences like desperate arachnids, trying to find some pathway, some connection, some del.icio.us tag to hold with people as they speed by our screens at 10Mbps...
Therein lies the irony of Forster's epigraph, for as technology roared us into urbanity with such speed, and perhaps ripped apart some vital connections between us in doing so, it is now coming full circle to aid us in our interconnection.
However, it is my belief that while we need to welcome the connecting possibilities that technology offers, we need to do so with cautious arms. We must be careful to ensure that this new connectivity we are being sold is a proper replacement for the one taken from us, and be mindful of those who are threatened by its democratising potential. More importantly, we must reflect upon the theological roots of our togetherness.
In yesterday's paper an article asked us to think about the horrors of a country in which women had only just been allowed the vote and had few property rights, homosexuality was forbidden in law and the state religion, most people attended worship, but did so because of social pressures, women were required to cover up when in public and those over 30 were pressured to wear all black. Iran? Afghanistan? No. England in the early 1900s. The point? The challenge of social change was an internal one for England and could thus happen at an appropriate pace. For countries facing these same changes now, the pressures are, because of the globally networked world we live in, more external and thus higher. And with all high pressure situations, things can get ugly and violent when the pace of change outstrips that of the pace of understanding of it... A case of Toffler's 'future shock'. The changes are all just and right, of course, but they also require some pastoral care in their implementation. And this can take time.
So as we consider our connectedness I want firstly to point out that being connected can sometimes open us up to currents of change that are quite threatening. For some, the response to this is isolationism - to cut themselves off from the reality of the shifting world. I'm sure in our own Emerging Church situation we can all think of examples of people like this, and, as we press ahead with this globally connected network of people thinking forward in faith, we must also hold a hand back and make sure that people are being properly pastored in these changes.
Secondly, there will be those who find this emerging network a huge threat to their positions of authority and influence. Their fear is not of change per se, but the effects that that change will have on their positions, and thus their meaning and self-worth. These people too must be pastored and loved into climbing down from pedestals and re-evaluating how their gifts can be used.
And thirdly, there will be those who connect to this network, blog to high heaven and attend every conference, but are still lacking a ‘belonging’ somewhere. I am convinced that in a globally emerging movement, with pockets of change occurring around the (western?) world, people need to be connected both to a virtual (to gain the global perspective and encouragement) network and physical (to experience the day-to-day emotional support and belonging) network. With only the virtual, there will be little actual change seen on the ground. With only the physical, that change risks stagnation and having to suffer the same mistakes and blind-alleys that others are sharing on-line.
So, in this world of 'anger and telegrams', more lately of ‘anxiety and blogs’, it is vital that we mould the emerging network of faith-bloggers and other conversations carefully such that:
- People feel challenged, but not attacked
- People are pastored into new ways of living out their gifts
- People are encouraged to truly belong somewhere, not just be ‘connected’.
It's my hunch that the reason most people go to church is not because of a theological foundation of belief, but because of a emotional need to connect and belong. And I also don't believe that this is wrong. Our message should be one of 'God says you belong', and if they then work out the theology of why they belong, that's great. But if they don't, they should still be allowed to be loved and enjoy belonging.
Blogs, and other on-line connections, are wonderful ways to connect, but won’t necessarily bring belonging. The beauty of the Emerging network is that it is part of the vanguard of this connectivity movement, and is also part of that network of true belonging, the Church. As Forster knew, people the world over are crying out to belong. And Paul knew it too, which is why he didn’t say that we were the ‘machine of Christ’, but instead wrote those 6 words that enfold us in belonging, that blow our synapses with connectivity, that inspire our networks with hope, that fill our critiques with love and should be filling our meetings with the urban masses fed up with the individualism, the iGod of me me me and the sterile hermetically sealed plastic communities behind gated drives... “You are the Body of Christ.”
As our thoughts and opinions buzz around the blogal village, as news and views from very strange and different places are piped into our consciousness, as we log off and turn to our neighbours, it’s this truth that we must hold dearest.