St Peter’s in Cyber-Space

Julia Porter-Pryce
Oct 3 2015

St Peter’s and digital technology were in the press, following Lord Lloyd Webber’s support for a government-funded scheme to install Wi-Fi in churches, as a way of providing community access to broadband.

One church in London has already embraced technology in an effort to reconnect with young people in its community. St Peter De Beauvoir, Hackney, has allowed a team of researchers from University College, London, to install a number of digital experiments inside the 170-year-old church.

Thus the Vicar, still unconvinced of the need for a mobile phone, found herself interviewed by a BBC’s tech news team.

In a video for the BBC, Dr Andy Hudson Smith, who led the project, described the installation at St Peter’s as ‘harrypotteresque’.


A digital/spiritual experiment

So what was it all about?

St Peter’s wanted to explore “digital empathy”. Our question was: could technology be used to enhance human empathy and understanding?

Project CEDE installed three digital devices in the church: a digital candle stand, a “font of consolation” and an “Advent Window”.

Over 1,000 people (aged two to over ninety), drawn from the congregation and the local community, took part in the experiment last Advent.

We opened St Peter’s to visitors for two hours a day, at different times, with two church-watchers from the congregation/local community. In addition to regular Sunday and midweek worship, visitors attended several seasonal events: a carol service, two carol concerts, a Christmas Fair, a primary-school visit, an over-60s group visit, flower arranging and Christmas decorating.


Showered with prayers

The Freedom Club for over 60s couldn’t wait to test out the digital candle stand. Romee, who runs the club, typed in their requests – mostly for themselves and for their loved ones.

They enjoyed seeing their prayers appear on the floor of the south aisle, and sat for some time watching and praying with the words. Most agreed they liked it just as much as the traditional votive candle stand. They said it was helpful to put prayers into words—although sometimes there are no words.

Some said they would be unable to type because their fingers were too numb or painful. They were keen to take part in more technology workshops.

Caleb, aged two, stood in the middle of the words projected onto the floor in the prayer corner and shouted “circle” – much to the surprise of his grandmother. He was covered in prayers from his hat to his wellies. The idea of a grown-up standing in the circle being showered with prayers brought tears to some people’s eyes.

A new mother poured out thanksgivings for all the new babies in her world.

Watching the reams of prayers washing over the floor was a moving experience– prayers for loved ones, prayers for the needs of the world, prayers of gratitude, prayers of praise. People were often touched to see their own concerns mentioned by others.
The technology clearly provides a helpful structure for prayer.


Prayers in motion

“It’s like a Tibetan prayer wheel in the way it whirls around, sending messages to the element”.

This comment came from a visitor looking at the Font of Consolation. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning a prayer wheel is thought to have the same positive effect as orally reciting prayers. A cylinder containing a paper roll on which Buddhist texts are printed is swung in a circular pattern. People who use these believe that setting the prayer wheel in motion, automatically “releases” the prayer.

Our Font was a bowl of water lined with a material onto which text and images could be projected. In the plinth next to the font was a tablet on which to send prayers and messages. People were surprisingly uninhibited about expressing their concerns.
All the children from Noisy Church excitedly sent messages to the font every week when they joined the grown-ups in church at the end of the Sunday service.

The font evoked surprising expectations of a miraculous/magic response, from some highly educated people. “Will it cure my gamey hip – nothing else works?” mused one. “Will it cure my cat if I dip him in it?” inquired another.


As if the building was speaking

The Advent Window enabled prayers to be projected on a screen in a window at the top of church, looking out over De Beauvoir. The screen shone out with prayers every afternoon and evening throughout December. It was as if the building was speaking.

A pregnant passerby paused to take in “Pray for pregnant women”. An Irish peace campaigner spotted “Pray for Peace,” and punched the air. “Isn’t that lovely – if you read it, you just prayed it!” commented one neighbour. Many people expressed a desire to be able to post a prayer to the window.

The digital candle stand continues to be used on Sunday mornings and during open church hours: Mondays & Thursdays 5-7pm, Tuesdays & Fridays 10am-12noon.

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