Let All Mobile Phones Keep Silence

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The Prayer Book has seen many revisions: in America alone, there is the 1789, 1892, 1928, 1979, and now 2019. The next step, some have suggested, should be to phase out printed copies of the Prayer Book altogether and replace them with an all-digital format that worshippers can access on their smartphones. I suggest we decline this call.

In the face of many arguments for total digitalization, I believe that the Book of Common Prayer must remain primarily just that—a book. In fact, I believe that maintaining a print-based liturgy is essential to sustaining our Anglican identity.

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The Value of Technology

Now, I realize I may sound like an aging and out-of-touch technophobe who is shaking a futile fist at the inevitable future. After all, some church communities, often those without a liturgical tradition, have embraced bookless worship and are freely and fully employing social media, worship apps, and online streaming. It is not uncommon to find the standard church bulletin replaced by a QR code.

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the trend toward the use of technologically “enhanced” worship. And what’s more, when you compare church growth among denominations, we see that the more tech-savvy churches are growing.

Here, we may ask with St. Paul, everything is surely permissible, but is everything beneficial?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we Anglicans ban technology outright, or that there are no benefits to a Prayer Book app, online worship, or sermons that are repurposed as podcasts. In fact, web-based technology has connected people to public worship who, in pre-Internet years, would not have had such access. Therefore, I would not—I repeat, not— throw out the digital baby out with the bathwater.

I am arguing, however, that in public worship that happens in brick-and-mortar churches, we resist uncritical adoption of technological trends—and I believe this is essential to Anglican identity—stick with the printed Prayer Book.

Sacred Space

Anglicans, along with Roman Catholics and Orthodox Churches, have a concept of sacred, or holy space that is uncommon in many Protestant or Evangelical traditions. “Holiness” means to be kept apart from other things.

For this reason, many Anglicans insist that the lectern be used for the Scripture readings alone, or that the sacred vessels of the Eucharist not be repurposed for other tasks. It is also why we continue to burn wax candles rather than replace them with artificial illumination—despite the fact obvious practical benefits of electricity over flame.

The concept of sacred space or items does not carry a magical connotation or deny God’s omnipresence. Indeed, prayer is equally as powerful in the cathedral as it is at the family dinner table. But we continue to value and preserve sacred space as a way to insist that in the helter-skelter pace of our lives, we must keep certain spaces, things, and times reserved for God alone.

The liturgy for morning and evening prayer begins by declaring, “THE LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” Surely the whole earth includes mobile phones?

Can we carve out a corner of the Internet and declare it “holy” in the same way that we consecrate an altar or a Eucharistic vessel? It is possible, but challenging, and in any case, we ought to be wary of doing so without good reason (such as a global pandemic).

Imagine if we permanently moved our Prayer Book to our home screen. There it is—swipe left—between the banking app and Facebook, or next to YouTube, Netflix, or the family calendar.

Do you see what has happened here? We’ve put our worship on the same digital shelf as the GPS or Facebook. It’s just another app, competing with the cacophony of electronic noise that constantly screams for our attention.

DING! On Attention and Presence

And just think of how this might translate to public worship. While trying to meditate on the liturgy, we receive a text during the Invocation, an Instagram notification during the Lessons, and a reminder about our dinner reservations during the Eucharist. Even if we resist the urge to respond (and I have seen that many people do not), we have nevertheless permitted our concentration to be interrupted, fragmenting the worship experience.

The computer scientist, avid blogger, and social media critic Jaron Lanier, observes in his delightful book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now, when cyberspace is kept distinct from actual space, we experience a common humanity:

If you share a space with people who aren’t looking at their smartphones, you are all in that space together. You have a common base of experience…and it’s a big reason why people go to clubs, sports events, and houses of worship.

Anglicans know exactly what Lanier is talking about. We have also held in high regard the benefits of common worship, an entirely unique experience that transcends those mentioned above. In our common worship we are “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven.” We are in fact, worshipping with all of the saints—past present, and even future.

But, Lanier continues,

when everyone is on their phone, you have less of a feeling for what’s going on with them. Their experiences are curated by faraway algorithms.  You and they can’t build unmolested commonality unless their phones are but away.

And if a sports event is cheapened when someone starts to scroll Twitter, imagine what happens to common worship.

The Medium & The Message

Of course, we could put all notifications on hold until after church. But in my view, the greater problem is that we have not disassociated our phones from the worship experience. We are still using the same medium on which we order groceries, respond to work e-mails, and read Tweets. The screen that tells us that the latest season of our favorite television show has dropped, or alerts us to the incessant “breaking news” is the same screen though which ask, for “quiet confidence” and “to be still and know that you are God.”

When we allow the smartphone to become the agent of our worship, we run the risk of allowing the medium to become the message, as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously warned. By this, McLuhan meant that the technology through which a message is communicated—television, newspaper, radio broadcast, or pulpit—plays a significant role in the way it is received and understood. In fact, it changes us.

McLuhan believed that the shift from oral tradition to written, and then printed media, shifted importance from what is audible to what is visual. Thus, we are urged to “get it in writing” and distrust the oral contract. And although certain safeguards have helped scholarship published on the Internet recover somewhat from a reputation for dubiousness, most readers still gravitate toward peer-reviewed print as the standard for authoritative information.

And so, even while we may give little conscious thought to the Prayer Book on the page in contrast to the Prayer Book on the screen, it matters. It places the Prayer Book, which contains the wisdom of Scripture and Tradition, in the same context as screen notifications, text messages, fake news, spam, and interminable social media squabbles. It has allowed the like-bots and the politicians we both support and despise to share a pulpit with Gospels.

The little electronic tyrant in our pockets has claimed enough of our lives. “We become what we behold, “McLuhan prophesied, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

That is why I want to keep the Prayer Book on the printed page.

Published on

January 7, 2023

Author

John Gillespie

John Gillespie, Ph.D. is a Professor of History, English, and Humanities at San Jacinto College in Houston.

View more from John Gillespie

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