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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Twitter as a bridge to the contemplative

Twitter as a Bridge to the Contemplative

A short paper presented on September 4th 2014, at St John's College, Durham during Mystical Theology: Renewing the Contemplative Tradition, a three-day conference exploring the tradition of mystical theology from contemporary academic and practitioner perspectives. Organised by Durham University (Project for Spirituality, Theology and Health, and the Centre for Catholic Studies) in collaboration with St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

The following is a presentation which includes extracts from research, some illustrative Tweets and some additional notes. The text of the paper is posted below, together with a link to download the text as a Word doc. (The asterisks are merely reminders to the author to click the presentation to advance it!)

Link to Prezi presentation for download

Link to Word doc of paper

Twitter as a bridge to the contemplative

reflections based on Ripon Cathedral’s online Twitter ministry
Nick Morgan, August 2014 

Ripon Cathedral has developed a distinctive online presence using social media over the past couple of years: on Facebook and Twitter in particular.  This is a preliminary paper which takes as its starting point some aspects of the experience of the Cathedral’s use of Twitter and attempts to address how, if at all, this has helped people to re-engage with the contemplative.

The obvious thing to acknowledge right at the start is that Twitter is, by its very nature, not a contemplative medium. Socially speaking, it is often the equivalent of being in a rather noisy pub.  For the uninitiated, in brief, this is how it works:

A Twitter user will write a message of up to 140 characters in length. Other Twitter users who follow that Twitter account may see that message appear in their Twitter feed. I say “may” because it will be one message among an often very busy stream of messages, so followers may not see a particular Tweet at all. There is a large degree of serendipity involved in which messages you read. People don’t, as a rule, scroll down through the hundreds of Tweets which come into their Twitter feed throughout the day – it is generally used casually. In the pub analogy, this is akin to popping into the part of the pub where people you have chosen to follow hang out and overhearing what they are saying at a particular moment in time. And, just as you might in the pub, you can reply to them and end up in a conversation. If you like what they say, you might repeat what they say yourself and rebroadcast it to those around you – this is called ReTweeting.  You might want the person to know you like what they say, or it might be something you want to think about later so you can mark it with a star – this is called favouriting a Tweet. So, from this you can see that the medium is untidy, noisy and transitory – because most Tweets do not get engaged with by others.   Not the most promising medium in which to engage with the contemplative, you might think. Yet it is exactly because Twitter mirrors the disarray of a fallen world, and is full of people struggling to engage meaningfully with others amid the noise, that a still, small voice, prayerfully introduced, can be an instrument of a sense of mystery and ‘the other’.

Case study *
Ripon Cathedral every night at around 11pm sends a single Tweet which is an excerpt from the Compline service. It carries the hashtag #compline (a hashtag is a form of indexing on Twitter, so people can search for Tweets which include a specific hashtag to read what users worldwide are Tweeting on that subject). Over the last two years, these Tweets have proven to be the most popular and engaged-with Tweets * sent by Ripon Cathedral,(examples) * * so research was undertaken to see how Twitter users themselves perceive these Tweets, and how they respond to them.

Over a single week in August 2014, followers of Ripon Cathedral on Twitter were invited to participate in a survey. * There were 39 respondents, only 69% of whom self-identified as Christians, and 46% were regular churchgoers. We recruited respondents using Twitter itself, tweeting requests to participate at different times of day over a 6 day period. We also posted a link to the survey on the Ripon Cathedral Facebook page.

* We asked people what kinds of material they remembered seeing among Ripon Cathedral’s Tweets. By far the most memorable was our prayerful material such as the #Compline tweets. Memory is an important marker of the impact the material has. Whether people can remember specific Tweets which are prayerful, or specific #Compline Tweets, these have left an impression on them. Bearing in mind that reading a specific Tweet has an element of chance and serendipity about it, and the Compline tweets are only posted once per day, this is a remarkably high figure: 36 out of 39 respondents.

More interesting was the response when we asked how they felt about these different kinds of Tweets. * The most markedly positive response was to the prayerful tweets

So, we see that prayerful material, exemplified by these #Compline tweets, has an impact on memory, and is largely received positively. Digging a little deeper, we asked about how people had specifically responded to these prayerful tweets, and the response indicates a contemplative theme. * People could choose as many of these responses as they wanted:

Note the most popular responses: almost ¾ of respondents paused to reflect. Around half had an emotional response or smiled as a result of reading a compline tweet. ¼ of them prayed, and a few reported some kind of spiritual experience. Note that nobody said it prompted them to visit a church, and only one person read the Bible as a result. These results point to a response which is often deeply personal and immediate. * In addition to knowing that #compline tweets are memorable and elicit a positive internal response, we see in the variety of specific responses, there is a sense of the whole self being engaged: a physical smile, emotions, prayer, and the significance of pausing to reflect in the midst of the often noisy, argumentative and chaotic medium of Twitter. Some kind of personal sacred space is possible to imagine being created here, engaging not at the level of the typed words alone.

In terms of online presence, Ripon Cathedral on Twitter seeks to embody a sense of abiding: conforming to Christ’s life and living from God into the world. The Cathedral’s online interactions with people provide an opportunity for them to encounter Jesus and therefore the use of the Twitter account has to be seen as an exercise in Incarnational ministry.  The mutual nature of abiding also means that @RiponCathedral needs actively to see and seek Christ in others. The Benedictine concept of hospitality (on which Ripon Cathedral itself was originally founded) has a strong tradition of seeing Christ in guest as well as host.  * The mutual indwelling of the Godhead (Perichoresis)  described in John 14 is reflected in this sense of abiding with the world. The presence of divine love in the disciples is to mirror the mutual indwelling of the Trinity which, as John of Damascus puts it, is “ without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other.”  We are called to abide with the world as God abides with and in us; yet, at the same time,*  to follow Christ means we have nowhere in the world to lay our heads.  Online spaces, if anything, make this easier to deal with: in the constantly shifting environment of Twitter, we are called to be God’s presence among others there, abiding as a divine presence alongside others in a dynamic environment. This also resonates with the Old Testament sense of God’s Shechinah presence which both moves and can be fixed: the tent and the temple.  Ripon Cathedral’s Twitter presence seeks to extend its role as a sacred space beyond its physical confines, to take God’s presence online in a moveable tent model.

However, postcolonial theologians such as Tod Swanson have questioned whether the holiness of sacred places can ever extend beyond their physical space. Swanson, in his exploration on Johannine Christianity and the collapse of ethnic territory concludes that “the meaning of sacred places cannot really be extracted and captured in a text or a photograph or a recording. Photographs and recordings taken from holy places and arranged into the morphological patterns of the imagination cannot really capture the meaning of a place. In fact, they will only make pilgrims feel the absence of the place more acutely. And therefore the best comparisons will happen when the pictures and the texts are recognized for what they are: the comparative signs of the absence of irreplaceable places.”   While Swanson has in mind the colonial appropriation of sacred places and artefacts, the same principle applies to the question of whether sacred spaces can exist online. If Swanson is correct, then any online presentation of Ripon Cathedral is merely a sign of its absence to the reader of its Tweets.

I take a different view to Swanson. There is of course a long history of various media being used to encourage contemplative spirituality.  I’m thinking of media such as the architecture of sacred spaces, devotional and mystical writings, or Gregorian chant. Twitter as a medium to encourage the contemplative lies in a slightly different tradition of the Immanence of God being found among the ordinary, sometimes in essentially secular media. Think about shrines at a roadside, encounters with people whose simple acts of gentleness or kindness remind us of divine love, or even examples in opera, where the sacred or mystical is used for dramatic effect in a secular storyline: Massenet’s use of an offstage children’s chorus in his opera Werther as a dramatic foil to Werther’s death in the foreground, for instance.  This kind of effect is part of what we see in the response to prayerful Tweets I believe: an emotional, personal response carries a spiritual weight for many in the audience.  A variety of forms of expression – both secular and sacred in their nature - have mediated between native secular cultures and sacred inner spaces of contemplation for a very long time.

I contend that the cultural resonance of the Cathedral as ‘sacred space’ is likely to be a factor in the response of people to the Compline tweets and it would therefore be interesting to undertake further research, comparing the response to individuals who Tweeted identical Compline material to @RiponCathedral, to see whether the resonance of a sacred space (i.e. the Cathedral) was indeed a decisive factor in their responses. However, the remainder of this paper works on the assumption that this resonance does exist and puts forward the beginnings of an explanation of how we might encourage the exploration of sacred spaces online. What follows is my own personal take on this which, I hope, will encourage further explorations.

Ripon Cathedral, very visibly an ancient place of Christian worship in its profile picture, creates on Twitter a cultural resonance beyond those who self-identify as Christians.  Only 69% of respondents to our survey identified themselves as Christians, yet the response from those who did not identify themselves as such was not significantly different.  I suspect that part of the success of Ripon Cathedral’s Compline tweets stems from the emotional response results: a Cathedral is recognised and understood culturally as a sacred space.   Clearly place and space are important in themselves as bridges to the contemplative, and locations which are dedicated places of prayer, such as monastic foundations and Cathedrals cannot be simply translated into exact equivalents online. We need to recognise that something different is happening in online spaces:  the cultural, emotional and spiritual resonances of a physical sacred space seem to work at a personal level in drawing people into creating some kind of personal sacred space.  The mystical, emotional and contemplative response of some of those who follow Ripon Cathedral on Twitter can be understood in terms of them finding an internal sacred space in which they encounter God’s abiding presence.

So, what are people doing when they respond to the Compline tweets of Ripon Cathedral? Brief compline tweets do not throw intellectual meat for people to grapple with. Some of the imagery does create external imagery to be engaged with, e.g. “He shall cover you with his wings and you shall be safe under his feathers; his faithfulness shall be your shield and buckler”. * However, most of the tweets abstracted from the full liturgy offer at the very least some resonance with the act of Night Prayer, or acknowledge, or invoke God’s presence: “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us”, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. For you have redeemed me, Lord God of truth. I commend my spirit”. Because the text is so abstracted from the full liturgy of Night Prayer, but presented with resonance of the contemplative embodied by a Cathedral, for some people, there is the possibility of a sense of Immanence amid the noise of Twitter: being suddenly aware that we are, indeed, immersed in the Divine, and in our emotional, prayerful, or spiritually-aware responses, we are prompted to engage with the Divine in deeply personal ways. There is a tapping into awareness of God, and of the deeper self.

In terms of the wider picture on Twitter, is there a sense of sacred space being created in which the mystical and the contemplative might find expression? Members of the Body of Christ are engaging with each other and with the wider world online in a variety of ways. There is some sense of Christians “gathering” online which increasingly is crossing traditional boundaries of denomination and churchmanship which is very encouraging.  There is an opportunity online to call people out of their native cultures, and out of whatever conversational cultures they are engaging in on Twitter, and to call them into encounters with God.  There is sending out and drawing in going on online: the Church engaging in mainstream culture, but also presenting the Christian counter-culture which God calls people into: the Body of Christ which has the worship of God as its missional focus.  This is not a Fresh Expression of Church – it is simply a calling into the Church: into focus on God and worship. This is why I bring the wider picture in: because there is scope in online interactions, in our online presence, to put worship and mystical encounter at the heart of Christian mission as we express it in these online spaces.  We do this by abiding with people, perhaps also by overt sharing of faith and having deep discussions, but also by encouraging reflective and contemplative encounters with “the other”.  As we have seen in the case of the Ripon Cathedral #Compline Tweets, it is possible to present a window into a sacred space, a space in which the contemplative, the meditative and the mystical can be engaged with, even in an often profane and argumentative medium such as Twitter. In itself, this is worship: a focus on God which is beyond the typed text, a focus expressed in prayer, perhaps, but also in a moment of reflection, or in an emotional response such as a smile, or in embodying love in ones response to others, in the way we abide online.

The following section was omitted from the presentation on September 4th for reasons of time:
These moments of worship can happen on Twitter. I have a personal example of this which does not involve Ripon Cathedral, but which, as you will see, shows a different example of creating sacred space online. During the Greenbelt Festival of 2013, a number of people who were not attending the Festival used the hashtag #notGB40 (mirroring the official festival hashtag of #gb40). These people were drawn from many different denominations and traditions, and they were brought together simply by being non-attendees of a Festival. The #notgb40 hashtag was mainly used for jokes and lighthearted conversation through the weekend and there was a sense of a group of people who were Christians of very disparate kinds culturally, but thrown together in an apparently random way through following the #notgb40 hashtag. However, on the Saturday night, quite late, a Compline service was suggested on the #notgb40 hashtag . There was a lot of interest, and I asked if someone would share the leading of it with me. A curate in the south of England volunteered. I chose a Northumbrian Compline which was available online and we arranged that we would Tweet the liturgy antiphonally. That is to say, one of us would Tweet a sentence, then the other would. The version of compline we used had short sentences which lent themselves to this with minimal additional editing to make it fit the medium of Twitter. We announced that the service was to begin. The #notGB40 hashtag stream went silent except for the two of us. There were long pauses between the Tweets as we carefully cut and pasted the next sentence each time. Silence reigned in these pauses. When we reached the prayer section of the service, we asked people to tweet names of people or places they wished to pray for. The response showed us that dozens of people were following this service of Compline. At the end, a priest among the group pronounced the blessing and silence followed, as if we were departing in silence as per the rubric. Later in the weekend, many said this had been a special time of worship for them. The limitations of the medium had created a very distinctive and contemplative act, mainly due to the long pauses between sentences.  The Cathedral resonance was obviously not present when this happened. This was individuals leading an experimental act of worship. However, there was a sense of a gathered worshipping community which itself was the sacred space. We felt God among us as we shared liturgy, as we shared long pauses between Tweets, as we experienced togetherness borne of focus on God.  What we had shared was worship: experiencing the presence of God among us as the gathered people of God and finding ourselves focussed entirely on God.

It is clear to me that there is scope to seek sacred spaces online. It relies on us as the Body of Christ to place ourselves there, abide with people by giving of ourselves to them, and to actively invite people to worship. At its heart, that is what we are doing when we Tweet these excerpts from Compline.  Through our Twitter ministry at Ripon Cathedral, we hope, by the grace of God, to challenge people to pause amid the noise of online spaces; and in that pause, to reflect, to pray, to invite God to abide with them and to glimpse the unknown in an unexpectedly sacred space.

Select Bibliography
Avis, P. Reshaping Ecumenical Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2010) p.62-65
trans. Barry, P. Saint Benedict’s Rule (Ampleforth: Ampleforth Abbey Press, 1997)
Davison, A.  and Milbank, A. For the Parish: a critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM Press, 2010)
Inge, J. A Christian Theology of Place (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003)
Quash, B. Abiding: the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2013 (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)
See especially p151-160
Swanson, T.D. To Prepare a Place: Johannine Christianity and the Collapse of Ethnic Territory, from Shomanah, M.W.D. &  Staley, J.  John and Postcolonialism: Travel, Space, and Power (London: Bloomsbury, 2002) p.31

Online resources and further reading
An overview of Twitter (note that Twitter tweaks the way it operates occasionally so this is not entirely up to date, but remains a useful series of primers for the uninitiated:
Taylor, B.  http://bryonytaylor.com/twitterguide/
The DigiDisciple project at St John’s, Durham:
Articles posted under the #DigiDisciple category:  http://bigbible.org.uk/category/digidiscipleship/
A brief overview of what a #DigiDisciple is: http://bigbible.org.uk/digidisciple/

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