Before I begin I invite you to read this account of Jesus and the interaction with the Centurion in Capernaum, and to reflect on what God might be telling you about the church, the community that has grown around the Ordinary Office.
“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.’
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go”, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown out- side, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.”
WHAT IS EMERGING AND WHY IT MATTERS
Now in the shock of the digital revolution, the church is struggling to answer for what it means to think about God, to hold authority and power, when every barrier to the Word drawing near has been torn down through the availability of scripture, of Christian community, and insurgent theology in the digital space.
There has been complex and co-evolving relationship between the lives our society now demands and the revolution in digital technology. It is ironic that isolated and disabled users, who are often ‘the least digital savvy’, can find themselves ‘more ‘digitally dependent’ since digital services repesent the only door into our dispersed and networked society.
A NOTE FROM DAVE LUCAS
I am a blind man and I often tell people that my blindness informs my faith. What do I mean by that? Well for almost 20 years I have been a guide dog owner and each morning as I leave home I am hurling myself in to the unknown putting my complete trust into a dog who loves me, to guide me, keep me safe and at the end of the day bring me home.
You will no doubt have many questions about this project, many of which I probably can not provide the answers for at this stage. What I know is that we are being asked to step out in to the unknown and, that the God who loves us so much more than my beloved guide dog, will bring us safely home.
Is it right that the majority of people who live with sensory, physical or emotional disabilities are unable to access meaningful experiences of church? I’d like to invite you to partner in the Sheepfold project to provide a sheltered space for all who are excluded, estranged, or unable to access their local churches.
BRINGING HOME THE ERSTRANGED
Noting the consistent call to privilege the poor, excluded and foreigner throughout scripture, I am calling for you to join me in building a digital space for church that honours that call. Join me in building the Sheepfold, a project where we enable the disabled, isolated, excluded and lonely to be church ‘alone together’.
In the present transformed age of digital communications a conception of church that demands presence in a physical worshiping community is palpably inadequate. We cannot allow philosophically bankrupt definitions of church to continue to drive away daughters and sons who God would call. The Sheepfold Project is a coherent approach to creating adaptable digital space for worship, pastoring, and growth.
I’m continually outraged by the way our churches exclude so many people with disability or difference. The lack of physical access to the traditional model of church may be the most presently obvious. However there are many other barriers: Over or under stimulation; Excessively complex language in speech and liturgy, general lack of support for sensory differences, lack of translation for users of BSL or ‘Makaton’, ill thought through theology around healing and disability
There are some difficult issues around doing church in digital spaces. The reality is that every space poses specific challenges. The issue of the Eucharist and sacraments has often been cited as a reason not to develop in the digital direction. I note that there have been some publicity seeking ‘proposed solutions’ that are bluntly distasteful.I want to explore some challenges later in this letter in more detail. To set your mind at rest, I’m imagining a network of regional cells and celebrations where proper accessibility can be assured, the Eucharist shared and those coming to faith be baptised.
I know the well rehearsed arguments for doing church in the conventional way. Indeed I’ve often rehearsed them myself on many occasions in the past. The Sheepfold Project is a response to the reality that the traditional version of parish or local church is broken for too many people with differences.
MODELLING ACCESSIBLE CHURCH
In theory larger congregations are better able to resource accessibility challenges but very often they cannot be reached on Sundays since travel remains a nightmare for disabled people in the UK, with infrastructure repairs consistently scheduled for Sundays. Further large congregations are often much more stimulating, and for some anxiety provoking. It is not good ministry for attending church to leave people physically and emotionally exhausted on a regular basis.
It is simply an unreasonable demand to place on people who’s health and wellbeing is already fragile. The author Morris West talks of “the church making burdens that are too heavy for men to carry”. It is my belief that this is one of those issues.
This problem won’t get solved without an immediately available church. At the moment, that simply means the problem isn’t getting solved. We cannot stand by any longer while lives are damaged and faith impaired through lack of a place of fellowship: a church. It is time: to change.
The Sheepfold Project offers a way to fix the issues.
A SAFE PLACE
The Sheepfold Project also offers a coherent and missional approach to a problem that’s difficult to speak about. Too many disabled people and others have been so badly damaged by negative attitudes and a lack of understanding by the church of their disabilities, or the needs that result from those issues, that they simply refuse to return. They have become disenfranchised, estranged from the community of the church.
Disabled people are not ’snowflakes’. Indeed many are very much more robust than their abled peers. Access is a matter of righteousness and justice. Further more the church needs to recognise this is a safeguarding issue since many of those estranged are vulnerable adults.
This is especially true for those whose experience has been permanently damaged through abuse, it might be that ‘a safe church’ is a church in a digital space with little or no physical contact. For some the Sheepfold Project may well lead them back to physical church but we see this as a happy byproduct rather than an aim. So the typical model of attach- ing funding and resources to gain new congregants - how- ever passive they may be, can not and should not be applied here, we talk more about this in a later section.
The Sheepfold Project is an opportunity to reimagine church, not merely as a sticking plaster for people with disabilities but also as an innovation for the life of the whole church, a home for the disenfranchised. I believe I am responding to the call of God and I hope and pray that the Sheepfold may be able to offer gifts and ministry back to the wider church.
The technical accessibility of social media and internet services coupled with the community of the disabled online; have made a space often thought of as toxic, a comfortable place. It has proved a place I could share my story, knowing that it would be taken seriously and treated with sensitivity, a place from which I have been able to reach out and minister in the wider church knowing that I had a safe and supportive space to return to. A place where Jesus is sitting watch at the gate.
Exploring social media and digital spaces I have discovered a whole underground network of others in similar situations working, ministering, worshiping and sharing together. A community that describe themselves rather wonderfully as “alone together”.
These hidden communities are often afraid to declare their presence in public for fear of being told: they are not real church, that their message has no authority or official mandate, that, because of the mode of their fellowship, they are in some way less or often told they have no right to be there at all.
A LOYALTY CHALLENGE
At present there are those who in good conscience cannot conceive of a church existing in a digital space; and those, from among the disabled and estranged, who believe that it could, or can. Regrettably, as in many issues of Christian life and practice both sides are demanding exclusive loyalty. We are determined not to choose but to be an organisation committed to the welfare of the church as a whole. The Sheepfold Project offers space where those with an under- standing of both perspectives can be agents for the good of whole church. Dave comments “this situation has often left me frozen, unable to move at all for fear of upsetting one side or the other. In the Sheepfold Project we sense God pushing me forward, into a place of growth and blessing.”
To move forward in to this new version of church will not only require theological and spiritual courage, but there will also be a need for financial resource, and for personnel. It is likely that the needs for personnel will be very different to those for the resourcing of a typical benefice or parish. We argue that these personnel as far as possible should come from within the disabled or estranged communities themselves.
Currently the system for obtaining such resources, is held within the diocesan, parish and deanery systems. Unfortunately the internet isn’t bounded in this way. There is a reasonable expectation that application for funds will demonstrate how they will increase Usual Sunday Attendance, or weekly worshipping figures. There are two critical issues here.
First, the metrics that will be available from The Sheepfold Project will be detailed and robust - but they won’t be the ones that the national church is expecting. This poses a challenge.
Second the Sheepfold Project is specifically orientated to people who can’t access church, or are estranged from it. It poses no threat to any established church. I only want to work in pursuit of blessing.
For the Sheepfold Project to be a success there will need to be a re-imagination of funding formula and awards.
This church is about about providing everyone with access to Jesus, and to the most appropriate form of fellowship, love and support on whatever terms they need them, rather than on the terms we are prepared to give. Surely that’s worth funding and resourcing?
The Sheepfold Project will be fruitful - as all faithful churches are. We will see vocations being explored, and people called to many sorts of service. I want to challenge the national church to be ready to welcome people who are ‘different’ into ministry; people with all kinds of disabilities, sexuality and ethnicity as well as people who carry the scars of previous toxic relationships with church.
WHAT CAME BEFORE
There have been several earlier attempts at various forms of church online. These have had somewhat limited and mixed success. The failures fall into one of a number of categories:
The project was essentially exploratory and there were no coherent plans for the future. Some of these foundered against theological problems
Technological limitations especially those relating to user experience, browsers, bandwidth and the then cost of delivering live video proved overwhelming
A lack of clarity as to what their mission was and who they were there to serve, all too often it was simply as an option to conventional church. These led to complaints that it could not be a “substitute” for conventional church.
Lack of sustainability in production. This is a serious threat to any new project.
The people behind the project had no real dependancy on digital for their own church life.
The Sheepfold Project is a different model of online church to that which has gone before, reaching those outside conventional church. This is not a substitute for anything nor is it necessarily to be thought of as a work of evangelism, although it will certainly do that as all churches should. The immediate primary objective is reaching those who have been left behind, often abandoned and bringing them in to the Sheepfold.
Some participants will return to the hillside (perhaps to their local church) but others will never be able to and find their lifetime home within the project.
Through An Ordinary Office” I have become very aware of the number of Christians who feel estranged from church, disabled people, the BAME and LGBTQ communities, many women and those who feel damaged by their previous involvement with the church. These are they who have not lost their faith but they who don’t feel accommodated for in the usual expression of church. The Sheepfold Project offers a creative approach which may allow for a regathering of those who are estranged, serving to promote the unity of the body of Christ.
THE NEED IS GREAT
The goal is to build a circular relationship with this new type of congregation where we are all leant one on another, where there is no sense of the helper and, helped but a genuine circle of mutuality. We could perhaps be know as the ‘Order the Domino Cans’ since if one falls, we all do.
The Sheepfold will only flourish if there is a real commitment not to throw in the towel but when faced with challenge collectively to get back up and continue striving for the construction of a church where no-one is left behind. I long to see a church space that sends out shepherds into the storm and among the wolves in order to bring back the lost sheep. To bring our sisters and brothers back to heal and to grow strong again in a place where they are welcome for however long they need to worship there.
I am looking to bring together, artists, writers, liturgists, theologians, photographers, bloggers, video makers and musicians who would like to share their work with those on the margins of church.
As most of you reading this will know I am a blind man. I am unable to pick up on visual clues such as body language and facial expression. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe many visually impaired people develop heightened senses in other areas, sound is important, we listen for in- flection and tone much more carefully than others. Atmosphere is important to us, we are drawn to those thin places, the ancient places where people have worshiped through the ages, where there is a tangible sense that prayer has been valid in the space seeping through the wood and the stone.
I grew up with Celtic Christianity, the writings of the Desert Fathers, the writings of the mystics and both the ancient and new monastic movements. These influences have given me memories and hopes, hopes that I have clung to through the many times when I have felt estranged from God.’
In my work to this point I have begun the work to create a digital thin place. Our followers are crying out for more. I believe we are being called to find ways of more fully conveying the sense of a thin place to all who will come. It is important we create atmosphere, a tangible sense of the deeply spiritual.
There is a palpable need for a sheepfold, a safe place in the digital space for those who feel estranged from God, a place where there are resources to keep followers and explorers going through the times when God seems far away. A kind of spiritual safety net to ensure that those who find themselves unable to access local church because of disability, abuse, estrangement, or whatever other reason have an option to continue to connect to church.
In the context of creating such a thin digital space we are determined that it should not be a ‘lesser place’. That means that it must be a place rich with art, photography, theology, liturgy, poetry and prose. These have been critical to keep me, and many other connected to the whole church of God, and convey to us a sense that we can feel the love of the others that are walking with us in spirit.
If you are wondering how we might go about this, or wondering how you might partner with us to realise this necessary project. Let me share some of the things I dream about us doing. These things range from the easy to achieve right through to the longer term intentions.
My role can only ever be as a kind of curator/facilitator who will bring these people and all their talents and skills, all their pain and their prayers together and then watch, nurture and pastor the community in the guiding power of the Spirit.
My experience is of a God who gives grace and resources to those called: but demands we begin the journey, as the first evangelists reaching the Farne had to do in order that a monastery could be founded there.
Every one of these ideas will require collaboration, and a spirit of community.
I invite you to partner with us and to offer every insight that you may have. My prayer is that you will share some of this vision, that you will join with me and the team and together we can expand it and grow it in to what ever it is meant to be.
If you feel you’d like to be part of it, get in touch. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel: 07703 347107
A ROADMAP FOR THE FUTURE
‣ Improve accessibility to Ordinary Office reflections incorporating BSL signing. Consider progressing to the inclu- sion of Augmented Reality features where they might offer real spiritual benefit
‣ Encourage pilgrimage as a theological theme in all our material, and work to encourage mutual dependence.
‣ Forge links with as many marginalised groups as wish to engage with us. In addition to various parts of the disabled community, we would consider youth organisations, especially those primarily engaged in detached work, the LGBTQ community, the BAME community, Estates ministry, the feminist theology movement and the Traveling community to name just a few.
‣ Offer consultancy with experts by experience for established churches needing or wishing to improve their accessibility. Encourage donation and a continuing relation- ship with the Sheepfold Project
‣ Build relations with sponsors, partners and mission agency with a view to moving towards self sustaining funding, and learning about viable funding models.
‣ Provide 24/1 cover on a Sunday so that social media direct messages and engagement managed in real time from 23:59 on Saturday until 00:01 on Monday in order to amplify the sense of community, and the possibility of chance engagement in ‘church.
‣ Develop a liturgy for the dark hours, that would be avail- able to help comfort and encourage those whose sleep is disturbed or whose minds are plagued by demons.
‣ Establish a sheepfold application, translate An Ordinary Office to that broader application, with the objective of in- creasing stability, capacity, and increasing immersive features without compromising accessibility for anyone.
‣ We need to build a Sheepfold website that uses all our skills to try to create an immersive experience that at- tempts to create that virtual thin place. A place that is as accessible as technology and talent will allow, a place of artistic beauty, a place with a tangibly thin atmosphere.
‣ Develop 12/7 staffing of engagement channels, and develop a listening service.
‣ Provide secure and encrypted methods for contact for people who need this service.
‣ Signpost prominently safety based, criminal justice information, and theological material relating to abuse.
‣ Develop a robust safeguarding pathway with a link into the NST of the Church of England, and other national teams as necessary.
Sheepfold on Wheels: Develop a deployable asset, prob- ably based in a large vehicle like a retired mobile library (which tend already to have good physical access) or a second hand exhibition trailer (such as are used at exhibitions and in motorsports) which can take the ‘Sheepfold Project on the road’
Establish regional cell groups
Host event based services patterning with broadcasters (Mind the Gap at Watford Gap) or developing a live stream of a host service (perhaps where the cell group is meeting).
Host a summer or Easter festival in an accessible venue, probably partnering with an existing Christian festival provider.
To work with cathedrals and England’s Greater Parish Churches group to incorporate world leading accessibility features into new build projects and redevelopments in order to create spaces which can be used for co-production of events, training and worship with The Sheepfold Project.
To have a building or buildings of our own, a place of study for disabled people looking to enter ministry, a place to hold retreats and training. A church building that can act as a model of what can be done to make a church build- ing as accessible as possible, a place that demonstrates what best practise looks like. A place that ordinary parish- es may seek to aspire to.