A. We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee establishes a series of online conversations towards discerning Reformed theological perspectives within the digital age.

Reformed Theology for the digital age

There are particular traditions and insights that we would want to bring as a Reformed church to any discussion of digital discipleship. Some of the key issues for us could well include:

  • fostering fruitful inclusion across generations and contexts given that access to the digital world is not universal, or universally affirmed;
  • relating our DNA of conciliar governance to a digital world of meetings and encounters;
  • exploring how the value for face-to-face encounter in mission and ministry connects with a digital realm of encounters;
  • examining how our theological language relates to the online multiplicity of language and expression.

Whilst we have wondered about generating a physical gathering, hosted through an RCL, as a means of exploring such matters, a more experimental and relevant format has commended itself to us. 

We recommend that an online conversation around the theology of digital discipleship be generated. A number of URC people are already active online in theological and ecclesiological conversation. A process that began with a few open questions could then be allowed to run for a suitable period (of perhaps a few months). It would require some initial input and advertising but would be open to as wide a range of voices and perspectives as possible. A degree of moderation would be required, along with a sense of suitable ground rules. There might well need to be further questions to keep the discussion moving forward. We believe this could be a fruitful way to engage with the 20-40 age group who, through their task group, have invited the Education and Learning Committee to engage with their own work. There could be advocacy of this conversation through Reform, at Synods, and via various websites and suitable networks. We have begun to identify likely members of this group.

After a given time someone identified by Education & Learning could then draw together any key themes that have merged which could then inform further work and thinking.

B. We recommend that the Education & Learning Committee actively engages with the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology as a primary ecumenical partner for exploring the theology and practice of the digital age.

The CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology at St. John’s College, Durham is a key centre of excellence for this entire discussion with a growing range of resources, publications and links. They are a research project linked to the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

CODEC focuses upon the following areas of exploration:

  • Theology in a Digital Age – including Biblical literacy; the impact of digital transformation on society, culture and communication; theological issues related to religious identity online; the development of a North European Collaboratory for Digital Theology
  • Preaching & Communication in a Digital Age – homiletics; communication of ideas; theology of entertainment; and the place of imagination in the life of faith
  • Discipleship in a Digital Age – the continued BigBible web project; issues of growth and discipleship within religious communities and their use of social media; being human in a digital age
  • Digital Resources – providing first class examples of digital artefacts for use in teaching, training and discipleship through the Common Awards process [of which Westminster College is part] and for wider distribution within theological training establishments in the UK and beyond.

Clearly CODEC takes us to the heart of much that we are interested in. Advocating CODEC’s developing work widely across the URC would be invaluable. CODEC have expressed keen interest in engaging with the United Reformed Church (CODEC and the Windermere Centre have a pre-existing relationship through the Premier Digital Conference). CODEC already have links with the Methodist Church and the Church of England, and are excited at the prospect of developing the relationship with the URC.

CODEC’s primary focus is on the theology of the digital age, and they also have Research Fellows exploring blended learning typologies and resources. Their work has been described as not offering all of the answers, but being the ‘hadron collider of digital theology’, where they bring together the worlds of digital and theology and smash them into each other to see what happens.

Early conversation with CODEC has pointed to interesting developments, such as work being done on using virtual reality to help support the housebound to be included in worship. They have reiterated interest in connecting with the URC, including the suggestion of some sort of gathering hosted by the Windermere Centre and bringing CODEC and URC people together. This could be a follow up phase to our own online conversation suggested under recommendation 2A (above).

It might be helpful to be aware of some of CODEC’s current resourcing which illustrates the range and depth of their work as it continues to evolve:

  • The Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture is linked to CODEC and offers online peer reviewed content. First published in 2012 there are 2 – 3 editions each year.
  • MediaLit has run annually since 2010. It is a week-long training course in Durham aimed at equipping people within and beyond churches to engage with all forms of media (web and more traditional) from a theologically informed perspective.
  • Discipleship Trove is a growing and evolving online repository of print and digital resources for Christian formation hosted through CODEC. The URC has its Vision4Life booklets up on it. It is highly searchable by age range, denomination, style of material, etc. and an obvious place for more URC content such as anything through Walking the Way. It includes material from major publishers and well known sources along with things that otherwise would be hard to find on the web.

Whilst CODEC is an obvious and key ecumenical source for engagement with digital discipleship, we are aware of other potential conversation partners. A variety of denominations are active on the web and further fruitful links could be made. As we undertook our work we became aware that the Church of England is currently appointing its first Head of Digital Communications: “Offered in the first instance for a three year fixed term period until the end of 2019 we are seeking someone who can take risks for the Gospel in exploring how digital engagement can lead to spiritual and numerical growth. You will be responsible for leading a team developing and implementing digital evangelism, discipleship and digital communication strategies for the Church of England and its institutions.”

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