In the church of St Michael and All Angels, Hawkshead, we are hosting an exciting little experiment, which is partly a scientific experiment and partly a spiritual experiment, and as far as I am aware it is unique. It creates a very unusual link between the church in Hawkshead and another very different church.
Hawkshead is a village which attracts tourists and the church receives a substantial number of visitors, many of whom find it a quiet place for reflection, contemplation, or prayer. There are candles to light and a book in which people can leave written prayers, if they wish.
Now, as part of this experiment, we also offer a new votive candle stand, which incorporates a touch screen, on which congregation and visitors can type a prayer. When a prayer is entered a virtual candle is lit. The text of the prayer is also projected onto a wall in a chapel elsewhere in the church.
All this sounds a bit strange for a country church, but the designers have done a fantastic job and have been very sensitive to the atmosphere of the building. The digital candle stand looks like a piece of church furniture, albeit one with a discrete digital touch screen! The prayers projected on to the wall, are made to look like one of the 17th century wall paintings that are a feature of the church. In fact, remarkably, for something that uses some innovative and very modern technology, it all seems very much in keeping with the church building. It will be interesting to see how much that influences the way people engage with it.
Now for the bit of the experiment which is really capturing people's imaginations. There is a similar arrangement in the church of St Peter de Beauvoir in Hackney, London. Prayers left in Hawkshead will not only be projected on to a wall in Hawkshead Church, they will also appear in the church in Hackney. And in Hawkshead we will be able to read the thoughts and prayers left in Hackney.
It is all the work of Project CEDE (Creating and Exploring Digital empathy), which is based at Lancaster University, Sheffield University and University College London. They are looking at ways of encouraging the designers of the future to incorporate empathy into their designs. Often when we communicate via the internet we are harsher or more flippant than we would be face to face with somebody. The hope is that through experiments like the one I have been describing, which enable people to communicate digitally in unfamiliar environments, ways will be found of encouraging empathy, of encouraging an understanding that another person is a human being, with human needs and thoughts and feelings and vulnerabilities.
The researchers are keen to see what, if any, relationship develops between the two churches involved. These churches are very different from each other. Hawkshead is a rural church in a small village. There are a substantial number of retired people living in the parish and a fairly static population. The profile of the Hackney parish is much younger and much more multi-cultural, and, of course, very urban. Already we have seen members of the congregation here, going to a service in Hackney when visiting London and making themselves known.
As well as being interesting from a social point of view, there are also some interesting spiritual questions raised. People have come to Hawkshead Church to pray for centuries. What does it mean for people that the prayers offered here are digitally linked with prayers offered in Hackney? Do we pray for the same sort of things? Are people willing to engage with it, and if so are they young or old, or does that make no difference?
We don't know the answers to those questions, or, indeed, whether they are the right questions to ask. I have no doubt, though, that creating and exploring digital empathy is going to be a real adventure for us and we are very grateful to Project CEDE for involving us in their explorations.