Interview: Sister Catherine Wybourne (Holy Trinity Monastery)

Sister Catherine Wybourne (aka @Digitalnun) is a Benedictine nun and blogger. Trained as a banker but called mid-career to the Catholic faith, she is the Prioress of the Benedictine Nuns of Holy Trinity Monastery, a community in Oxfordshire with an online presence that includes online retreats, blogs and virtual prayers (via the medium of email).

Sr Catherine is an active web advocate for faith leaders, and so I was curious about what it was that she viewed as the unique affordances of the medium for religious communities. Here, she explains why she’s excited about the next generation of religious apps, her concerns about the consumerist bent of online religious practices and why religious leaders should take up Twitter.

How do you use the Web?

The Web is an important part of our spiritual outreach, an expression of traditional Benedictine hospitality in contemporary form. We don’t have much in the way of material resources, but through the internet we can share the monastic Tradition with others in a way that is both engaging and open, in the sense that people can enter into dialogue with us in a ‘safe’ way. People choose to visit our web site/blog; choose to take part in our web conferences; choose to listen to our podcasts or view our videos; choose to take part in our online retreats; and they can do so anonymously, without feeling that anything is expected of them by way of conforming to a timetable or way of life that may seem alien. The internet is thus a way of bringing the monastery to people who would never be able, or perhaps never even want, to come to the monastery itself.

We also use the web for our own study and research, email communication, shopping and to earn a living. All our living expenses and charitable outreach are funded from income, not endowment, so what we earn from web design and hosting, for example, can make the difference between being able to pay the bills/bring a new audio book for the visually impaired into production or not.

Why do you use the Web?

The web has enabled us to be hospitable even though we don’t have room or resources to provide much in the way of conventional hospitality. We’re a small community in deepest Oxfordshire: through our use of the internet our outreach spans the globe. At the same time, the web has enabled us to be true to our contemplative identity, to maintain the recollection and quiet of the cloister. One can switch off a computer at night; one can’t turn away from a house-guest who needs help, whatever time of day or night it may be.

What are the ways people engage with you differently online than offline?

I’m not sure that there are any major differences. Sometimes emails or comments on blog posts can read a little baldly, as though the absence of a face registering emotion means that ‘anything goes’. One thing I am sure of, and that is that our email prayerline enables people to voice concerns and worries they might have difficulty expressing in any other way. So often they say, ‘I haven’t been able to say this to anyone else’ or ‘thank you for letting me get this off my chest’. Sometimes, I think we offer a kind of ‘alternative’ to confession for people who are unfamiliar with the sacrament. I’m also interested that many more men interact with us than I suspect would come to the monastery. That has been particularly noticeable with our online retreat service. I think some men tend to be a little shy of admitting any interest in religion and value the anonymity our online presence offers.

Which traditional religious practices and thinking have best (and worst) adapted to the web?

I’d say that blogging and podcasting have opened up the possibilities of religious education in the widest sense. Sermons/lectures are now readily available online, so are question-and-answer informational sessions. I’m pleased that the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Faith 2.0 Conference on Religion and the Internet will enable us to explore some of the ways in which the different faith traditions have made use of the internet in this area. I’m not quite so convinced about some of the online ‘pray along with us’ services, but that’s a personal prejudice. I think one has to be physically, not merely virtually, present. The development of a number of apps covering religion is one that I find exciting because I’m convinced that more and more content will be delivered by way of apps rather than conventional web sites.

Which evolutions of web technology have affected our religious attitudes and behaviours the most?

I don’t think one can overestimate the importance of web technology for learning and research. True, one has to be selective because not all information provided is equally valuable or accurate; but I personally would know much less about Islam and Hinduism, for example, were it not for the internet. Having said that, I think the web may have encouraged a lowest-common-denominator eclecticism and turned us into consumers of religion. That’s dangerous because religious dialogue presupposes conviction and commitment. I can talk to people of widely differing religious traditions and can respect their positions precisely because I am clear about my own. Again, the consumerist approach to religion tends to privatise it and that’s where religion can become a force for bad rather than good. That has direct implications for such issues as human rights, sex equality and so on. If I had to single out just one feature that I regard as transformative, Id say it was blogging. Everyone now can have an opinion, express it, and reach untold millions.

Are there elements of Roman Catholicism that are challenged by/stand in opposition to the technological/social features of the web?

Truth has nothing to fear except from those who think they are in possession of the truth. By which I mean that the web has challenged the view most people have of the Catholic Church as an up-down, male-dominated, hierarchical structure. The Catholic Church is, and always will be, hierarchically ordered, but the expansion of blogging, in particular, has enabled a more plural, more horizontal expression of the Church, allowing women especially a voice they have not always had. The trouble is, some of the comment on the Church and its teaching is not well-informed!

One area I am interested in concerns the impact the web is having on traditional prayer practice in the Catholic Church. The whole concept of lectio divina, the slow meditative reading of scripture which leads to prayer, is at odds with our practice of surfing, of skipping here and there for bite-sized chunks of information. There is also the challenge of Twitter and Facebook and a world of communication that is never switched off. These are great tools for communication, but one must first have something worth communicating. I think that’s why the Catholic Church has been slow to embrace many aspects of contemporary technology, seeing in it great possibilities but great dangers, too. We can easily become superficial. The Church wants us to cultivate depth. There will always be a tension between the two: too much talk, too little silence.

How has religion been impacted by information technology and how has the public sphere in turn been influenced by this interaction?

Speaking purely of the Christian Churches, I’d say that information technology has enabled us to express our views irrespective of fashion/media disapproval and to engage with those who hold different views. Coming to a common mind is a slow and often painful process, but it has to begin somewhere. I think this has influenced public debate. For example, public discussion of stem cell research, euthanasia, the Big Society or what you will, has to take account of the contribution religion can make. The Face to Faith programme and the Faith and Globalisation Initiatives of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation would be unthinkable without the web, but they are influencing the way in which people think and talk about the questions we all face.

What lessons did you learn from establishing a new religious community offline for how you approach community online?

The most basic one of all: you don’t need masses of money, you don’t need masses of people, you do need a clear vision, a lot of hard work, and a great deal of prayer. When we began our internet outreach we knew we’d have to do everything ourselves as cheaply as possible, from building the web site to introducing new features to enable people to interact with us online. We were fortunate to have a long monastic tradition behind us, one in which the idea of chapter, of discussion and seeking a common mind, was well-established; so everything we have done online has come from a community commitment to making it work. I think that’s why we are fairly good about inviting feedback, making changes and adapting in response to what people tell us about their experience of our online community.

How did you use the web to support the new offline community?

We taught ourselves how to design web sites from using the web; and we have used the web to market our typesetting and book design skills. We are also currently using the web to try to interest people in philanthropic investment in the monastery’s Charitable Bond so that we can acquire permanent premises. (We live in rented accommodation which is too small to allow us to admit novices or guests; we have several applicants to join the community, and there is a very suitable property available, so we are hoping … It fits our slightly unusual way of being.)

How do you feel religious leaders should engage with their church using online tools in the future?

I think that being ‘web-savvy’ should be a required skill for religious leaders in general. The ability to use blogging, Twitter, Facebook, intelligently and creatively, is as important as being able to ‘think on one’s feet’ or write a decent column for the press. Religious leaders will have to get used to the idea of being more accountable and more transparent in their dealings and of having to engage, on equal terms as it were, with those who stand outside the traditional hierarchies. For the Christian Churches the web offers opportunities not seen since the invention of printing.

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