When the Reverend Pete Phillips first arrived in Durham nine years ago, he was ejected from the city’s cathedral. He had been reading the Bible on his mobile phone in the pews. Phones were not allowed in the holy place, and the individual who accosted him would not believe that he was using his phone for worship and asked him to leave. “I was a bit miffed about that,” says Phillips, who is director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University in the UK. “But that was 2008.”
Next year Durham Cathedral will have been standing for 1,000 years. But its phone policy is now up to date. “They allow people to take photos, to use phones for devotional reasons – whatever they want to do,” says Phillips. “The attitude has changed because to restrict people from mobile phone use now is to ask them to cut their arm off.”
This more relaxed approach to phones is not the only tech-related update the Church has undergone in the past few years. The rise of apps and social media is changing the way many of the world’s two billion Christians worship – and even what it means to be religious.
The Reverend Liam Beadle became Yorkshire’s youngest vicar when he took up his role at St Mary’s Anglican Church in Honley, a village of 6,000 people five miles south of Huddersfield. He runs his parish’s Twitter account. A colleague runs the church community’s Facebook profile. The Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Nick Baines – who is the head of Beadle’s diocese – was one of the first bishops to start a blog and is known in the church as the “blogging bishop”.
But Beadle contrasts the Church’s approach to social media with its reaction to the printing press. “The difference between then and now is that with the invention of the printing press we were proactive,” he says. “With the advent of social media, I think we are being reactive, we’re jumping on the bandwagon.”
The ubiquity of smartphones and social media makes them hard to avoid, however. And they are changing the way people practise their religion. Faiths are adopting online technologies to make it easier for people to communicate ideas and worship, says Phillips. “But that technology has shaped religious people themselves and changed their behaviour.”
Many people scrolling through their phones in Christian churches are probably looking at a Bible app called YouVersion, which has been installed more than 260 million times worldwide since its launch in 2008. Similarly popular apps exist for the Torah and Koran.
“One of the first things Christians did with the computer was to put the Bible into digital formats,” says Phillips. Those digitised Bibles then made their way onto phones. “To some extent, the mobile phone Bible is now replacing the book Bible.”
According to the company behind YouVersion, people have spent more than 235 billion minutes using the app and have highlighted 636 million Bible verses. But reading the Bible in this way could be changing people’s overall sense of it. “If you go to the Bible as a paper book, it’s quite large and complicated and you’ve got to thumb through it,” says Phillips.
“But you know that Revelations is the last book and Genesis is the first and Psalms is in between. With a digital version you don’t get any of that, you don’t get the boundaries. You don’t flick through: you just go to where you’ve asked it to go to, and you’ve no sense of what came before or after.”