As I write, I am very conscious that many parts of the world connected to OCMS are struggling with the horrors of the pandemic. We pray constantly. In other places, like the UK, we are beginning to think about a post-pandemic world and here I want to reflect a bit on that.
In March I wrote about the recent PhD and Guided Study Programme cohorts joining OCMS. In this edition you will read about the on-line induction programme and virtual classroom that made it possible to start their research journeys from home, scattered over 15 time zones. So much of what we do has been enhanced through working and connecting virtually. Many more in the scattered, global OCMS community have been able to join our activities, whether the weekly academic lecture (MBL), the Monday morning prayer meeting or Chapel on Wednesday.
The benefits of digital technologies are obvious, including time saving, reduced costs and impact of travel on the environment and greater access to learning events and resources. It is possible to build meaningful, on-line relationships. For the past three years I have been working with a couple of people on the Global Voices project of Regnum Books, translating into English and republishing books originally written in Latin America in Portuguese and Spanish. I have never met one of my fellow editors, who lives in Brazil, but we share the needs of our families and support each other in prayer. During lockdown our staff team have been able to open parts of their lives more fully to each other through the use of small breakout rooms.
All this is positive and as we move to being able to meet face-to-face, we want to retain all the good we have experienced. Like many work environments, it’s clear that OCMS will not simply return to our previous ways of working.
However, it’s not all good news. We know that reliance on the digital world leads to marginalisation for some. Whether it be impossible time zones, inadequate internet or rich cultural norms that render virtual connection highly inadequate, some are simply not able to flourish in a virtually dominant world. The fact that the virtual works for many must not blind us to those for whom it doesn’t, especially as they tend to be those from less affluent contexts who already face greater challenges to pursue PhD level studies.
I have a deeper concern. Most of the gains of on-line working reflect issues of efficiency and effectiveness. They enable task and performance, and organisations naturally place high value on these, especially in the Western, educated, industrialised, rich and developed (WEIRD) contexts of the world. The benefits are immediate and obvious. The downsides of remote and on-line working are harder to articulate, to get your hands round and measure. We easily recognise the hours taken to get to work but how do we measure the value of human interaction over a cup of tea, a corridor conversation that might be deemed an inefficient use of time, or of being able to see and experience the whole person. This is more than simply a matter of personality types or cultural preferences. This is about what it means to be human, for to be human is to be in community. For all its wonderful gifts, the virtual will never replicate the gift of physical presence and being community is not all about measurable outcomes. Let’s pray for each other as we learn together and seek the flourishing of all our communities.