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The algorithm of Life?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

If anyone were to produce an "app" for the Monastic Breviary as conformed to the Book of Common Prayer, I would be very, very interested. I have been toying with learning to code in order to produce something like this for a long time as the only versions I see are firmly Roman Catholic and lack the gravity of the English of the Prayer Book.

Breviaries (such as the BCP)  give a script with which we can make our prayer truly common. The fact that the Offices and Missals follow a basic structure and formulae with which to arrange the propers means that any two people 500 miles distant using the same breviary are sharing the same prayers. Thus a formulaic liturgy enables two or three to be gathered together in the Name of Christ despite being distant spatiotemporally. An ancient liturgy has the power to make prayer common for believers throughout the centuries.

Some people object to such scripted prayer and, yet, they don't realise just how scripted our society is becoming - to its detriment!

Call a utilities company or a bank, go in for a health check up, even order fast food, and you will be presented with a script. Go off script and you cause confusion. Give your title as "Fr." rather than "Mr." and the person at the desk will announce confusedly, "computer says, 'no!'" Tell you utilities company that you don't want the upgrade and you will be bombarded with the same message all trying (unsuccessfully) to convince you that you really want the upgrade. And woe betide you if you don't give a clear response to, "do you want fries with that?"

Of course, scripts in these situations can be very useful. It means that the employee covers all bases and can deliver what the customer wants with greater confidence. It means that the healthcare professional can ensure that the correct treatment is given. It means that you do get your fries with barbecue sauce. 

Scripts are also useful for the autistic. The autist often has no means of getting an intuitive answer to social questions or know how to engage in conversation with confidence. Having a script helps, which is why the autist often sounds like a stuck record at social gatherings, and the script can be adjusted as more and varied social encounters are made. This makes sense and helps autistic individuals function, albeit rather stiltedly on occasion.

And yet it seems that we are becoming more and more scripted as a society. Our social commentary is performed on Twitter or Facebook. Our phones not only predict the word we are trying to spell, but which word we are going to use before we even start typing. The Digital age is making scripting easier. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, criticised the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, of communicating solely by use of a script. She said:

“I don't want to be too derogatory or pejorative about Theresa May. She's obviously no longer prime minister, but having conversations with Theresa May was pretty soul destroying. She would never depart from a script, no matter where you tried to take the conversation. I remember in one meeting, going in and trying to think about how can we get this meeting off on a sort of gentler start before we immediately got into the areas where we disagreed."

Perhaps we get some inkling into how Brexit negotiations have gone badly. Relying always on a script does stifle imagination, and the more that politicians do it in their word bank of stock phrases which speak volumes without really saying anything, the more we lose the ability to think carefully about what we really want to say. 

The same is true in teaching. In my final years as a schoolmaster, I was being encouraged to use stock phrases in my school reports to parents. Everything had to conform to the "school style" and anything that didn't conform was re-worded by a senior teacher on "my behalf". The result was that occasionally I was contacted by parents to clarify things that I hadn't actually said. 

Again, we can see perhaps that there is beginning to be a desire for us to control what we say. I notice that CofE Bishops are now chosen to fit a managerial mould and to carefully control what is said. This is certainly true in the recent Matthew Ineson debacle in which despite the evidence being very clear, those who control CofE newspeak still have not issued a formal apology to a man whose life has been blighted by abuse and the consequent cover-up by the effective hierarchy.

Departing from the script risks offence. Certainly, the autist can find himself in a bit of a pickle when he can't follow his social script, but the resulting offence allows learning to take place and, while it may be the hardest word, a genuine "sorry" is always helpful. As human beings we should be allowed to depart from the script in order to grow. 

Scripting life means that we become more algorithmic in our lives. All of the big internet companies such as Google, YouTube and Facebook use our scripts to generate algorithms by which they learn more about us and seek to influence us by nudging our choices to conform to their predictions. This has already be used to great effect through the abuse of online data. We need to be wary of this or we will lose the actual freedom of our choice.

The overall effect of being governed by algorithm is that we gain a very mechanical view of what it means to be human. We already have that in a view of neuroscience which states that the brain is the cause of the mind and thus that all that we think is actually controlled by physical states in the brain. If people believe that this is all they are then they will become slaves to non-human entities. If we are already being influenced by machine-code, then there is nothing to stop that influence from becoming outright control. To escape from a potential Blade Runner dystopia, we just need to be human. 

This brings me back to the Liturgy. Liturgy is very much about corporate prayer. We pray together to the same God in solidarity with each other. In so doing we commit ourselves to the two commandments of loving God and neighbour. The more we use liturgy properly, the more we can frame our own personal colloquy with God. There is nothing to stop us from saying the Magnificat first thing in the morning when we wake up if that's how we feel drawn to pray. Of course, we should ask ourselves why and, if we do, then we will be enriched when the revelation comes.

We are allowed to pray without prayer books. This cultivates a deeper, personal relationship with God. We use our liturgy as a way of approaching Him before allowing ourselves to be lost in the sea of His Infinity and trusting Him to bring us back to ourselves strengthened by His love. We need to seek ourselves authentically. This means that we stand with our feet on the ground and our hearts in Heaven.

It means the humility to allow others some way to "define" us in order to get to know us and yet not allowing their definition to obscure who we are as a Creation of God. It means the humility to recognise that we are more than we appear even to ourselves and accepting the titanic dissonance that this causes. It means the humility to accept that God's authority is right and that he does not create us to follow an algorithm.

The liturgy that we possess is not for controlling us. It is a way in which we can approach God. It is the framework of our lives, not the algorithm that tells us how to live. We keep to the liturgies of our Church in order to keep ourselves part of that Church and living lives of response and responsibility to that community. 

St Benedict maintains that we need to take our Liturgy very, very seriously and correct our errors, but his Rule does show that there must be life and prayer outside the times of worship. It is this freedom that allows monks to become scholars, artisans and archbishops in their own right rather than just slaves to an algorithmic breviary. Yet the breviary entices us through love and devotion to seek out our common prayer with others.

I am grateful that the Anglican Catholic Church has this latitude built in. We can be Prayer Book Catholic, using the 1549 or US1928. We can be monastic or Anglo-Catholic using the Monastic or Anglican breviaries which conform to the BCP. The point is that our liturgy is a powerful means to the greatest ends, that is, participation in the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity. By seeing ourselves as being more than biological machines and collections of physical laws and chemical algorithms, we will approach what God wants us to be. The liturgy assists that approach.

And, if anyone does make an "app" for the Monastic Breviary as edited by Canon Wilfrid Douglas of Fond du Lac, please do let me know! I'm happy to receive that algorithm.

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