Ubuntu and Open Source Church

Posted: July 2, 2009 by Kristy Harding in ReEmergent Church
Tags: , , , , , , ,

By Kristy Harding

          Starting on July 8th, anyone with any interest in Episcopal Church politics (who isn’t actually in Anaheim, CA) will be feverishly stalking the intertubes for word of what’s happening at General Convention, our once-every-three-years governing gathering. Continuing the recent Anglican “Wonderful Things that Come From Africa” trend, this year’s theme is “Ubuntu,” which roughly translates “I am because we are.”

Because I’m married to a programmer, I can’t hear “Ubuntu” without thinking of the open source movement because Ubuntu is the name of a particularly good distribution of the open source Linux operating system.

I’m not the first person to connect church with the open source movement, but most of what I see online has to do with building emergent theology from scratch and making sermons and materials and software available. This is great, but it made me wonder:

What would happen, if we took the Ubuntu theme and really embraced the philosophy, having a truly “Open Source Church”?

Church would be accessible.

The point of the open source movement is freedom and open doors: You’re not locked out. You can get at the things that you need without barriers, and you then extend that freedom to others with whatever you create.  The community recognizes that each member needs the contributions of every other member and facilitates that members’ ability to share.

In an accessible church…

Anyone who wants to can get at the church.  Listing all the different people who should be included and all the different ways they should be included would take too long, so I won’t.  That’s what General Convention is for.

Anyone who wants to can have access to theology and spirituality. Until very recently, the private devotions of Lancelot Andrewes a treasure of Anglican spirituality was only accessible in a book that cost over $100–even though he lived during the reign of King James I. An open source church would do all it could to make sure as much of the riches of its traditions were as available as possible in places like Project Gutenberg and Google Books–and even, God forbid, mundane places like public libraries.

Our old theology and spirituality would be accessible, but our new work would be accessible, too. Sharing would be a virtue and more work would be released on the web under a terms like the Creative Commons License and the GNU GPL Public License.

This means making education accessible, too. Sometimes reading a book isn’t enough, and you get to the place where you really just need a human teacher. A person should never be put in the position of having to choose between ordination someday and learning about theology and growing spiritually now. There should be ways for people to get education who are deemed too young or too immature to go on the ordination track and who are chomping at the bit to learn more about the faith than their local church has the time and/or resources to teach them. This doesn’t necessarily mean opening up the floodgates on M.Div.’s. Why not let people in that position enroll in all the wonderful M.A. programs we already have? I’m sure the seminaries will manage!

We would have more bazaars and fewer cathedrals–in the sense of Eric Steven Raymond’s essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. “Cathedrals” are huge projects that involve enormous amounts of work to pull off. “Bazaars,” interestingly, are also huge projects that involve enormous amounts of work to pull off. The difference between a cathedral and a bazaar is that building a cathedral is centralized endeavor, highly-closed from public view, structured, and takes forever. Bazaars are the work of zillions of people, are a highly transparent affair, and are chaotic. But! They happen for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon and can disappear into the sunset cleanly. When something goes wrong in a cathedral, the cathedral collapses, and the entire town falls down with it. If a fire breaks out in a bazaar, it might tear through a section of the bazaar, but bazaars are like organisms: They’re flexible, and they can heal themselves quickly. By working under the bazaar model, the open source church would be truly open and listening to the experiences of its members, and problems wouldn’t get so big that they threatened to bring the entire building down.

Of course, since we’re talking about open source, we can’t forget about IT. An open source church might follow the example of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and edge toward using free, open source alternatives to expensive, prohibitive, proprietary software and start saving quite a bit of money in the process–maybe even…start using Ubuntu?

Tux image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sirmikester/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Matt Horan says:

    Public libraries? Do they even have those anymore?


  2. Kristy Harding says:

    Yes, they’re ancient tombs where you wait in line for the chance receive ancient spell books from arcane wizards who read the books’ secrets with red glowing wands and tell you to bring the books back in three weeks or “you’ll pay.” 🙂


  3. Yeah, I’m a big fan of open-source everything, including church. The thing about open-source that scares institutions so much, though, is the lack of control. It’s not only about getting the information out there to the public, it’s also about empowering the public to tinker with the inner-workings of the things you’ve created. It means allowing other people to release their own linux distributions based on your kernal. It means giving up control.

    At Transmission, we do this by distributing worship-planning responsibilities – just about everyone in our community plans our rituals from the ground-up, including sacraments and preaching. The result is that although our worship lacks consistency, it embodies a mutuality, a vulnerability, and a creative spirit which I feel truly represents the kingdom Jesus was talking about.

    In more traditional churches, I’ve seen this accomplished by having a time for responses after a sermon, having a congregation serve each other communion rather than sitting at a rail, and recognizing lay leadership as vital to the health of a community. The Anglican Church has historically been very top-down in its organization, but there is a *LOT* it can learn from the open source movement!


  4. Kristy Harding says:

    Hey Isaac! Thanks for commenting! I’ve been really enjoying the podcast…in case you can’t tell. 🙂

    I totally agree. Though, I think the Anglican Church is more open to open source than it might appear from our highly top-down politics. We have a strong tradition of lay participation because of Hooker’s stool–if reason/experience are built into your ethical system, people have to participate to a certain extent. When you combine that with the Celtic influence (original goodness), the Catholic influence (which has always liked to think that it is at least a little indulgent of artists), and the Calvinist influence (which put the “protest” in Protestant Episcopal Church), it’s no wonder we have a long tradition of intense theological commentary through literature and the arts and lay theology.


  5. Matt Horan says:

    I wonder how we might move “church-consumer” Christians to get to a place where they’re ready to linger and experience creative experimentation in worship. What would it take for people to seek and appreciate the purpose and intention behind the mutuality or vulnerability that you’re talking about.

    I think that there’s value and worship in creating a beautiful, artful, and high quality worship experience with exellence. But is there middle ground?


  6. Kristy Harding says:

    A middle ground between what and what?


  7. Matt Horan says:

    🙂 I could have been clearer. There are plenty of people who shop around for the church that meets most of their preferences.

    A free flowing, artful, spontaneous expression of worship might lack the polish and exellence that “shoppers” are looking for, but what might they gain from a less predictable experience?

    Have you ever read “Pagan Christianity”? Very critical of the worship traditions that have emerged over time, advocating instead a more spontaneous, less structured meeting of believers to share Scriptures and songs and testimonies as they feel led by the Spirit. Is there a spectrum? Is planned sanctuary worship on one end and spontaneous worship on the other? Is there middle ground? If so, how can “consumers” be led to take a few steps toward the other end of the spectrum?


  8. Kristy Harding says:

    I haven’t read “Pagan Christianity.”

    It’s difficult to talk about this in generalities. I find that, personally, when I zoom out far enough on discussions about community that I start talking about things being on a spectrum, it’s easy for me to lose sight of the fact that churches are just ordinary communities of people gathering together to worship God and learn how to love God and their neighbors. If that’s the point, the rest is just style. Of course, there will be variations in style within the local community, but when a community is allowed to figure out what its voice is, a healthy community should naturally figure out its own style and become more like a family and less like a franchise. In this case, the spectrum problem would answer itself, and the “consumer” mindset would be diminished, as well. It’s easy to shop around when you’re dealing with franchises. It’s harder to shop around when you’re dealing with families.


  9. Matt Horan says:

    Ooh. “franchise” vs. “family.” Good metaphors.


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