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Reform Magazine | February 21, 2017

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Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Could an android be baptised, or ordained?

Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Could an android be baptised, or ordained?

When robots come to church

One of the great theological questions I never got answered when I was in Sunday school was: “How does Jesus get my collection money?” The question arose whenever I put a couple of warm pennies in the collection plate and we sang the Victorian children’s hymn:

Hear the pennies dropping,
Listen while they fall,
Ev’ry one for Jesus,
He shall have them all.

Fidelia H DeWitt, who wrote the hymn, explicitly promised that Jesus would get every single penny. Even Geraldine, the Sunday school teacher I secretly fancied, couldn’t offer a cast-iron explanation of how this could happen, so I came up with my own theory. There must be some sort of supernatural slot machine where you put in your pennies for Jesus and they come out in heaven. I imagined Jesus beaming with holy satisfaction as my pennies dropped into his lap.

It looks like machines which work even greater wonders than the supernatural slot machine might soon be an intrinsic part of our lives. Driverless cars, android butlers offering twiglets to party guests, drones walking your dog, and android shop bots greeting you by name as you wander into Boots – all of them are just a few months or years away, depending on which soothsayer you believe. Just last month, Shimon, a four-armed robot which plays the marimba and jams improvisational jazz, was the toast of YouTube.

Some technologists think this could be worrisome. Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX, the company developing rockets to colonise Mars, says the arrival of artificial intelligence (AI) is potentially more dangerous than nukes. He fears that our brilliant machines will one day see humans as nothing more than irritating spam and delete us all in a desktop-tidying apocalypse.

The church has a limited history of contact with robots, but one of its most intriguing encounters was at the medieval abbey of Boxley in Kent, where there was a mechanical Jesus. The wooden figure, nailed to a cross, was controlled by monks pulling hidden wires and levers to open and close his eyes and mouth. Was he just a creative bit of theatre to illustrate what happened on Good Friday? Or did the monks operate him to frighten gullible pilgrims into giving their own pennies to Jesus? No one quite knows. What is sure is that he gained the abbey a lucrative reputation as a place of miracles.

When Thomas Cromwell’s agents arrived in 1538 to strip the abbey of its treasures for Henry VIII, they found robot Jesus and realised he was propaganda gold for their quest to discredit the old faith. They put him on display, denounced him as a moneymaking idol, smashed him to bits and threw him on a bonfire. And they elaborated the story of what he could do, such as moving his hands and feet, nodding his head, pulling a grimace and rolling his eyes. All of which shows that fear of robots is nothing new.

A few church leaders have been wondering whether androids who turn up for church on a Sunday should be welcomed in the traditional way with a hymn book and a limp handshake. The Revd Christopher Benek, a pastor in Florida, believes Jesus died for our tin-pot friends just as much as he did for you and me – and he thinks they would make excellent preachers. He asks: “Who is to say that one day AI might not even lead humans to new levels of holiness?”

Meanwhile, theologian James McGrath wonders: “Could an android be baptised (assuming that rust is not an issue)? Could one receive communion? Could one be ordained? Could one lift its hands in worship? Could an android speak in tongues?” But he also worries that if a robot got converted to fundamentalism, it might go Dalek and order everyone to follow literally all the laws in the book of Leviticus. For those who refused to obey, it would be: “Excommunicate! Excommunicate!”

While androids will probably be coming to church in the near future, it might be a bit soon to start debating whether they should be ordained. Maybe they could start with something more modest, such as taking up the collection. If one could also be programmed to deliver every penny personally to Jesus, that would make me very happy.

Simon Jenkins is editor of shipoffools.com. 
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonjenks

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This article was published in the July/August 2016 edition of  Reform.

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