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Silicon Valley is priest-engineer's mission field
FEAST: Faith, Environment, Action, Science, Technology

By Phina Borgeson
[Episcopal News Service]  "Not long ago three of us coworkers had a long car drive to an offsite location on business," recounts Sheldon Hutchison. Others were surprised to learn that he is a priest, Canon Missioner to Silicon Valley in the Diocese of El Camino Real. Questions arose "about a lot of the dogma that's out there, the good and the bad." As Hutchison interpreted and explained the underpinnings of his theology, "the woman in the front seat turned and noted, with complete surprise, 'But that sounds...practical!'"

This is where Hutchison hopes the Commission for Prophetic Witness to Culture and Technology, which he chairs, will go, pushing others to think, and helping them understand that theology can be practical and useful. In the church "we often look for 'relevancy' when we're really looking for 'usefulness,'" he adds.

Hutchison works as a high-ranking engineer for a large aerospace company in Sunnyvale, California, as well as serving at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose and making himself available throughout the diocese. As an example of his life in those two very different organizational cultures, he describes writing sermons as he walks the mile between two buildings at his work place. "Inspiration happens on foot, so to speak. And this practice -- writing sermons while engaged fully in the secular experience -- has taken me places in my thinking I never would have gone otherwise."

The Commission began in the Diocese of El Camino Real in the 1990s, and has recently taken on new life with additional members and Hutchison's leadership. "The group members are really all over the map." They include small business people, educators, clergy and other church employees, as well as scientists and engineers. Meetings are challenging because of this diversity, "lively and thematically expansive -- a lot of fun!"

The Commission has plans to begin publishing articles in the next few months, and perhaps to develop other resources that would be useful in the diocese and throughout the church, but narrowing down subjects is sometimes challenging.

Talking more about the Silicon Valley culture to which the group hopes to speak, Hutchison comments: "Actually we technology types are the minority. Technology is the product of many of the companies located here. Standing up and looking over my cubicle walls, though, I see some technology types, but many engaged in other activities. We are all, however, living within and shaped by a culture that is all about change."

Jim Jordan adds: "One of the things we realized early in the life of the Commission is that El Camino Real is a diocese of many cultures, many of which are receptors of changes wrought by technology, but not participants in shaping the changes."

Jordan, a member of the Executive Council Committee on Science, Technology and Faith and a former member of the Commission, explains that from the beginning the work of the group has gone in two directions. One typified by Hutchison's exchanges with his co-workers, is "bringing a Christian voice into the impetuous world of high-tech entrepreneurs and workers."

This purpose has also taken shape in the ministries of individuals and congregations to people displaced by the bursting of the high tech bubble in 2001-2002 and those who have lost their jobs more recently due to the volatility and transience of technology jobs. Deacon Lee Barford, a Master Researcher at Agilent Laboratories who also serves at Trinity Cathedral, has been heavily involved in this way.

But Barford also feels a strong pull to participate in the other pole of the Commission's mission, "interpreting the technology-induced cultural changes so that members of the diocese could understand the changes objectively" as Jordan puts it. "There may be a particularly good match between the need of the Church to exercise its prophetic voice concerning technology and the role of the deacon to 'interpret the needs, hopes and concerns of the world' to the church" Barford wrote in a recent Diakoneo. The article, in the Winter 2006 newsletter of the North American Association for the Diaconate, offers guidelines for reflecting both on a technological worldview and for considering the ethical implications of particular technologies.

Hutchison reflects the feelings of those in various orders who both work in high tech and exercise leadership in the church when he says, "Somehow I feel that I belong at this place, straddling two worlds. Being a tentmaker is just about right -- enormously stressful, but right."

To download the complete Winter 2006 issue of Diakoneo including Lee Barford's article:

More about the Commission's work will be added as it unfolds to the diocesan web site