ANPR. I wonder do you recognise those initials? Perhaps you have heard them referred to on the television programme "Road Wars". The initials stand for Automatic Number Plate Recognition. Britain is alive with ANPR. This has been a helpful piece of technology for the Police and those charged with ensuring that cars are appropriately taxed and insured. As a Police Chaplain I understand and appreciate that the ability to use technology to discover whether someone is evading their responsibilities under the Law, and possibly putting others at risk, is of very great help. Locally ANPR camers were one of those things put in to help Olympics Security when we held the Sailing events on Portland and in Weymouth in 2012. Other venues probably had the same provision on their approach roads into their area.
But ANPR is not confined to the Police or related agencies. It is in use all over the place. It might be used at airports where one has pre-booked a parking place and everything is automated so that when you turn up at the car park the ANPR camera reads your number plate and lets you in. The same thing happens when you leave. No human needs lift a barrier or check who you are. The computer does it instead.
So far I am pretty much OK with this (not that anyone is going to change anything even if I am not!!!). However, ANPR creep has reached places which are just completely incovenient and the worst of these is shoppers car parks, particularly those on retail parks or in supermarkets near to other places of interest. If you haven't realised it already then have a very good look as you enter supermarket car parks and other retail parks. In many of them you will see small cameras sited at the entrance to record when you come and go. Those controlling this and logging your visit are not usually connected to the shops you visit but to an independent company that makes their profit by (guess what), catching you out and fining you if you overstay or return too quickly. There are usually signs that tell you this, but the print is often so small most people do not realise what they say.
Today my wife and I visited three separate shops in three separate car parks joined by one small roundabout. Each car park had its own independent set of ANPR cameras. The really frustrating thing was that having visited the three shops and then gone to other shops we realised that the best deal was in one of the first shops visited. Hold on though - if we return we will be fined for returning too soon. No good asking in the shop for them to do something about it. Not their responsibility. Not their company dealing with that. So we had to park along the road and I walked to the shop to spend £60.00 on some goods. Hardly a welcoming helpful attitude towards customers. I feel for those who do not know the cameras are there and who end up paying £60.00 on a fine rather than buying something from a shop!
This is the age we live in. We are tracked through a good deal of our day, by ANPR cameras and by more and more CCTV. Don't get me wrong. I think CCTV can be very helpful in all sorts of situations. But sometimes you want to feel that real people are communicating with you and not just watching you, or indeed allowing the computer to watch you. So often nowadays contact with each other is at a distance or automated. It would not be a bad thing to remember the importance of relationships - real relationships.
I have been reminded of that again over the last week. A week when it has been good, again, to meet so many people and to share time with them (even though I was probably being tracked by CCTV and ANPR cameras as I journeyed). (Wow that does sound paranoid!!!!)
I have been reminded about the importance of relationships through the wonderful people I have met as I have travelled up to Glasgow and back, and then to Bristol both to provide airport transport and to visit Woodlands Church in Clifton, Bristol. There was a sense of vibrancy as I entered the church (an old building with a new frontage). It is always difficult to count the size of a congregation but it felt like there were 450-500 present. It was good to hear David Mitchell speak about "Calling" based on Paul's letters to the Church in Thessalonica. David reminded us that in addition to us all sharing the universal calling to follow Jesus (note we are primarily called to someone not something) we also have specific callings within that with a responsibility to discover that calling. How is God calling you, and me, today? You can find out more about Woodlands Church by going to http://www.woodlandschurch.net/
And then the thread that runs through those relationships from my point of view is God himself. God who wants to be intimately involved in our lives, who is interested in every detail no matter how small. This is a God who can see everything about us. He can see right into our lives, into our joys and hurts. But he is not like an ANPR camera or CCTV. God sees us because he cares deeply about us. Unlike the song title "From a Distance" God actually wants to draw close to us and have a relationship with us which is deep and wholesome and healing. He does this in and through Jesus and if you haven't met with him then I commend him to you. Just ask him to meet with you.