Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 17:04 GMT
The internet according to the Church of England
Pray in and for cyberspace, the report says
By BBC News Online's Giles Wilson
It's less a matter of C of E than C of e-.
A report published by the Church of England has given Christians advice on how they should behave on the internet.
And it also raises questions about the new moral challenges facing society as more of it shifts into cyberspace.
Just as railways changed people's lives, and gave rise to new moral decisions, so the internet is doing exactly the same "before our eyes", says the report, Cybernauts Awake.
The report, which is also published online, has some very simple suggestions for civilised behaviour. For example, don't send angry e-mails to people who have annoyed you (flaming), and be gracious if someone flames you.
Use smileys if you are trying to be funny, just in case someone misinterprets your attempt and is offended.
And, if you are a "techie" or system designer, think of your user as yourself. They should think: "How would I feel if I, my spouse, my children, my parents or best friend were on the receiving end of this system."
And there are bigger questions too. Christians should use the internet to promote social justice, the report says. They should "seek the common good" by, for example, promoting economically responsible causes such as fair trade.
There are also social justice implications - what about the information poor? How will those who cannot afford internet access let alone computers fare in a world where so much happens in cyberspace?
Bigger picture still
But there are also deeper philosophical issues. For instance, does cyberspace change our perception of sprituality?
Like cyberspace, spirituality is an intangible, abstract concept. The analogy between the two may even cause non-believers to think again, it says.
A central Christian belief is to love one's neighbour, which according to the parable of the Good Samaritan did not just mean people who live next door to you. But who is your neighbour in cyberspace?
Professor Simon Peyton-Jones, who co-wrote the report, which takes its name from an 18th Century carol Christians Awake!, said: "What is clear is that there are significant ethical and spiritual implications and that people need to think about these in the new cyber-dimension of the world that we are creating."
But the attempt to define a Christian response to cyberspace was welcomed by Steve Goddard, from the acclaimed satirical Christian magazine Ship of Fools.
He said the church's role had always been to try to apply principles to the times, and the internet age was no different.
Ship of Fools has felt the impact of the internet in more ways that one - most notably that having existed as a print magazine since the 1970s, it shut down, only to re-open online 15 years later.
Mr Goddard said the magazine's bulletin board had suffered from people flaming it, leading to the creation of their own "Ten Commandments".
(They include "Thou shalt try to stick to the point" and "Thou shalt bear in mind that on a text-based system, tones of voice and shades of meaning are not always apparent".)
And their experience does have a bearing on another issue raised by the report - whether the church could in fact become an online community.
A poll of Ship of Fools readers earlier this year, found that nearly half believed it could become a fully fledged church, even though its readers are spread around the world.
Limitations of cyberspace
One thing you cannot do in cyberspace is to meet in person, of course, and this would mean that an online church would not take the place of traditional churches, he said.
The Cybernauts report exhorts people to pray "for and in cyberspace". Praying for cyberspace is conceivable, as is sending prayers through cyberspace. But how could one pray in cyberspace?
Sending an e-mail to God, as the illustration above suggests, would surely be to miss the report's point.
But if you should look at www.god.org, you will find (at the time of writing) something which might give those expecting the Second Coming at the New Year reason to think: "Coming soon - a site for all", it says. :-)