By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online Magazine
Churches are having to use their imagination to attract new members. The 3D virtual-reality Church of Fools is just one idea, but does it have any chance of building a congregation?
Three worshippers test the church out with the Bishop of London
As I took my pew, I noticed that not only was the guy next to me wearing the same clothes as me, but we had the same heads on as well. A true 21st Century faux pas.
Before you can go into the virtual church, you must choose what your character looks like. This being the first service, options are still limited - hence the coincidence of two people who fancied quiffs and baby blue Argyle jumpers.
Going into this online chapel is a little like playing a computer game - you use your mouse to indicate where you want to walk, you right-click for options such as kneeling, and your typed words appear in speech bubbles on the screen.
But while it may initially feel like a game, it is far more important than that to its creators, the Christian website Ship of Fools, and its sponsor, the Methodist Church.
It is a recognition that relying on traditional ways of attracting congregations is risky. Unless methods can be found of reaching out to new people, the fear for churches is that one day they will simply cease to exist.
View from the pulpit
The thinking is that some people may be more prepared to wander into a website than a church on the corner of the street. But for the project to be a success virtual worshippers will need to feel as if they have actually been to a service. So how does Church of Fools measure up?
It doesn't take many seconds from sitting down next to my new identical twin to realise that behind every character is a real person, on their computer somewhere in the world, all come to the same place for the same reason.
The launch is at the Sandown racecourse, as part of the Christian Resources Exhibition, but people are taking part from Birmingham, Bradford, France, Perth and New Hampshire. Most characters decide to sit in the pews - but a newbie from Wapping, who is getting used to the controls, climbs the pulpit - quite against protocol.
Additionally, the Anglican church has launched i-Church, to be run by its first web pastor Alyson Leslie
Among the others there does seem to be a strange feeling of reverence, not very different from the moments before a normal church service starts. "Babybear", sitting near my character, whispers on screen: "I'm physically in North Wales at the moment, but it's odd, I already feel like I'm in church."
You could easily make your character stand and shout something - just as you could in a real church - but the reserve which would prevent you from doing this in real life translates perfectly, even though people don't actually know who you are. Peer pressure works online.
Then the minister and a character looking very like the Bishop of London walk in - the bishop character is being played by the real bishop, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, who is in another office at the racecourse.
At that moment, just as he is walking towards the altar, the minister disappears. His computer, on his desk at St John's College in York, has crashed and his character is lost in cyberspace. The bishop carries on alone, and his character walks to the front of the church where he starts to preach.
A latecomer arrives and sits down. From the row behind me, someone starts talking - their words again appearing in speech bubbles. In real life I would need a ridiculous level of provocation before confronting someone, but here it is weirdly distracting and I feel no worries about telling them to shush.
Chartres: People need face-to-face contact
The bishop starts to preach - his words appearing above his character in the pulpit. He says this new venture is like Jesus telling Simon Peter to "put out into the deep and let down our nets for a catch" - an act of faith, the rewards of which are not yet known.
And then a new character enters the church and starts swearing, accusing the worshippers of the kind of activities forbidden by Leviticus.
Real life churches often have troublemakers too - but the virtual world has an easier way of dealing with them. The moderator has the option to "smite", ejecting anyone not entering into the spirit. Peter Tatchell, who famously protested from George Carey's pulpit on Easter Day 1998, would stand no chance.
When Bishop Chartres announces the Lord's Prayer, everyone in the church starts typing it, some in traditional form, some modern, some in French some in Latin. Although it feels slightly daft, suddenly any notion that this is a game is gone. These people are praying together, and that is as real as if they were standing in the same room. That they are in a dozen different towns and countries seems a trifling matter.
The Reverend Jonathan Kerry of the Methodist Church says this experiment may teach the real churches something about what newcomers expect from them. In any case, there is no reason why churches should not go online - people comfortably conduct a large part of their lives on the web, so why shouldn't they go to church there too?
Rev Jonathan Kerry communes with fellow virtual worshippers
For Bishop Chartres, going online cannot be a complete substitute. "I think the more you live through the screen, the more you need face-to-face real time interaction," he said after the virtual service had ended. But whether this is a taste of the future or just an experiment, something about it felt real.
What better evidence could you need than one character asking, after the service had ended: "Right, can we get a cup of coffee now?"
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Shame the report didn't describe the singing! The organ started up (the only real bit of audio during the whole service) and everyone was encouraged to 'shout' the words (which scrolled up for us on the screen). Lots of bad singing going on, probably just due to typos. An excellent idea bringing together all sorts of people. My only complaint is that only a relatively small number of 'people' can be displayed at once, so most people logging in come in as 'ghosts' who can't be seen, and who can't make themselves heard.
Andrew Frost, UK
Online church is good to help get new church members, those people who feel they are to busy or are embarrassed by the ¿old people¿ image that goes with church. I only hope it doesn't stop present church goers attending their service, because going on a Sunday can be very rewarding.
I've heard of transubstantiation, but this is ridiculous.
At first I thought this was a big joke and was going to be up for ridicule, but the fact that people actually stayed online and typed the prayers can only mean they are genuine. I am lost as to what target audience this church aims for though - the ones who cannot get to church (eg. perhaps the elderly, in which case are many of these likely to have free access to the internet)? If not, then why are they not just in a real church?
This is quite frankly, ridiculous! The reason people don't go to church anymore is because they no longer believe in what Christianity preaches - not because they are too lazy to walk into a church. Consequently, whether the worship is to be performed in a building or on a computer is irrelevant.
Savvas Socratous, Cyprus,now in Manchester
Mixed feelings about this! The suggestion that churches will soon disppear unless they go virtual refers surely to those which are little more than a do-gooders' social club. In fact Churches which contain both true believers and the presence of God are actually doing very well and growing, based mainly on face to face communications. But then I agree that every form of expression within a given culture should be used as an avenue for communicating the truth about Jesus (for examle my church has just established a Cafe-church) and like a Christian heavy metal band a virtual church will reach those that will not hear by any other method. Verdict - Go For IT!
Simon (about to start a C of E 'Licensed Reader' course), UK
The church has been given inspiration at last.This may be one of the most innovative things to come from Chritians in a while. The world really does rely on the internet for most things now- why not as a point of conatct with our spiritual side as well? Praying that this will touch more people, as intended.
A Adeboya, UK
I'd find it hard to take this seriously after watching the Simpsons in church!
I-Church may be a perceived necessity for mainstream (i.e. traditional Anglican, Catholic, Prebyterian, etc)) churches to pull in the numbers. Typically, these churches espouse the most liberal/unorthodox theologies. It seems for those of us in the mainstream churches that we are engrossed with changing the wine instead of the wine skins. Sociologically, we should look at the stats from around the world: churches sticking to orthodox Christian doctrine and practise are thriving, especially in the non-Western world, and especially where the churches still reflect their local cultures. Even in the West such churches see much greater success than their theologically liberal counterparts. Churches that are liberal struggle enormously with pulling in people. Why? Perhaps it is something to do with watering down the wine. Who wants to drink dilute wine? It might be less sharp to the tongue, but it still rates a poor second.
Jonathan Wilson, South Africa/Canada>
Just imagine - if your relatives from another country can't make the wedding or christening - you could have a real one and a virtual one to make sure nobody misses out.
If the Christian church wishes to become relevant and meaningful in peoples' lives again, it will have to review how it delivers its message, to whom and why. I suggest the Church return to its original purpose of social justice and mutual responsibility. Rowan Williams has started this process, but until ministers in individual churches really connect with people, this decline in attendance and relevance will not be halted. And a website won't change it.
Oscar Franklin, UK
This project sounds very interesting, and I look forward to trying it out, but "real" church is a very different thing. Part of the point of real church is the community, where you get to know one another, and look out for each other. I hope no-one sees this as a replacement for the real thing. However, in addition, I think it could be of great value.
Dan O'Brien, Newquay, Cornwall
Thought I'd pop in and take a look around. My 5 yr old son on my lap. "WOW," he said, "which one's you?" I pointed to me. "So who's on your team...and which ones do you kill?" I don't think its going to be a hit with the younger generation.
Tracey Luther, UK
With the increased ease of smiting, it could be that online churches will become even more excluding in nature than physical churches, totally contrary to Jesus' teaching of course, but then does this really matter in today's convenience world?
Graeme Phillips, Berlin, Germany (normally UK)
Absolute rubbish. This will simply be abused and mistreated. Which to be honest will be quite fun.
Andrew Brockett, UK
After successfully navigating to my seat, more out of curiosity than worship, the reverend was barely heard amongst the various chatter of the "congregation", one avatar even demanding "bringeth the ho's". I did not feel any type of "reverence" which is a great shame, this was I hope the minority who will get bored and return to their chatrooms.
David Pirie, Moray, Scotland
I'm not a Christian, but I hope that people, including Mr Brockett, would be kind enough to respect those people that do wish to use this service in the way it was intended and leave these people in peace.
Miles Waterson, UK
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