Worshiping online: Is it really church?

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October 6, 2008

After Compline, the cathedral is hushed. Some kneel in shafts of light tinted by stained glass. Others leave quietly, a few stopping to light a candle on the way out.

In the courtyard, the mood is lighter. "Nice outfit. How did you get it?" "How did you get it? Shouldn't the question be where?"

This is the Anglican Church in Second Life's virtual cathedral, so the answer involves computer keys and Internet links. And those who've stopped to chat do so in the form of animated characters -- many elaborately costumed -- they've created to represent themselves on the computer screen.

All it takes is an Internet connection to download a free program that lets one participate in the virtual world. Anglican Church in Second Life was developed in 2006 by users of an interactive website called Second Life cathedral who desired an Anglican presence. The Second Life cathedral has 400 to 500 members, mostly from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with a sprinkling from Europe and Asia. Each week, 80 to 100 members attend one of five online worship services, a Bible study or a discussion group.

Services are traditional in that they are straight from Anglican prayer books, but they do not contain the Eucharist, baptism or other sacraments. Members use their computers to create animated figures call avatars, which may resemble their creators as much or as little as desired, and manipulate them (including kneeling in a pew) using their computer keyboard throughout the 3-D place of worship, which takes its inspiration from medieval European cathedrals.

"My passion is meeting people where they are, and these days, that's the Internet," said the Rev. Mark Brown, a transitional deacon in Wellington, New Zealand. Brown, deacon-in-charge of the Anglican cathedral in Second Life, was ordained by Bishop Thomas R. Brown of the Diocese of Wellington, New Zealand, who charged him with overseeing the virtual ministry instead of one based in a church built of bricks and mortar.

Bishop Brown is not the only member of the episcopate interested in Second Life Anglican Cathedral. About two dozen bishops from throughout the Anglican Communion attended an optional presentation at this past summer's Lambeth Conference, and one became a member on the spot, Deacon Brown said.

He reckons that church leaders are interested in it partly because, "although we have a transient population, like any church, we also have a core constituency that is growing," he said. "Every service, unlike Sundays in many churches, there are new people coming to worship."

Building community
He considers his task to be community-building, he said. Part of the Internet's appeal is that users can find what they want when they want it and share it with whom they want, Deacon Brown said. "It is no accident that the latest Apple offering is called MobileMe [an individualized collection of online services and software]. We expect catering for the individual -- convenience, preference and choice. This is a tough environment within which to create a community."

Yet, at the Anglican cathedral of Second Life, it is a sense of community that recent worshipers and members of a discussion group stress appeals to them, using terms like "healthy connection" and relating stories of praying via online chat.

For some, virtual church offers the safety of anonymity. Nothing prevents members from creating avatars in the opposite gender, or even ones resembling animals more than humans. Not only are there no name tags in the virtual church, but members also take a new name when they enter the Second Life world.

"This is a good place to heal from First Life church," one "parishioner" said during a regularly scheduled Saturday discussion group in the "courtyard" of the cathedral.

"I feel less judged here," said another. When someone types, "community building is what we do best," avatars, which are visible in the discussion group, clap and nod in agreement.

One visitor's initial dip into Second Life's cathedral was marked by acceptance and patience. In a discussion, all questions were answered politely and all participants treated respectfully. When the inexperienced visitor attended Compline and smacked a newly created human avatar into a pillar before landing on the eagle gracing the lectern, other worshipers reassured the visitor that expertise would develop soon.

"We have all the elements of community -- prayers, evangelism, community, hard-core counseling, confession, Bible study, preaching -- except sacraments, which are key for us as Anglicans," Deacon Brown said.

Prompting discussion
Virtual ministries can deepen conversation about the meaning of the sacraments in the Episcopal Church.

"Here we are, an incarnational tradition, and along comes the disembodied nature of the Internet," said Julie Lytle, assistant professor of pastoral theology and educational technologies at Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This tension raises new theological conundrums, she said, pointing to an example in the Roman Catholic Church, which "banned confession online because it believes one must be physically proximate to reconcile."

Some Anglican theologians, Deacon Brown said, "are at work on the problem of virtual sacraments." For instance, he said, "When the priest stands over elements and prayers, is God limited to 10 centimeters, or is God able to traverse the globe?"

The Rev. Matthew Moretz, curate of Christ's Church in Rye, New York, said he believed that "real community demands real human touch.

"Passing the peace, putting water on a baby's head, shaking hands on the way into church, placing bread into someone's palm, these are an important part of community building, which demands that you bump up against people who are different from you, people who may not even like you," he said. "In real community, we try to find our unity in Christ via worship and service instead of through the ways we're the same, whereas online many try to find people who are like themselves ... In cyberspace you can bypass the hard work of worshiping with someone you don't particularly like and doing ministry with someone who drives you nuts."

Yet Moretz also embraces the new technology as creator of the online videos series called Father Matthew Presents. In the past two years, he has posted more than 50 three- to five-minute "webisodes," also called videoblogs, in which he explains various faith matters, usually in a humorous fashion. They have been viewed some 200,000 times, according to statistics on the Internet video channel, YouTube.

"I'm trying to teach, yes, but I'm also trying to dramatize our story," said the cradle Episcopalian as he taped scenes for a new webisode on the Eucharist. "Jesus understood the power of story, so why shouldn't I?"

For all its ability to fulfill our needs for control in receiving or making communication -- "I can edit out the 'uhs,'" Moretz noted happily -- the Internet offers no control over what happens to something posted there, he said. "I feel like I'm sending out a bunch of little messages in a bottle, never knowing where they're going to end up or how they're going to be used." He hopes his online activities will encourage others to become "virtual missionaries," he added.

Renewing faith
The Rev. Diana M. Rogers, transitional deacon in the Diocese of Eau Claire, found her faith in the church renewed when she created "Praying for Lambeth" on Facebook, the social networking site, which "turned out to be incredibly simple," she said. She was disturbed by what she saw as divisiveness preceding the Lambeth Conference. "It seemed to me that everyone needed a time-out, and when I feel like that I turn to prayer," she said. The site allowed anyone to post prayers for those attending Lambeth and, Rogers hoped, be knit together in unified prayer.

"By the time Lambeth was well under way," Rogers continued, "there were 1,210 members from all over the world ... This for me was the miracle of the site -- that faithful people of many cultures and ages came together because they love their church and they want their leadership to lead them in peace, justice and mission."

The Rev. Barbara Crafton, founder of The Geranium Farm, a website whose offerings include a free subscription to the reflections she writes, also marveled at the Internet's power to heal and to build community. Crafton's "farm" began in early 2002, when her health forced her to retire from fulltime parish ministry and she began e-mailing daily reflections to her parishioners and their acquaintances.

Today, subscribers to those e-mails, called "farmers," number in the tens of thousands, and Crafton's "almost daily" reflections are sent across the globe with the tagline "down-to-earth support for living." Crafton's ability to find spirituality in everyday living is apparent in her reflections, which range in topic from the Scriptures appointed for the coming Sunday to lessons taught her by relationships, gardening, cooking (her two dozen books include The Geranium Farm Cookbook) and her cats. The site also offers opportunities for prayer, chat and reading other writers and bloggers (including Moretz) who Crafton has vetted.

Crafton is well aware that Episcopal churches increasingly go beyond using a website in the same way a parish hall bulletin board is utilized, providing, in addition to service times and directions, sermons to be downloaded in print or in audio, online pledging, church school registration and links to the youth group's Facebook page. Yet, she mused recently, "I am struck by the limited ways many institutions use their websites -- many have a let's-use-the-website-to-make-people-come-to-church approach, but sites can do so much more than that in terms of actually serving people's need for spiritual community."

The Geranium Farm includes a message board with various topics offering opportunities for giving and receiving spiritual care: messages that seek prayer; comfort in grief; alerts on walks for various causes; stories offering inspiration and insight; theological musings. Another Geranium Farm webpage, called candle vigils, allows visitors to type a prayer that, with a mouse click, results in an animated candle that "burns" for a week. Recently, the page contained 527 candles and corresponding prayers.

To those who claim they lack resources to minister virtually, Crafton answered, "Well, I can hardly press the send button, and yet I have a website visited by thousands. Clearly people with knowledge about the Internet have to be part of the enterprise."

Furthermore, Crafton said, "Jesus creates Christian community. He can do that anywhere he is supported by us, whether in bricks and mortar or online."