A Sunday Morning in Church.com

The Internet church's administrators gave its officers a `smite' button to use against guests using vulgar language, sparking complaints that this violent act was an affront to Christian values.

Almost all of human activities familiar to us have developed parallels on the Internet. Dating and matchmaking services connect men and women; electronic commerce and auction sites put on sale everything from hazelnuts to houses; anyone interested in sitting in libraries or watching movies can also do it on the Net - and if you just want a game of backgammon, there are thousands of enthusiastic opponents. So, it was just a matter of time until the men of the cloth decided the time has come for a divine presence on the Web.

In the past few weeks the media in Britain and elsewhere have been tracking the strange launch of a virtual church - known as the "Church of Fools." Visitors enter the church website and register as regular worshipers or as guests. Once registered, they are transferred to a prayer hall. Each visitor is represented as a three-dimensional figure walking through the church.

The visitors can move the figures and direct them to carry out a variety of actions. For example, they can seat their on-line selves on one of the virtual benches and sing alongside other worshipers. They can approach the altar, genuflect, cross themselves, and get a blessing.

A visitor may speak in a whisper with others, or say something out loud so that all will "hear." The words of the visitor are entered by the keyboard and appear as balloons emerging from his or her virtual mouth, as in a comic book. Is all this a bad joke? Maybe , but the Bishop of London, Reverend Richard Chartres, thinks not. He was so impressed with the initiative that he volunteered to be the first minister to deliver an on-line sermon.

On the face of it, the initiative seemed to suggest far-reaching implications for the way millions of Christians practice the rituals of their faith. In the 21st century, time has become a cherished commodity, and not everyone is prepared to devote their Sunday mornings to sitting for prayers in church, an institution that anyway finds itself struggling with ever dwindling numbers of worshipers.

The problem is that the limitations of the online church become evident very quickly. Although it is open 24 hours a day, only about 20 people can wander around the church at the same time, due to graphics problems. A business model is needed to support the site, prompting a suggestion to display advertisements on the virtual stained glass windows.

During Reverend Chartre's sermon, his figure seemed to be walking toward the wall and disappearing. His computer had crashed, perhaps because he was unaware that a sermon longer than 500 words causes software problems.

A few days after the church opened, the inevitable unwanted guests began to stroll in. One of them declared himself "God" and turned into a major nudnik who started preaching to everyone. God was then followed by a "Satan" who rose up on the pulpit and shouted that everyone was going to hell.

As these annoyances proliferated, the church administration decided to scrap the option of speaking from the pulpit and addressing all the worshipers in church. This failed to solve the problem as Satan slipped back in and began whispering four-letter words in his neighbor's ears. Technology deployed by the webmaster to replace the profanities with "Hallelujah!" and "Praise the Lord!" were of little help.

The church administration then gave its officers a "smite" button to use against guests using obscene language, sparking complaints that this violent act was an affront to Christian values.

By now a chorus of criticism was being voiced by other clergymen. A pastor in the southern county of Essex said the church was dead wrong if it was willing "to abandon the historic church path of Bible-centered fidelity. If leaders think non-communal, virtual worship will be acceptable to the God of the Bible, they are in for a very real shock."

Without doubt, the online church is only at the beginning of a learning curve. But anyone who dismisses this as a sterile exercise may be in for a surprise. The Church was the first institution to adopt the subversive technology of printing as a tool for spreading the faith more than 500 years ago. There is no reason to assume it cannot find a successful way to deploy the Internet as a tool in its sacred service.