The gospel is broadcast to cyberspace

The reverend Alan Bain saw his congregation of 170 swollen by an extra 500 people for whom the spirit was willing but the flesh weak, or just too far away, when he gave an online broadcast of his Sunday service yesterday.

Broadband technology helped to spread the word from St Philip and St James church in Bath, for what is believed to be the first time in Britain.

According to Telewest Broadband, which organised the webcast - including two TV-quality cameras and professional sound mixing - the service attracted as many viewers as a webcast by the former Spice Girl Mel C. "I'm calling him Reverend Spice now," said John Moorwood, a Telewest spokesman.

Mr Bain, 55, who has a high-speed internet connection at home, said the response had been "brilliant", with e-mails from people watching the Anglican service from as far away as Australia and Hokkaido in Japan.

The parish priest said he wanted to encourage people who were unable to get to church, were looking for a new way to worship or wanted to have a lie-in on a Sunday morning.

While many American churches offer services on high-speed connections, the technology has not yet been embraced by the church in England.

But Mr Bain was optimistic. "It was quite expensive to put on," he said, "and the technology is pretty difficult to set up, though I'm sure that will be easier in future. We are thinking about doing it again for Christmas. I think this is the way forward for the Church of England. It's not quite the same experience as going into a church - although one e-mailer said it moved him to tears. We're not setting up a virtual church, simply encouraging people to go along to their local congregation where they will find similar things."

Although the sermon was shorter and more to the point than usual, Mr Bain insisted that otherwise the service, which had an international theme, was normal.

The virtual congregation was able to interact by choosing a hymn from a shortlist of five posted on the website. The one with the most votes, "Amazing Grace", was sung at the end of the service.

The service took place on www.broadbandreligion.co.uk, where it is being repeated.

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