How I surfed my way into holy orders

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THE REV ANDREW BROWN

Religious Affairs Correspondent

The Universal Life Church of Modesto, California, is an undemanding religion. It will ordain "anyone that asks, without question of faith, for life, and without fee." It will even do so over the Internet, which is how I found myself yesterday afternoon legally licensed to conduct baptisms, funerals and weddings in the state of California.

The secret to the Church's growth - it claims 14 million ministers around the world - is not just the cheapness and ease of its licensing process: it took me five minutes from first dialling into the Internet to the moment when my certificate of ordination whispered out of a laser printer. There is also a gratifying doctrinal laxity. "Individual Christians and other believers must be free to practise their faith in whatever manner they believe necessary, commensurate with their not violating the same freedom of others" according to the statement of my new Internet beliefs.

The Universal Life Church, claims to have members of every religion in its ranks. The mother church building, in Modesto, only seats 200. But this hardly matters when they have the whole of the World Wide Web to run around. A full-time staff of six (all ordained) can thus ignore the bitterly contested market of spiritual seekers who are looking for someone to follow. Instead, the Universal Life Church can exploit the longing in all of us to be spiritual leaders.

All this is not entirely idealistic. Ministers of religion are afforded respect in the US and the perks can be worth having. One Roman Catholic diocese has run a campaign to recruit priests on the slogan "Eat free in Italian restaurants for life".

My ordination material explained that "Ministers are entitled to many discounts from retail agencies and various other trade entities and services. Among these are discounts on buses, trains, air travel, department store discounts, food discounts, retail and restaurant chains." Perhaps most useful are discounts at amusement parks. "The minister may obtain discounts on his own. REMEMBER, ask and they may grant it."

There are also tax concessions. You don't need to be on the net to obtain these delights. US readers may call a toll-free number, or even use the post. If I send the mother church $35 I can register my own congregation and start ordaining everyone in the newsroom without Internet access.

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