The surfing nun

Sister Lavinia Byrne is `profoundly' involved with the Internet, which makes good sense considering the power of the medium to disseminate religious and quasi-religious ideas. By Mark Vernon
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The Independent Online
Lavinia Byrne is "cybernun". She is a member of the Institute for the Blessed Virgin Mary, a high-powered Roman Catholic religious community, and from her moment of initiation, on a course run by Eva Pascoe of cafe Cyberia, she has been profoundly involved in life on the Internet.

"Profoundly" is the operative word. She is now turning her abilities as a thinker and communicator to the rising tide of religious information that is to be found on the World Wide Web (her fitness for the task was confirmed on 4 July by the University of Birmingham, which awarded her an honorary doctorate of divinity). In the process, she is being confronted with some of the deepest quandaries that this new medium provokes.

Her interest in information technology began some 30 years ago, when, at the age of 21, she built her first computer out of bits of card and knitting needles. It functioned as a storage and retrieval system for documents she used in teaching French. "I thought it was magical, because it was a system for moving information about information," she says.

Some years later, a different sort of computer, of the silicon variety, was installed in the office of the college where she then worked. As the only one to show enthusiasm, she was selected to go on the training course. At first, it seemed like a mistake. By the end of the first day she felt like crying. This new machine seemed impenetrable. But by lunch time on the second day, the breakthrough came, the mystery was cracked, and she was hooked.

The Internet first entered her consciousness via computer magazines. "I went to Cyberia, the Internet cafe, and watched people, and thought, `I terribly want to do this', because they were sitting there with this wonderful, shiny information coming up in front of them, magic screens going over at the speed of light." Cyberia's "women-friendly" training course let her into the secret of that.

But lest it be thought that as a nun she is preparing an Internet-age fool for Christ, she points to the fact that her religious community is founded upon a commitment to teaching. That commitment recognises that moving information and making it available result in nothing less than the expansion of people's aspirations, and so, possibly, revolutions in their lives. Byrne's involvement with the Internet is therefore a vital communal investment, and it is here that the story opens up.

To many, religion plus Internet equals New Age. For perhaps millions of people around the world, the Net has become the medium through which they conduct their search for answers to the basic questions of human existence. There is something about the Internet that resonates with these religious needs. The act of surfing the Web is precisely one of inquiry and discovery. Further, the search can be pursued alone, often at home, in the privacy necessary for more intimate explorations. But, at the same time, the Web provides immediate access to experiences and truths that reach across the world.

It is unsurprising that the religious space opened up by the Internet has been rapidly filled with a maelstrom of material from New Age groups. Here the riot of their diverse messages fits with the anarchy of the medium, and the accompanying "other-worldly" spirituality finds an already disembodied environment. But what is worrying about the situation is that the medium that provides the information to meet these needs can manipulate and incarcerate as readily as it can liberate and invigorate.

"What is tragic is that so much of this ends in a bad place," Byrne says. Recollecting the horror of the mass deaths at the Californian mansion of the Heaven's Gate cult, she adds: "If the way we know about certain New Age groups is because they have all committed suicide, then I think that the need for an alternative is totally valid."

It is in providing such an alternative that she is engaged now, along with a group of people called Housetop. They are taking seriously the spiritual search of adults, and their plan is to provide a New Age Catholic Web site through which to offer the Christian insights of spiritual searches that span the centuries. On a practical level, logging on to the site (www.spiritual-wholeness.org) will take you to a collection of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), and from there two levels of answer are provided, one short and one more considered and scholarly.

The details of a number of online courses will also be found on the home page, with titles that match the common themes of the New Age, such as "spiritual wholeness", "enhancing the feminine", and "beyond the agnostic Jesus". The look and feel of the page is being given particular attention. Unless it clearly fits into the genre of New Age Web pages, in terms of art and presentation, it will miss its target audience.

If all this sounds a bit wacky, then the significance of the enterprise could be being missed. For alongside these esoteric concerns, problems that face a whole range of organisations seeking to develop presences on the Web are being addressed.

Forget religion for a moment, and think about a bank. In days gone by, banks exhibited their authority and testified to their trustworthiness by their splendid and mighty buildings. But, today, a bank wishing to offer services on the Web must develop new ways of building customer confidence and guaranteeing security;it is alarmingly easy to construct a Web site to fool people into parting with their cash. The Bank of England has already warned the public off one unscrupulous operation.

It is precisely these questions of status that Byrne is tackling. On the Internet the official Web page of the Roman Catholic Church has exactly the same ranking as the home page of a minor cult. Type "religion" into a search engine and both will be returned as if they are equals. Entering this radically egalitarian world, where difference and hierarchy collapse on to a common level playing field, is risky for any traditional organisation. For the Catholic Church, it has parallels with the period following the birth of the printing press. The opportunity to mass-produce the Bible was challenged by clergy and theologians. What would happen when it got into the hands of the uneducated populace? In our time, access to the new medium can open the door to charlatans and, in the case of the bank, thieves.

Byrne is working on some answers. The popularity of a Web page is important, as is ensuring that it reaches the right audience. A more secure way to guarantee authority is by the call sign, the address. Another way is to build its value by ensuring that good quality material goes online. Ultimately, though, like other organisations, the church cannot afford not to take the risk of becoming involved with the Net, Byrne believes.

"We live in a media-saturated world. The Catholic Church is a vast organisation, and it must set up a good conversation with modern culture. I am enthusiastic about the Internet, but I am not naive. I know there are huge problems about the status and authority and accuracy of information. But I do not want to walk away from it".

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