Faith & Reason: Consecrated virgins on the Internet

What effect will computers and the Internet have on the Church? Andrew Brown is intrigued and concerned by the possibilities - and the range of theological information online.

I was speaking at recent conference on church commmunications, which put me in a difficult position, since I could not work out how to heckle myself, and don't know many other ways to interact with authority. The audience were for the most part worried men, whose lives were complicated because bishops wouldn't talk to them, and journalists would, if only to ask for access to their bishops. There were a couple of Catholics, delicately smug, for everyone knows that their bishops are so exhausted by their ceaseless conversations with God that they have nothing of interest to say for the secular media. But for the most part, the audience were Anglican priests, worrying about how to do an unusually impossible job, for a change.

One of the things that worried them was the Internet. There is a natural affinity between the clergy and personal computers. Priests are for the most part intelligent, educated, and with small businesses to run: a parish may not make any money, but it needs as much organisation as anything more profitable. They are also, often, lonely: isolated by their status, their beliefs, or their education. So they tend to play around a lot on the Internet, once they have discovered it. As a means for informal internal communication, this is fine. I listen in myself on a couple of discussion groups and learn surprising things.

The question is whether the Church can make any more constructive use of the net, and how this will change the churches that do so. Just as priests are in the market for computers because they run small enterprises, so churches may be flattened by the new technology because they are all, even the Church of England, at some level organisations. Every other organisation into which computers has come has reacted by sacking more people than anyone could have imagined ten years before the computers arrived. Yet it may be that churches will be among the organisations least damaged by this kind of thing. A company which has been ripped apart by men with spreadsheets is much more like a voluntary association than an institution with pension funds and so forth, and most churches have reached that state already. Even media companies pay better at the bottom of the scale than churches do. The last sizeable church bureaucracies that are still run as companies were before computers arrived are at the World Council of Churches and and the headquarters of the Episcopal Church of the USA; and both are facing terrible staff cuts anyway.

So the churches may well be spared much of the impact that computer networks will have on society outside them, though of course they must deal with the consequences. What remains is the impact that the Internet will have on the spread of ideas. Some of the technology is already having startling consequences. Westcott House, a theological college in Cambridge, runs an e-mail service for enquirers about theology. Students, faculty, and even the bishop have all helped to answer serious enquiries seriously in a way which no other medium could make half as easy. Then there are sites which will find you bible quotations in six different English translations and four foreign languages.

The Roman Catholic church has been particularly good at publishing its documents online. Needing to find out about consecrated virgins in a hurry, I was able to find and read the text of a letter on this improving subject from Pope Pius XII within five minutes of starting a search. Such tightly focused discussions are not to be confused with the insane ramblings of the usenet discussions haunted by illiterate students from around the world. Sturgeon's law, that 99 per cent of everything is crap, undergoes a strange mutation in the multidimensionality of cyberspace, so that out there, 999 per cent of everything is.

All this sounds wonderful. It empowers consumers of religion as it empowers consumers of everything else. It puts them all into a global market. I can order my books from Amazon.com in Seattle. Why should I not order my theology from the Billy Graham Library? The problem is that "consuming" religion is not what the religious are supposed to do. To adapt to your market is to adapt to this world, perhaps fatally.

One last point. It may seem an imposition to devote an entire article to God and the Internet, but at least I got all the way to the end without using the word "gay".

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