Church to spread word on disk: Many clergy are increasingly using computers as tools of work. Andrew Brown reports

THE CHURCH of England's General Synod met in York at the weekend to discuss an agenda described by one observer as 'a suicide note in three parts: first they abolish the prayer book; then the priesthood; and finally the Establishment'.

The idea of a prayer book may have been doomed by computer technology. The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev David Stancliffe, told the Synod that 'interleaving material from a variety of sources on a computer is increasingly the practice. Even in a largely rural diocese, the number of clergy with no kind of word processor could be counted on the fingers of two hands. This means that authorised liturgical material from all our sources needs to be indexed and linked together in such a way as to be accessible to those whose primary sources are disks and not printed texts.

The bishop, chairman of the Church's Liturgical Commission, warned the Synod: 'If we do not provide approved material, the floodgates would open to private enterprise, and there would be immense diversity in the style and quality of what came to market.'

The CD-roms he proposes to publish could hold the complete texts of all the liturgies presently in use, alongside a couple of translations of the Bible; This would allow any vicar to print out service sheets containing only exactly what the congregation needed.

'There is a law not entirely unrelated to that of Sod, which says that the fatter the book, the greater the confusion,' said the Rev Terry Knights, who described himself as one of the few priests without a word processor.

After the debate, the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Rev Stephen Sykes, said the problem for the church was that much of its theology was bound up in common practices, which these technological developments threatened to undermine. 'With a book, you have to read the parts you disagree with, as well as those you like. We haven't yet solved the problem of how to be a Catholic Church in a post-modern age, where people can pick and mix from the doctrines and liturgies that suit them.'

Dr Sykes had also been chosen to lead the House of Bishops' counter-attack on a motion about lay presidency. This subject goes to the root of priesthood. Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans believe the ordination of a priest conveys certain specific supernatural powers, so that he or she can re-enact the sacrifice of Christ at the Eucharist and not perform certain actions in memory of it, as Protestants believe.

The Church of England has always contained people who hold both understandings: the 39 Articles are ambiguous on the point; but the official view has always favoured the notion that priesthood matters. However, several ultra- Protestant parts of the Anglican Communion have been flirting with the idea of allowing lay people to celebrate the Eucharist.