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Anglican Church Hopes Virtual Worship Will Boost Membership - 2004-07-01

The Church of England is operating its first virtual parish, which is designed to serve a community of online worshippers from all over the world. The Anglican Internet church, or i-church, went online three months ago, and has already attracted far more members than its organizers ever expected, even though the official launch is still a month away.

I-church recently selected Reverend Alyson Leslie from more than 40 applicants, as the part-time web-pastor.

"I am from the belief that you build a church member by member," she says.

As i-church's web-pastor, Reverend Leslie says her primary role will be to guide community members to a life committed to prayer, study and Christian action, while also giving members individual attention.

"It is really important that everyone who signs up for i-church feels that they are an individual who is important to i-church because they are important to God, and feels that they get personal response and that they are not just an anonymous number in this large organization," she adds.

I-church has attracted members from all over the world and some of them for unpredictable reasons. One of them is New Zealand farmer Ms. Jayne Tite, who says her work does not allow her to attend regular church services.

"I work all kinds of different hours," she says. "Going to church on a Sunday is not the easiest thing to arrange. Things like calves and cows just don't seem to want to cooperate to the hours of the church."

But there are others like Christine Shilling who are already part of a traditional church. Ms. Shilling is an educational psychologist and lives in a small town on the outskirts of London. She hopes i-church will complement her involvement with her local parish.

"I will have the additional advantage of relating with people from all walks of life who I would have never encountered face to face and there will be an immediacy about those experiences, which will help me in my spiritual growth and in turn will help me to help others," she says.

The i-church is operated by the Diocese of Oxford. Reverend Richard Thomas, a Diocese spokesman, says research indicates that in Britain about 50 percent of the people say they are members of the Church of England but only eight percent regularly attend church on Sundays.

According to Reverend Thomas, i-church was created to bridge that gap and to provide people with more spiritual options. He says i-church has already attracted 700 members and more than 1,000 inquiries, even before its official launch.

"I had predicted when we set this up that we'd probably have between 25 and 50 community members at the end of the first year," he explains.

But being a member of i-Church also has some disadvantages. Reverend Leslie says the sacramental side of Christian life will be missing.

"That is obviously something that we cannot do online," she notes. "No one has yet found a way to do online Eucharist or online baptism, but we will have gatherings from time to time in this country for people to participate in Eucharistic services."

Reverend Leslie says to deal with that problem, i-church will organize gatherings in various parts of the world if community members express interest. In the meantime, i-church plans to offer a prayer of the day, special readings, educational material and spiritual counseling.

But the idea of an Internet church is not for everyone. At Saint Bride's Anglican church in central London, 77-year-old Brian Burrows said he would not join an Internet church.

"I think church is coming together not people sitting in isolated rooms talking to one another or doing things through a machine," he says.

But another person at the church, Katrina Pringle, says although i-church does not appeal to her immediately, it could in the future.

"I think I'd rather stay [in a] physical church, because then you can see the people face to face and you are more part of the community," she adds. "It's a bit faceless on the Internet I think, but I am not saying that I never would."

For now, the Anglican Internet church is preparing for its formal launch on July 30, when Reverend Leslie will be officially appointed web pastor. The next step will be to find additional money and staff and better software to deal with the unexpected demand i-church has generated.