The Age of the E-church

While congregation numbers continue to slide, a Church of England social networking website aims red

Church on the Net, a ‘Fresh Expression’ registered by the Church of England, opened its virtual doors in July 2007. Anyone, anywhere in the world, is welcome to explore Christianity there: the language is simple, and there are no assumptions about existing knowledge or beliefs.

For the non-believer or seeker, there may be a threshold barrier at the entrance to church buildings. It can be daunting to walk into a place with unfamiliar traditions and symbols, where you don’t know what to do, and where friendly welcomers may inadvertently ask difficult questions.

Online, on the other hand, you remain in your comfort zone and choose what you ‘listen’ to. And you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to.

The big question around online churches usually centres around ‘But is it really church?’. For online gatherings of Christian believers, this may be a more crucial question. For Church on the Net, however, where its visitors tend to have had little or no contact with Christianity, church can be a much looser concept.

If a visitor learns a little about Jesus, reads a line or two of scripture, feels challenged to consider their spirituality, and is moved to say the short prayer published each week, who is to say that’s not church for that person, at that time?

Church on the Net explains core elements of the Christian faith, such as “What is the Holy Trinity?” and explores common questions, such as “Why does God allow suffering?”

If, however, a visitor decides to commit to Christianity (after ‘belonging’ to Church on the Net for a while), the goal is not for them to remain online. Instead, they’re encouraged to visit a church near them, if one exists and they are free to do so, to experience the full expression of fellowship in a physical church.

Most other expressions of online Christianity, such as Facebook groups, are populated by existing believers. Sites such as St Pixels and Second Life offer communities where people chat frequently and may already know, or subsequently get to know, one another offline. Forums are busy, and real-life encounters may be organised.

At Church on the Net, however, the need for anonymity prevails.

Visitors prefer not to show their hand, or cannot declare their interest due to family, religious or political reasons. They prefer to email the Church on the Net team in person, instead of using the community section—where their stories, questions and comments would be more public.

Some very moving personal testimonies have emerged from people who have belonged to Church on the Net, developed their belief there, and used it as a springboard into a physical church.

Since no one has to ‘register’ to visit Church on the Net, it remains a place anyone can visit, any time of day, quietly and anonymously.

And, as every Christian church should, it welcomes everyone—whatever their background or beliefs.

Nicola David is Project Leader for Church on the Net

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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.