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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity