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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The House of Lords must give EU citizens the right to remain

The government has used more than 3m UK residents as pawns. But the Lords could put a stop to it. 

Theresa May, David Davies and Boris Johnson like playing games. They are well versed in moving around a board, measuring their opponents and using pawns to lure them in.

It is a great relief, then, that the House of Lords are expected to put an end to the game the government is so desperate to play, and stop it from using people as pieces in a negotiation. 

It is my hope the Lords will do this by tabling an amendment to unilaterally secure the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, forcing the House of Commons to think once again.

It will be a welcome move by the Lords, with the country once again relying on an extra level of scrutiny to make sure the government's reckless actions do not risk ruining the lives of people who have lived here for decades.

And if the Lords do so, it will be to support the will of the people: an ICM poll after the referendum found some 84 per cent of British people support letting EU migrants stay, including 77 per cent of Leave voters. And a more recent Opinium poll found that only five per cent of Britons think EU nationals currently living in the UK should be asked to leave.

But those who lead us into the biggest negotiations of our time have said they simply cannot guarantee the rights of more than 3m EU citizens living in the UK until the rights of the 1.2m British citizens in the EU are reciprocated.

Constituents tell me they fear a situation where the government sits contemplating the different ways it can implement its policy of mass deportations.

Indeed, millions of people who are active in our communities and play a vital role in the economy are now worried about exactly that. My own constituents - and those of my colleagues in Westminster - are scared their lives will be torn apart if the government is not given a reciprocal gesture of goodwill.

Migrants make up 10.9 per cent of the workforce. These are people who have added to the sciences, to innovation, to the NHS and social care. These are people, not collateral.

Not only immoral, this approach seems fundamentally flawed. Would it not, as our Prime Minister said, be a good thing to approach the negotiations as friends with our European neighbours? Would it, therefore, not be the greatest gesture of friendship to afford EU citizens their right to reside in the UK at the soonest possible opportunity?

Already a leaked document has indicated the government’s approach making it difficult for EU nationals in the UK to acquire permanent residence is likely to mean British nationals living on the continent can expect a backlash of their own.

So, as the government prepares to quash any amendments proposed by the Lords to its bill, the onus will shift onto MPs on all sides of the house to accept this crucial amendment. 

Before the next vote Democratic Unionist Party and Conservative politicians must all ask themselves, are they happy to use people as “negotiating capital”?

Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green.