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

A pro-union march in 2014. Photo: Getty
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The legacy of sectarianism is still poisoning the air of Scotland

Ruth Davidson has reinstated two Stirling councillors who posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media. That this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles.

Kenny Dalglish was a bluenose: as a boy in the mid-60s, he and his father would make the short journey to Ibrox to cheer on Rangers, then Scotland’s most successful team. With the football allegiance came a cultural one, too. Or, probably, the other way round.

Wee Kenny could play a bit, obviously, and dreamed that his beloved Gers would sign him up. But, as Richard T Kelly writes in Keegan and Dalglish, his enjoyable new double biography of the two footballing greats, "Rangers had a certain preference for big lads, or else lads with an obvious turn of pace; and Dalglish, despite his promise, had neither of those easy attributes."

Rangers’ loss was Celtic’s gain, but it took some effort. The former, writes Kelly, "was the club of the Queen, the Union, Scotland’s Protestant majority… founded by Freemasons and members of the Orange Order, strongly tied to the shipyards of Govan. Glasgow Celtic was the team of Irish Catholic patriots, revolutionary Fenians and Home Rulers, begun as a charitable organisation… a means to bolster the faith and keep the flock out of the clutches of Protestant soup kitchens. It was going to be a serious step across a threshold for Dalglish to accept the overtures of Celtic."

In the end, Jock Stein dispatched his number two, the unhelpfully named Sean Fallon, to meet the young starlet’s family. "Fallon entered a domestic environment he felt to be 'a bit tense' -  a Rangers house, a lion’s den, if you will. Fallon even picked up the sense that Bill [Dalglish’s father] might rather his son pursue [an] apprenticeship in joinery."

The deal was done ("My dream was to become a professional footballer – the location was just a detail," Dalglish would later say) and the most gifted player Scotland has ever produced went on to make his reputation kitted out in green and white stripes rather than royal blue -  a quirk of those difficult times for which those of us classed as Fenian bastards rather than Orange bastards will be forever grateful.

Growing up in west and central Scotland, it was hard to avoid being designated as one type of bastard or the other, even if you supported a team outwith the Old Firm or had no interest in football at all. Thanks to 19th century immigration, the terrible religio-political divide of Ulster was the dominant cultural force even in Stirling, the town around 25 miles from Glasgow where I grew up and where I now live again. If you went to the Catholic school, as I did, you were a Fenian; if you went to the Proddy (officially, non-demominational) school, you were a Hun. You mostly hung around with your own, and youthful animosity and occasional violence was largely directed across the religious barricades. We knew the IRA slogans and the words to the Irish rebel songs; they had the UVF and the Red Hand of Ulster. We went to the Cubs, they went to the Boys’ Brigade. We got used to the Orange Walks delivering an extra-loud thump on the drums as they passed the chapel inside which we were performing our obligatory Sunday observance.

At the time – around the early and mid 80s – such pursuit of identity might not have been much more than a juvenile game, but it was part of something more serious. It was still the case that Catholics were unemployable in significant Scottish industries – "which school did you got to, son?" was the killer interview question if your answer began with "Saint". This included the media: in the late 90s, when I joined the Daily Record – the "Daily Ranger" to Celtic fans (its Sunday sister, the Sunday Mail, was known to Rangers fans as the "Sunday Liam") – vestiges of this prejudice, and the anecdotes that proved it, were still in the air.

The climate is undoubtedly better now. Secularisation has played its part - my own daughters attend non-denominational schools – even if, as the sportswriter Simon Kuper has observed, many are "not about to give up their ancient traditions just because they no longer believe in God". The peace process in Northern Ireland and important gestures such as the late public friendship between Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness have made a difference. And I suppose the collapse of Rangers as a footballing force, amid financial corruption that saw them dumped into the bottom tier of Scottish football, helped.

But the sensitivity remains. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum broke down in part across tribal lines, with many Celtic supporters, once Labour, now SNP, loudly backing a Yes vote, while Rangers fans were on the No side. The prospect of Brexit creating a significant border between the north and south of Ireland, which could inflame recently and shallowly buried tensions, makes one shudder. And even locally, the old enmities continue to raise their grubby heads. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is currently taking flak for allowing the reinstatement of two Stirling councillors who had posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media prior to their election. The pair have apologised and agreed to take part in diversity training, but I confess that this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles. The rawness remains.

That this is so was brought to me a few years ago when I filed a column containing the word ‘sectarianism’ to a Scottish newspaper. Though the context had nothing to do with Catholic/Protestant or Celtic/Rangers, the editor asked me to remove it. "It’ll be deliberately misunderstood by one side or the other, and probably both," he said. "It’s not worth the hassle. In Scotland I’m afraid it never is."

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).