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

Getty
Show Hide image

Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.