The Church ignorant

Internet - A report by the C of E bemuses Andrew Brown

Here is a storm in a vicarage teacup. You have to roll the titles round your tongue to get the full flavour of it, so here goes. Some weeks ago, the Board of Social Responsibility of the General Synod of the Church of England published a report with a title to make you grind your teeth until the fillings pop out: "Cybernauts awake!" I did not make up the exclamation mark. The content was everything the title would lead you to expect. Five professors laboured for three years to produce a report that said things like "We want to begin by affirming our excitement about the opportunities that computers can offer".

Perhaps the most revealing reaction to this came from Ruth Gledhill, the religious affairs correspondent of the Times, who said that she thought it was excellent by the standards of a church report; she may well have been right. But elsewhere in "cyberspace" - another of those fragments of dead language preserved in religious usage - people were a lot less kind. Partly this was a result of injured pride. Here was an official report from the Church of England which nowhere mentioned the people who had, years ago, registered the domain "" and got on with building places for Anglicans to talk all round the world long before. In fact, the authors didn't seem to know any Christians online outside their own social circle.

But there were justifiable reasons for the pride of the excluded. They could feel, like Satan, that "not to know me argues yourself unknown". They had been getting on and doing things online before the Internet had impinged at all on official Christianity. One of them is Brian Reid, a former professor of computer science who oversaw the writing of BIND, the program which makes it possible for computers to find each other across the Internet. If you take three years to write a report about Anglicans online and fail to notice in all that time that there is a thriving and important website with just that name, run by Reid, then you will get few marks for effort or anything else.

The kindest thing said about the report online came on Ship of Fools, an extremely funny and professional online magazine with features like "the fruitcake zone" and "John Calvin's Newsround". Its reviewer suggested that the whole thing had in fact been written by a collection of programs, or bots: "First there is LSDBot, who inhabits a strange, swirly world and writes like this: 'Every now and again something happens to us that lets us dream new dreams.' Or like this: 'Computers . . . they are truly dream machines.'

"ProfessorBot is a more serious contributor and has written some moderately interesting stuff on most of the major areas of debate about the net. But he or she, like the other robots, exists in a vacuum . . . A third source we have identified is BleedingObviousBot. This source has some of the best lines in the whole report, and his wit and wisdom is worth quoting at length." But I am not as cruel as Ship of Fools, so will stop there.

On the mailing lists where these things are argued over, there was a hailstorm of derision. Reid himself wrote a startlingly nasty note to the report's lead author: "There is no need to defame your document further. All I need to do is refer people to it; it defames itself quite handily." He then produced, in five days, a report of his own, and published it himself. It was very much shorter than the official version. It did not mention pornography once. It was addressed to people who were not waiting, with bated breath, to see what the General Synod's Board of Social Responsibility had to say about cyberspace before venturing online.

So far, this is just an entertaining proof that Christians are just as irascible and ignorant online as everyone else. But I think it has a very much wider moral about the way in which organisations of any sort react to the Internet. Few are quite as self-important as the Church of England's General Synod. But many approach that condition, and the point is that the Internet makes it easy to outflank them. It's not true that anyone can put up a valuable or influential website. But anyone who is sufficiently hard-working and intelligent can certainly do so. By the time the centre finds out, it is too late. This is very good news for voluntary organisations which are still full of vital willpower, and very bad news indeed for those that rely on habit.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery