It’s a concept that’s been around for years and - given the pervasive nature of the internet - is one which has enormous potential. Yet few mainstream churches across the world have so far embraced the concept of the internet church.

That may all be about to change. The Church of England’s Diocese of Oxford has recently announced plans to create a virtual parish in what represents one of the first serious attempts to take the established church onto the world wide web.

Computers

PICTURE: Peter Chen, iStockphoto.com 

 

“I-church is aimed at those who wish to explore Christian faith and discipleship but who are not interested in being part of a local, Sunday morning-orientated church" - Reverend Richard Thomas

The internet-based church - or “i-church” - has already advertised for a “web pastor” to oversee the new parish (the post will be half time with an initial contract of three years) and will interview applicants in late April. They expect to commence the church soon after.

The move is the brainchild of Reverend Richard Thomas, director of communications at the diocese. He says the move comes after research revealed there were “quite a few people who wish to explore Christian faith and discipleship, but who are either not willing or not able to take part in a traditional physical church”.

Reverend Thomas says that to-date people who have asked for membership include those who were unable to physically make their way to a church because they live in a remote location, are travelling and have difficulty getting to a regular church or are disabled. They also include people who already go to a church but want to extend their experience of Christian community as well as those who don’t want to attend a physical church but simply want to explore Christianity via an online community.

“I-church is aimed at those who wish to explore Christian faith and discipleship but who are not interested in being part of a local, Sunday morning-orientated church," he says.

While the diocese has indicated the i-church will offer daily worship, Reverend Thomas says the heart of the online parish will be a “mutually supportive prayerful community” operating under the stability and pastoral guidance of the diocese.

For those who wish to join, this will mean agreeing to a “rule of life” which includes prayer, study and social action. It is expected that the i-church will also offer opportunities for taking the eucharist, socialising and face-to-face discussion of issues with other members as well as the possibility of holding baptisms or confirmations further down the track. 

As well as looking after i-church members, the role of the pastor will involve developing the i-church website. Reverend Thomas told BBC radio that the church was looking for someone to fill the position who was “a mix between the Archangel Gabriel and Bill Gates”.

In Australia, Reverend John Henderson, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, says that while mainstream churches are using the internet for communication and for distributing materials such as Bible studies and sermons, he wasn’t aware of any local moves to place an entire church or parish online.

Reverend Henderson is unsure whether people in this country have embraced the internet to the degree that they see a virtual community as a substitute for a church community. He cautions that any group considering developing an internet church will have to be careful to protect its members from some of the “predators” who lurk on the internet. After all, he points out, “churches do attract the weak and the vulnerable”.

Reverend Thomas, meanwhile, says that following a massive response to the proposed church from across the globe, the church is considering establishing pastoral communities in different parts of the world.

www.i-church.org