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OK if a dragon leads evensong?
Mark Howe, fresh back from the Digital Symposium, (aka digisymp) a conference for Christian geeks, developers and academics in Durham, comments on the issues and distractions of the conference, plus the visit of Bishop Tom Wright, who provided the "fat lady sings" moment.
Logging into "Christianity in the Digital Space", I realised how far virtual worlds have come since the Ship of Fools experiments with Church of Fools.

Access to
Durham Island is via an intuitive portal technology called "train". Once connected, a cast member whisked me to the conference venue for a modest fee. The developers have clearly worked hard on his personality, but need to perfect audio communication, which currently relies on an arcane dialect known as Geordie.

Durham looks just like a medieval town. Full marks for attention to detail, but a castle
and a cathedral on the same hill felt busy, and obviously no real city would be viable without car parks or a supermarket. And I guess they were up against a deadline when they defaulted to calling their college "John". However, I soon found myself immersed in this hyperreal environment, with its primary green grass and its inter-room navigation derived from the library scene in The Name of the Rose.

The event was organised by Andrew Graystone of the Churches' Media Council. He avoided the twin online pitfalls of podcast dictatorship and chatroom anarchy by programming a range of semi-structured events. Our avatars were imported from other worlds, and some coherence in their design would have made for smoother gameplay, but isn't diversity the essence of postmodernity? Many of the avatars looked older than in other environments. Hosting costs were underwritten by the Bible Society, whose generosity stretched to providing a convincingly fearsome dinosaur in the form of Pete Meadows.

The theme closest to the heart of the St John's cast members was biblical literacy. People no longer know the story, so getting people into our churches is like trying to sell a
Pirates of the Caribbean ride to a population with no notion of Keira Knightley. It doesn't help that CODEC's equivalent to Keira is the Gadarene demoniac (93 per cent ignorance). Maybe Johnny Depp could play that role? And I need to know how the Bible Society can claim to be committed to spreading the Word while enforcing narrative copyright in a manner worthy of any other multinational cartel.

The keynote speaker was Mark Brown – did they get these names out of a phone book?! – who founded Anglicans in Second Life. He spoke of hyper-connectivity and continuous, partial attention, but most of us missed it because we were tweeting, texting and blogging. His predictions about personalised, semantic web Bibles generated lots of traffic, and his plans for the future of Bible translation prompted a Twitter intervention from the head of Wycliffe UK. True Web 2.0 theatre!

We visited St Pixels and Anglicans in Second Life. We expected two very different experiences, but were mostly amazed by the similarities. Both services looked like what one tweeter described as "a new way to do old things", i.e. sitting in a church building listening to a preacher. The interactivity high point in both cases was open prayer. Was there a lack of resolve in the scripting team? Were these online churches too serious to be playful and too playful to be deep?

What are the implications of using Second Life avatars designed for cybersex in congregational worship? Could this approach be extended to Durham Cathedral? Should dragons be allowed to lead worship? Is that the point of ordaining women? These were just some of the questions that bounced around the informal networking in the bar.

Running through the conference was a duo-monologue about identity. In one corner, the reactionaries argued that the Internet has created a new problem called hypocrisy (a Greek word used to describe Christians 2,000 years earlier). In the other corner, all the selves of the progressives agreed that they are only authentically themselves when they are someone else. The whole thing left me in two minds.

Most of those present seemed to have embraced a practical ecclesiology received from a collection of rich, pagan Californians. This week, the best way to be church online is through Twitter (no sermons) and Facebook (when their accounts are not suspended, as happened recently to Mark Brown). Presumably next year's best practice will be whichever new product is making the most money for Californian pagans. I argued, as usual, that Christians could set trends too, even in the enabling technology, but my Dragon's Den proposal to do this received less virtual venture capital than Simon Jenkins'
Virtual Purgatory. Hell, even the typo of his proposal (Virtual Pregnancy) received more support. I was reduced to muttering darkly about bread, wine and circuses.

The highlight of the conference was a flying visit by the Bishop of Durham. Others, like me, had fantasised about stealing the Tom Wright name badge. (Tom! Guys, you need to find some interesting names for your scripts! Have you tried two-letter mnemonics like NT? It worked for Microsoft!) Bishop Tom was my favourite cast member – listening hard, responding intelligently and demonstrating a humility rarely found in virtual bishops. But whoever thought skinning him in purple was a neat idea? Never ever let the geeks choose the cast dress code.

Bishop Tom's discourse avoided the too-easy baptism of today's trends, while recognising that postmodernistic values such as playfulness resonate well with scripture. I shall never again think about whales in quite the same way. He recognised that without his own digital technology he would be unable to produce dead-tree publications at his current prodigious rate.

However, he seemed to me to commit a fundamental category error in conflating virtuality and gnosticism. Whatever else the Corinthian super-apostles were about, it wasn't shunning the perks of physical interaction. It is Paul who holds up his end of the discussion by letter, and who nevertheless claims to be present (a point that Bishop Tom did acknowledge during questions).

My greatest concern was that there seems to be no episcopal plan for shipping a version of church that works outside sink estates and Constable paintings. We were told that community must be geographically rooted. Bishop Tom accepts that this has not been the experience of the majority of UK inhabitants for decades, but this just shows how big a problem we face. So what solution is Bishop Tom proposing? Even after questioning him on this point, I still fear that he is waiting for someone to socially re-engineer the world back to a mythical 1950s in order to allow parish-based ecclesiology to work again.

The conference raised many important points about community, mission, worship and historical rootedness in contemporary culture. Some of those points need to be heard beyond the virtual world, because they also affect "BricksChurch" (my favourite jargon of the conference). Perhaps the most important role of the conference was to put loose-cannon pioneers, dusty academics, over-worked bishops and the occasional luddite in contact with each other.

If only it could have been real.
steve tomkins
Mark Howe is the author of Online Church?
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