Online church is booming in these isolated days of coronavirus. Some churches are streaming and others are using Zoom video, but none, so far as we know, are using the now-ancient technology of Shockwave, which in 2004 allowed Ship of Fools to launch a three-month experiment in online church called Church of Fools.
The Gothic building was virtual and worked like a computer game, but the prayer, worship and relationships were all real.
The congregation logged in from all over the world as avatars, which could take part in scheduled services. Those who couldn’t get in appeared as ghosts, see-through avatars which could observe but not take part.
In tribute to the current rediscovery of online church, here’s the final sermon from Church of Fools, given by Steve Goddard, as both a farewell and a meditation on church, real and virtual.
‘WE LONG TO SEE YOU’
Ever noticed how Paul bearhugs readers at the start of his letters? ‘I thank God in every remembrance of you,’ he writes to his close buddies in Phillippi.
But here’s the heavy deal. Even when he hasn’t met the people he is writing to, in this case the Romans, he still bigs it up. ‘I long to see you…’ (Romans 1:11).
Never having met someone, not seeing them, not being physically with them, doesn’t imply lack of reality, depth and care as far as Paul is concerned.
Romans is one of the apostle’s longest letters – 16 tortuous chapters – and he hasn’t even met the people he is writing to. Ring any virtual bells? Those clashes in the crypt with people you’ll never set eyes on – from Manchester to Minnesota, Malmo to Melbourne, maybe? Locking horns on everything from the Pope to polygamy; offering advice to those in need; keying in the odd prayer or two – and thinking as you log off: ‘I long to see those people I have never met.’
Some observers have condescendingly patted us on the head. Their angle? Church of Fools is a good effort but a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’. In many ways it is. An online church cannot dispense the sacraments. We can’t baptise, marry or bury our visitors – though, sometimes gleefully, we can smite them!
But it can offer people like Radalyn from Georgia a new, meditative window. ‘Church of Fools is an oasis in my day,’ she admits. ’I often leave my “ghost” alone, kneeling at prayer in the church while I work nearby.’
What a fascinating idea.
Meanwhile another visitor, Mary, admits: ‘Being anonymous allows me to be outspoken about my faith and not judge people so quickly… something I would not normally do.’
Wesley J told me yesterday: ‘Contact in the cyberworld has not led to loneliness and despair. Exactly the opposite. I believe I am now more alive than I was before.’
Though we have never met each other in the flesh, I believe many of us will wake up tomorrow morning and say ‘We long to see you’ – here again in the Church of Fools.
And even to those who would try to wreck what we are doing – to the troll we say… ‘We long to see you.’ To the hacker… ‘We long to see you.’ To the rager… ‘We long to see you.’
And to the regulars and first-timers, whether you’re a distinguished grey beard, a nerdy Ned, a carrot top, a pink slipper, or a shadowy ghost – you have built something into all our lives through the Holy Spirit.
‘We long to see you…’ and thousands more like you – again. Soon.
May God grant us the means to make it happen.