Richard Thomas, the Oxford Diocese Director of Communication writes about the new venture:
One of the defining features of our culture is the desire to self-resource. And the internet is probably the ultimate expression of that self-resourcing. I seek the resources I need for my holiday, my banking, and my insurance on-line. I even buy my books and my wine that way. This change has affected the way that many of us think about our belonging. No longer do we belong to an organisation or an institution in order to serve that organisation or institution. We look to it to serve us. Instead of being contributors to our communities, we are consumers of them. This may be a key distinction between Grace Davie’s ‘believers’, and her ‘belongers’. It may well be that participant members of Churches remain participants, regardless of the difficulties of participation, because they have a well developed sense of the importance of the institution for the maintenance and transmission of the faith. And it may be that the increasing failure to participate is a direct result of a loss of faith in such institutions as places that are effective in their key tasks, and that make demands on us that do not contribute either to mission or personal growth.
This is not necessarily a good thing. It may not be a healthy thing. But it is happening, and if the Christian Church is to be truly incarnational, it cannot simply decry what is, and become fruitlessly self-absorbed in what might be.
So it should be no surprise to discover that there are some people, maybe more than a few, who want to be part of a Christian community, to commit themselves to one another in prayer, in learning, and in social action, without the hassle and clutter of participation in the local parish church. We could, of course, simply respond by saying that the Church is, above all things, a sacramental community where meeting together is of the essence of what we are.
But if that was the sum of our response, we would merely add to the number of people that we fail to reach, and increase the number of people that we alienate because we want them to be other than what they are.
You cannot blame people who are taught all the skills of self-resourcing from primary school upwards, if they then take those skills and use them to resource their own spiritual pilgrimage. But you could blame the Church if we failed to respond to them by offering an alternative way to participate in Christian community, thereby confining them to a sunday-worship-based congregation or nothing.
i-church is designed to be part of that response. By providing an internet site rich in resources for the visitor, run by a community of people who have made a commitment to i-church as their spiritual community, and are living under a rule of life of prayer, study and social action, we hope to provide a Christian community that can work alongside the traditional parish church, drawing on its strengths, and contributing to its riches.
By structuring i-church as a congregation of the diocese of Oxford, under the authority of the diocesan bishop, this community will have both stability and pastoral guidance. By associating with one of the many religious communities, whether that be Benedictine, Franciscan, or the newly-forming Contemplative Fire, it will have a spirituality that will give it ‘bottom’, a solidity that many internet communities lack.
One of the key discoveries about internet communities is that their members soon express a desire to meet. Ship of Fools has its meetings of shipmates. Even Encylopedia Titanica has meetings for those interested in the tragedy of the sinking of that great ship. And we expect i-church to be no different. One of our aims will be to facilitate new kinds of meeting, meeting based on knowing one another at a much deeper level than is possible simply by sitting next to someone for an hour on a Sunday morning.
We will offer opportunities for eucharist, for socialising, for meeting to discuss issues, to those who are members as well as those who come to visit. If, in time, there are those who seek baptism, or confirmation, we will offer a real, geographical place for celebration of these sacraments. All these things are possible, and none are excluded.
Membership of the body of Christ is not limited by four walls and a spire or tower. The Church is the fellowship of those who belong to Christ, and to one another in Christ, and I would argue that you can have fellowship with other members of i-church at least as fully, if not more so, as with those you sit next to on a Sunday, but whom you never really know deeply.
It is this desire to know and to be known, really to belong meaningfully to a supportive community, without being limited to one place and one time, that is the attraction of i-church. You can belong, no matter where you are in the world, no matter how often you travel, no matter how difficult it is to be in Church on a Sunday morning. You can belong wherever you are, and whenever you feel the need for support, and your physical meetings can be timed to fit in with a life-style that my be heavily constrained in other ways.
Today, we advertised for a web pastor to build this new internet community. It was the first really public announcement of the formation of i-church. The response so far has been tremendously encouraging, with emails from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, as well as many from the UK. Nearly all of them were positive and supportive. Many wanted to join. The one common theme that ran through the vast majority of the emails was “why has no one done this before?” And, maybe unsurprisingly, many responses came from people who are unable, rather than unwilling, to get to a physical church. Some came from people who are members of a physical church, but want the additional support of an internet community.
Maybe, like all initiatives, its simple when it happens. But only when it happens does it seem simple!
Director of Communication, Diocese of Oxford