In cyberspace, can anyone hear you pray?

Churches are having to use their imagination to attract new members. The 3D virtual-reality Church of Fools is just one idea, but does it have any chance of building a congregation?

As I took my pew, I noticed that not only was the guy next to me wearing the same clothes as me, but we had the same heads on as well. A true 21st Century faux pas.

Before you can go into the virtual church, you must choose what your character looks like. This being the first service, options are still limited - hence the coincidence of two people who fancied quiffs and baby blue Argyle jumpers.

Going into this online chapel is a little like playing a computer game - you use your mouse to indicate where you want to walk, you right-click for options such as kneeling, and your typed words appear in speech bubbles on the screen.

But while it may initially feel like a game, it is far more important than that to its creators, the Christian website Ship of Fools, and its sponsor, the Methodist Church.

It is a recognition that relying on traditional ways of attracting congregations is risky. Unless methods can be found of reaching out to new people, the fear for churches is that one day they will simply cease to exist.

The thinking is that some people may be more prepared to wander into a website than a church on the corner of the street. But for the project to be a success virtual worshippers will need to feel like they have actually been to a service. So how does Church of Fools measure up?


It doesn't take many seconds from sitting down next to my new identical twin to realise that behind every character is a real person, on their computer somewhere in the world, all come to the same place for the same reason.

The launch is at the Sandown racecourse, as part of the Christian Resources Exhibition, but people are taking part from Birmingham, Bradford, France, Perth and New Hampshire. Most characters decide to sit in the pews - but a newbie from Wapping, who is getting used to the controls, climbs the pulpit - quite against protocol.

Among the others there does seem to be a strange feeling of reverence, not very different from the moments before a normal church service starts. "Babybear", sitting near my character, whispers on screen: "I'm physically in North Wales at the moment, but it's odd, I already feel like I'm in church."

You could easily make your character stand and shout something - just as you could in a real church - but the reserve which would prevent you from doing this in real life translates perfectly, even though people don't actually know who you are. Peer pressure works online.


Then the minister and a character looking very like the Bishop of London walk in - the bishop character is being played by the real bishop, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, who is in another office at the racecourse.

At that moment, just as he is walking towards the altar, the minister disappears. His computer, on his desk at St John's College in York, has crashed and his character is lost in cyberspace. The bishop carries on alone, and his character walks to the front of the church where he starts to preach.

Chartres: People need face-to-face contact

A latecomer arrives and sits down. From the row behind me, someone starts talking - their words again appearing in speech bubbles. In real life I would need a ridiculous level of provocation before confronting someone, but here it is weirdly distracting and I feel no worries about telling them to shush.

The bishop starts to preach - his words appearing above his character in the pulpit. He says this new venture is like Jesus telling Simon Peter to "put out into the deep and let down our nets for a catch" - an act of faith, the rewards of which are not yet known.

And then a new character enters the church and starts swearing, accusing the worshippers of the kind of activities forbidden by Leviticus.

Real life churches often have troublemakers too - but the virtual world has an easier way of dealing with them. The moderator has the option to "smite", ejecting anyone not entering into the spirit. Peter Tatchell, who famously protested from George Carey's pulpit on Easter Day 1998, would stand no chance.

When Bishop Chartres announces the Lord's Prayer, everyone in the church starts typing it, some in traditional form, some modern, some in French some in Latin. Although it feels slightly daft, suddenly any notion that this is a game is gone. These people are praying together, and that is as real as if they were standing in the same room. That they are in a dozen different towns and countries seems a trifling matter.

The Reverend Jonathan Kerry of the Methodist Church says this experiment may teach the real churches something about what newcomers expect from them. In any case, there is no reason why churches should not go online - people comfortably conduct a large part of their lives on the web, so why shouldn't they go to church there too?

For Bishop Chartres, going online cannot be a complete substitute. "I think the more you live through the screen, the more you need face-to-face real time interaction," he said after the virtual service had ended. But whether this is a taste of the future or just an experiment, something about it felt real.

What better evidence could you need than one character asking, after the service had ended: "Right, can we get a cup of coffee now?"