Glimpse inside the virtual church

The preacher, congregation and prayers will be real enough. Only the building will be virtual - but this 3D church could be a taste of things to come.

Virtual worship

This is the view inside what's believed to be the first virtual church, due to be launched next month as part of a scheme to reach people who would not normally step inside an actual church.

The rafters, pulpit, altar and pews look real enough, in a cartoon-ish way. But the preacher and members of the congregation will actually be real, connecting via the web to each other to take part in real services.

The church, to be known as the Church of Fools, is being created for the Christian website Ship of Fools, which last year ran a virtual reality gameshow based on Noah's Ark.

Website editor Simon Jenkins says: "Some websites help people meditate and pray, but no one has built an interactive 3D church environment before - complete with gothic arches and hard wooden pews."

A real-life vicar will control the actions of a cartoon double, including welcoming the flock, announcing hymns and preaching.

"In different parts of the world, the congregation, too, will log on and become cartoon characters - and see each other on-screen," says Mr Jenkins.

"They will choose a pew to sit in, introduce themselves to other worshippers through speech bubbles, 'sing' a hymn, listen to the sermon, chat to each other afterwards, perhaps pray together. "

The congregation will also be invited to donate - a collection will be taken via SMS billing.

Although an unofficial move, the virtual church may well receive approval in the church hierarchy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has called for the church to become more "mission-shaped" by adopting new forms of worship, which could include new ventures such as "café churches".

Real parish

But the Church of Fools could be an indication of how churches could develop. For instance, the diocese of Oxford is currently recruiting a "web pastor" to establish its own virtual church - "i-Church" - which will be considered a parish church in its own right.

A congregation of online volunteers

Its intention is to appeal to people who cannot get to church, people who do not want to go to a church building, or those for whom going to church on a Sunday is not enough.

The format of the i-Church has not yet been decided, but the Reverend Richard Thomas, director of communications for the Oxford diocese, says unlike the Church of Fools, it will not have cartoon graphics.

"We don't want any animated bells and whistles," he says. "We want to focus on real human relationships that are based in a real community, rather than media-driven interactivity."

When the Oxford church is functioning, members will probably communicate with each other through web chat or instant messaging. Services may be held in video, but the details are yet to be decided.