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Hallo again to all.

It's Advent Sunday, a time when we don't normally feel curmudgeonly or misanthropic. But we find ourselves grumbly today about — oh, how we wish there were a more elegant way to say this — virtual worlds; in this case, the one named Second Life.

Anglican Cathedral of Second LifeMany of you will be familiar with this three-dimensionalish online world, in which your avatar can live and move and have its being. It's cleverly designed and programmed, it's involving (as are all video games, more or less*), and it's taken with deadly seriousness by those whose lives have been intertwined with it. And part of Second Life is — wait for it! — Anglican. As usual, when there are Anglicans, there are edifices, so you can find a cathedral in Second Life. (Hereafter SL, for we're already tired of typing it out.)

You can watch the first Anglican service 'in' that cathedral on 16 July 2007, via YouTube, a service called 'historic' by the preacher.† In addition to the cathedral (located, by the way, on Epiphany Island), there is an Anglican SL group which does, well, Anglican things, presumably like chatting about tippets and Second Timothy.

Discussions about SL are taking up much air across the church, inspiring conference talks and think pieces, academic pondering and institutional-church head scratching along the lines of 'What does it MEAN?' The general conclusion seems to be something along the lines of: 'The Church should have a presence there'.

We wonder. On first glance, SL seems harmless. Why not have a 'presence' there? Build a cathedral, add a clutch of churches, even devote an advertising campaign to drive people to Second Life, as the Churches Advertising Network is doing this season. After all, if people with a steady supply of electricity, fast computers, broadband connexions, and time on their hands want to wander round in a Disney-like virtual world, why not see if any of the unchurched might stumble into some Anglican land or other?

Cybernauts Awake!We've no quarrel with groups of Anglicans choosing to mess about in SL. We've been messing about on the net since the late 1960s, when one of us helped build it. And we've messed round on newsgroups and email lists. And in 1994, a young Canadian dabbled with the very young World Wide Web — and AO was born. We can't claim innocence when it comes to the Internet and how it's 'used'. We've developed deep and lasting friendships that began online, survived the shock of incarnation, and are sustained through this big pipe. But we've never confused this place with 'life' and we've never considered any sort of 3D online world a reasonable substitute for the flesh and blood of this world.

We look askance at the American phenomenon of televangelists and their created 'churches', the most successful of which were exposed as shameful money-grubbing operations run by charlatans. The object of their TV shows wasn't to help people visit and join real churches, but to keep their attention and their pocketbooks on the TV. We don't suggest that SL churches are a sleazy parallel, but we do wonder: What is the plan for moving people from a virtual cathedral to a real church? From their screen to a pew? If Christian life is about incarnated community, will those who find the church in SL go on to explore it in their neighbourhood?

We can hear the reply now: 'Does it matter? If someone in SL gains some sort of understanding of Christianity online, isn't that better than no understanding?' We're not sure. Bread and wine can't be shared online or brought to the side of a sick bed. A whispered prayer to a grieving friend, the baptism of a squealing infant, a hot meal served at a parish food kitchen, a sanctuary for a homeless person: How are these 'experienced' in SL? One SL-connected priest writes:

Baptism, immersion into the Christian community, the body of Christ, and hence into the nature of God the Holy Trinity may have some internet equivalents — for example, being welcomed into a moderated group. But my own current position would be to shy away from, for example, having a virtual baptism of a second life avatar. Similarly, I would currently steer away from eucharist and other sacraments in the virtual world.

'Currently'? If we natter on about how important it is for the church to be present on SL, are we not buying into the world of a game, a role-playing fantasy that, no matter how real seeming, is far easier than actually visiting someone in hospital or tackling the problem of poverty in one's community? And if the Gospel is for all — and the Field is the World — SL is surely a playground for the privileged. We doubt there's much SLing going on in, say, Cameroon. We fully realize that the worldwide Internet connectivity is increasing exponentially, but the ability to spend hours in a virtual world is a far cry from popping on to write an email or check a website. If we carry on about the importance of SL and devote time and substantial money to 'being a presence', what are we neglecting? (Are there slums in SL? We rather doubt it.)

And, by the way, if Anglicans choose to be a part of SL, why not be a little more missionary minded and shed a bit of our edifice complex? Why should we buy land and build instead of simply going to where people in SL are already congregating, like shopping malls and casinos, and start handing out prayer books? Or engaging in conversation? A virtual world can surely give us a chance to evangelise a bit better than we have in this one. Building churches and waiting for people to wander in — or people like us to find our virtual church — probably won't work much better in SL than it does in FL. (First Life, that is: this real one.)

This Advent, we'll choose to stay away, as much as possible, from all but the 'real'. It's the right season for that, since the church traditionally asks us to contemplate the end of time and pay special attention to the 'Last Things': death, judgement, heaven, and hell. If Advent is the season of the second coming, it also anticipates the first coming: the Incarnation, the utter surprise of a God who, for love's sake, takes on the stuff and matter of this life, this mortal place and makes it home, a place of light and love.

But first we need to wait, with the Four Last Things as our companions. We wait in our places on this earth, this real broken imperfect earth, with its crisscrossed lines of country and diocese, of matter grounded, and of love, so often limited. We'll take it.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.§

See you next week.

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Last updated: 2 December 2007 (First Sunday in Advent)


*We know, having started with Pacman in the early 1980s and then moving on to the excitement of Tetris.

†Although there have been more than 2100 views of the service, only four people have commented. Our favourite, by one muslador21: 'wow .... weird'.

§ Anthem, Leonard Cohen

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