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Cyber church: Now God goes online

By CNN's Marga Ortigas

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A new way to connect to God, "Webpastors" say
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Leaders of the the Christian church in Britain fear an age old message is falling on deaf ears.

But a "new means of communication" may just help them reach out and touch someone.

It is the Church of Fools -- created by the minds behind Ship of Fools, a none-too-stodgy online Christian magazine.

In their non-denominational virtual church, you can log on and come dressed in your cartoon best to worship and attend services.

It is the first 3-D online church service launched in Britain. The ministers who preach have their sermons appear as cartoon-style "thought bubbles."

Worshippers can log on and put money in the collection box without ever leaving home or work.

The organizers say the initiative aims to make Christian worship accessible to Web surfers who may never darken the doors of their local church. Lead sponsor is the Methodist Church.

At the site's launch this week, even No. 3 in the Church of England -- the Bishop of London -- stepped into cyberspace.

The bishop, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, says: "We always have to learn how to 'sing the Lord's song,' the psalmist says, in whatever circumstances we are."

With some typing help, the bishop happily faced the new medium's "opportunities" and "challenges."

He says: "I'm going to have to learn more and more to be an ecclesiastical Ernest Hemingway with little staccato phrases."

As the bishop views a cartoon of himself, he notes: "I'm walking really rather at the moment like Mr. Simpson I think, aren't I really?"

This may be a technical glitch that doesn't deter the Web team from it's mission to spread the Gospel.

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The Bishop of London with his Internet church double

"We are not replacing church, we are adding really," says Simon Jenkins, shipoffools.com editor.

Adding an alternative for those unable to connect with God through more traditional means.

The Church of England is moving in much the same direction, appointing it's first-ever "Webpastor" -- or Webmaster -- Alyson Leslie.

"The more we put out there for people to explore their spiritual yearnings, the better," says Leslie.

The Church of Fools site has been built by digital media company Specialmoves, which has worked for Vivendi Universal and MTV. The technology used for the project was originally developed while creating an award-winning site for a cartoon version of "The Osbournes."

The Church of Fools idea came out of Ship of Fools' Internet game show, The Ark, in which 12 Bible heroes and villains were voted off Noah's famous floating zoo, "Big Brother"-style. More sailings are planned, Ship of Fools says.

So will Church of Fools work?

"It's non-threatening." one churchgoer told CNN. "A lot of people don't like to go into a church, because they think it's threatening or they don't deserve to be there."

Church of Fools doesn't call itself a "real" church, but it wants to serve as an "invitation" for "real" people to find a more personal relationship with God --glitches and all.

It seems that in the new century, the church will only be limited by the imagination.

"The next time I come on," says the Bishop of London, "I will expect to be levitating, quite frankly!"


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