Recently a friend of mine and member of the Anglican Community had this as her Facebook status:
Karin thinks the idea of attending a church service online when you’re sniffling, sneezing and coughing under the covers is a very, very good idea.
And I thought, how cool is this! Not that she is sick but that she was able to attend church. So I invited her to write a piece for this blog on that experience. And it is very entertaining! Rev Mark
“You’re going to church in a GAME?” my sister/ roommate asked me before I banished her from my bedroom. “You know, you can join me. If you’re not going to come with me to my real life church, then maybe you can check out the Second Life one. We’ve got a mermaid!” Melanie wasn’t buying what I was selling. “Centaurs wearing lots of L.A. Bling, then? “ No takers.
Being at home, sick, in bed, gave me a rare opportunity to check out the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life’s service. I woke up just before 3 in the afternoon and made a last minute decision to not even try the ninety-minute New York City Subway ride to my own Episcopal parish in Manhattan. Instead, I curled up under the covers with my MacBook and logged on to Second Life as my avatar, the petite, flame-haired Edwardian Kay Paderborn. . After I made a pit stop at my home location in Caledon to change out of my Steampunk clothing and wig into something a little more 2008. I teleported over to Epiphany Island and the Anglican Cathedral.
If you haven’t had the chance to visit yet Epiphany Island yet, the cathedral building is an exquisitely rendered structure rising high over the rest the island. The island itself is a garden fantasy, a wonderful place to escape to pray, meditate and meet and chat with online friends. Go widescreen and enjoy a very lovely work of moving art. The community itself is very diverse. While some members of come from Anglican and Episcopal Church backgrounds (and across all the different theological and worship-style perspectives), many of the people I‘ve met are members of other churches, or members of no church at all. Many of the people I’ve met on Epiphany are exploring the Christian Faith, and some people were church-goers at one point in their lives and for many reasons, stopped going.
I lingered in the area off to the side of the Cathedral checking my settings for a few moments, and Arkin Ariantho (Rev. Mark Brown’s Second Life Avatar) glided out to meet me(on Second Life Wheelies?) and the other folks who were quickly popping onto the scene. I went into the cathedral, found a seat in the back and looked around for some of the other people that I knew. A cigar-chomping centaur acquaintance sidled up beside me, his gold chains sparkling in the digital sunlight filtered in through stained glass. Another person sitting next to me had his right arm permanently raised in the air. Was he was waving to everyone, trying to get Second Life’s “take” feature to work, or just in permanent praise-and-worship mode? I have no idea. Good for him! I saw a face here and there that I knew, a lovely hat over there… we had a fairly large group gathered. Instant messages flew back and forth, local chatting was going on around me.
The format that we used for evening prayer was essentially text based. I wasn’t quite sure how the voice-parts of service would work. We thankfully skipped cheesy MIDI hymn singing, and followed along through the prayers and readings for the day through a service leaflet and in the chat portion of the screen. We were invited to type out responses or not. Like in my own home church, it looks like Anglicans in Second Life have decided to stop trying to figure out when to sit, stand and bow during Evening Prayer. This is wonderful, because I know if I had pressed the wrong key combination, I would end up sitting backwards in a pew or end up flying up to the rafters like Saint Christina the Astonishing. Flying isn’t an unusual activity in Second Life, but can be very inconvenient when you’re attempting to do something else, like responding to a chat invitation.
Arkin gave a reflection through the use of the voice mode available in Second Life. I was fiddling with the controls and struggling to make the feature work throughout the whole service while trying to unsuccessfully make sure that my microphone was turned off so that my neighbors weren’t hearing feedback. The technology failed me until about halfway through the sermon, when lo and behold… I picked up the last few sentences clearly and then he gracefully flew down from the pulpit.
The Prayers of the People, the part of the service where the community prays for the intentions on their hearts, is what made all the fiddling with the settings on my MacBook worthwhile. I had vaguely gotten the sense that we were praying together as a community, doing something more interactive than praying through the service alone from the Book of Common Prayer or using one of the Daily Prayer websites. But I really felt the impact that what we were doing was something special when a typed-voice chimed in during our prayer time asking us to pray for him. We were all praying for others’ intentions or for the issues going on around us in our churches and the global community, for peaceful ends to denominational angst and anomie, healing, new jobs, all important things to pray for. But a voice called out that he, or she, had been away from church for a long time, had been hurt by past church experiences, and would like prayer.
Arkin / Mark turned his microphone back on and prayed aloud for the real person behind the avatar. Simply, straightforwardly, a room of digital paper-cut outs and dress-up dolls became a real, living part of The Church. Masks and character personas were dropped for the present moment. Whatever else we were in Second Life, or in Real Life, didn’t matter as we prayed. Real people, needing the Real Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were gathered together in prayer. The Holy Spirit took an experience that could easily be misinterpreted as a meaningless exercise, and transformed it into the essence of Matt. 8:20:
For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (NIV)
Jesus was present, gathering us together in a community across the Internet and around the globe. God finds ways of reaching out to His people, even the people who don’t know they’re His People yet, in any way He can, including through chat rooms and virtual worlds like Second Life.
One of the elements I like about the interior of the Cathedral building simulation, maybe even more than the ever-burning incense, or the Lady Chapel, is the fact that pray-ers can light virtual candles. Users can turn them on and off. When I first arrived, I could even change the color of the electronic votive if I wanted to, or make the flame dance high or burn low. The wax could drip, or it could burn cleanly. Sounds silly, but I love lighting candles in real life churches and virtual ones.
Part of what we’re doing in the Second Life Anglican Community is lighting virtual candles, offering up prayer to Creator of the Universe, with every lighted pixel and surge of electricity that accompanies us while we pray in Second Life. It’s not only a game, or an experiment in virtual spiritual communities; creating “virtual church” involves reaching out in Christ’s love beyond avatar shapes, skins and animations. He builds His Church in ways we can only marvel at with wonder and thanksgiving.