Press Column

CT Internet piece

The Internet may not have many justifications, but at least it keeps the clergy off the streets. I had been going to write a long and serious critique of Ian Paisleyís web site ó as one would expect, it is glossy, professional, and quite insane. If there are any readers of the CT to whom it is not already obvious that the Vatican is directing the war against Yugoslavia then that site will enlighten them. Iíd have thought it was obvious myself that the American Army was a Roman Catholic organisation: itís bureaucratic, infallible, and likes to exercise authority from a great height. But the Paisleyites have got reasons all of their own for backing the plucky little Serbs which you will have to go to their web sites.

However, I thought it would be nice to be constructive for a change, and devote a column to something wonderful that can be done with the web. Lots of parishes have their own web sites by now. I have not, Iím afraid, done a recent count, but it is something so easy and sensible that itís easy to produce something as informative, and perhaps as dull as a parish noticeboard. Of course, the use of email and small private web sites to help with the internal running of an organisation is no more than common sense, and is going to happen spontaneously all over the country.

But there are ways in which the churches can make their web sites outward-facing. You can put details of services and other attractions there. Some rural or suburban churches of them have linked their own web sites into the local community web site. These are basically local directories on the web. They list useful addresses of every sort: in the better sort there are maps as well, and, in the best, these maps are interactive, so that you can not only list all the local pubs but see their location on the map, or click on a piece of the map and get a list of all the pubs there. Some sites have a link to their local newspapers, providing scrolling headlines; and others have discussion boards, where people can argue and fool around. These are all areas for churches to get involved in if they want to break out of the familiar circle of their own congregations. However, the most wonderful church site I have ever seen is stuffed to the gills with win-jokes, some of them so recherche that even the author has probably forgotten the point.

Bishop Rodrigo Borgiaís Engagement diary contains unmissable moments such as the "Full Gospel Cattle Inseminators' Fellowship Lunch"; and, my own favourite, "2.30 Annual 'oppression of traditionalists' liturgy in the Judas chapel (BCP)"; on the Feast day of "Perspex, visionary, Toledo 673", His Grace must travel to London for the Lords: "Habitat Protection (Franciscan Underwear) Bill" committee stage.

The bishop, in fact works extraordinarily hard. Sundays appear to be his only days off, except for Christmas and Easter. His calendar, populated by such little-known feasts, as "Gaviscon, ascetic" and "Systematic, theologian, Nimes 683" drives him to an endless round of meetings with the Archdeacon about the gargoyles, with the gargoyles about the Archdeacon, and with both gargoyles and Archdeacon about the diocesan practitioner of Celtic spirituality, Sr Behemoth, who is due to emerge in the next few months from the enveloping Celtic mists as an imposingly rounded figure. It would appear that where normal people use cyberspace to conduct unsuitable love affairs, the first thing that a priest does when introduced to email is to invent an improbable nun.

The bishop publishes more than his engagement diary. There is also "Papability knocks", a handy test for those who feel drawn to Rome. "Are you a Catholic?" is the first question.. You get three points for "yes", 0pooints for "no", and Ė3 for "It depends what you mean by Catholic": sorry, no Jesuits.

There used to be another, rather vulgar question on whether the candidate was now, or had ever been George Austin, something which is under most circumstances a disqualification from the papacy, though the answer "Well, everyone was at college" was also acceptable . I understand this is to be replaced by a more modern quiz on whether you have ever been, or ever will be the Dalai Lama, and if "yes", how often.

Of course all these things are very regrettable in a serious modern organisation. You will search in vain for Bishop Rodrigo on Dr Turnbullís organisation chart.. The only comparably funny work by a priest that occurs to me is the Church Timesís own St Gargoyleís, which surely deserves a web site of its own.

Not all the humour on the web is intentional. In the vast sleep of reason which surrounds the enlightened tranquillity of the Church of England, monsters lurk, and none more monstrous than the American fundamentalist Jack T. Chick. He is the author of a series of comic tracts, crudely drawn and printed on coarse paper, which have been distributed in millions around the world. The idea of a Chick tract is that it should be slipped into the hands of the infidel, rather as one would pass round Resistance propaganda under the Nazis. I first came across them in Belfast, where titles like "Can a Catholic be a Christian?" donít seem quite as funny as they do over here. Chick has his own web site, where you can download some of the classic tracts. But parodists are drawn to him as flies are drawn to the stuff that flies find attractive, and there is a whole ring of Chick parody sites across the Internet now. I even found a mailing list for lovers of his work, which seems to have gone a little quiet after it became apparent that some of its members were sincere in their admiration. The parodies have as little subtlety as the originals. But then they are produced by angry men who take personally the information that they will burn in hell. One contributor first met Chick tracts when a furtive visitor to his Catholic church slipped one into every missal. I hope it was the one which explains that in the Middle Ages, every monastery was connected to a neighbouring nunnery by a tunnel, which also served as a safe place to bury the babies which resulted from the arrangement. No doubt the whole thing was planned by Bishop Borgia.

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