'Second Life' offers Anglican online worship with a virtual art exhibit

January 3, 2008

Mary Wanamaker spends most of her time in real life. She works at Columbus State Community College in the mathematics department and is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, a newly restored Gothic Revival building in Capitol Square in the heart of Columbus, Ohio's capital and largest city.

At Trinity, Wanamaker serves on the vestry, chairs the hospitality and newcomer committee, and manages the church's website.

But in her downtime, this 49-year-old engages in "Second Life" -- an online, 3-D virtual world created by its residents. Here, she's a member of the Anglicans in Second Life and participates in virtual worship services at the Anglican cathedral on Epiphany Island, a "virtual cathedral" where the first worship service was held July 2007. So far it has developed into a congregation of 271 people from across the world. It features traditional Anglican architecture, with vaulted gothic ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows. But its construction is revolutionary -- it took only four months to build.

Art show introduced

In December, Wanamaker and the Anglican Group in Second Life launched a new endeavor -- a virtual art show with the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts. Wanamaker -- known as 'Cady Enoch" in Second Life -- serves as the curator.

"Second Life is a three-dimensional social networking platform," she says. "It's an immersive, interactive environment where you can go online and really have a second life. You can meet people, form community and buy land. You can even do church. "Anything that you can do in first life (real life), you can do in Second Life. You can move into a neighborhood, meet the neighbors, attend community events and go out dancing.

"Right now, I'm renting a house on a little tropical island," Wanamaker says. People use avatars to represent themselves online, she says. "Some avatars are pretty realistic; other people go completely wild and crazy."

Wanamaker said she found it a life-changing experience. "Second Life is a very compelling place to be. It's a great place to go and explore your creativity. It's a very interactive world.

"Before I joined (in July), whenever I had downtime, I found myself doing very passive things, like watching TV or 'vegging out.' When I'm in Second Life, I can meet people. I develop skills. I learn how to build things."

She describes it as a plastic, totally malleable and fun environment. Wanamaker says she visits the site a few hours a day, about 20 in a week.

While critics have called such virtual online experiences a poor substitute for real-life connections, Wanamaker says her experience is not a replacement for her real life. "We don't lose the distinction," she says. "The goal is not for this to replace your real life. But it's a wonderful way to reach out and meet people that you wouldn't have the opportunity to meet otherwise. You exchange ideas, learn from different people and gain wisdom from them."

Neither, she says, is it a replacement for the real life experiences in church. "We're not saying, 'Go to church in Second Life and stop going to church in your real life.' We're not saying that at all."

Five services each week

The Anglican Cathedral in Second Life has five services weekly, usually Evening Prayer or Compline, all from the Book of Common Prayer.

"When you arrive at the cathedral, there's a place where you can obtain a card with the service bulletin," says Wanamaker. "You find a seat in the pew, and then the officiant normally types out the portion in text. People in the congregation, wherever they are, can either type their response or say it to themselves.

"Often, there's a sermon, she says, that is pre-recorded. Then people in the congregation press play and hear the service through streaming audio. There's always a time for prayers. People share a lot of really moving and touching things."

Wanamaker, who tries to go to a Second Life service every week, says that it never supplants her morning service at Trinity. "But if I'm home on Sunday afternoon, I'll go to service on Epiphany Island too."

Arts to raise funds

The group's leader, Mark Brown, a deacon in New Zealand, was contacted by Kate Robbins in Connecticut, a longtime follower of the online work of Episcopal artists who are members of the professional association, Episcopal Church & Visual Arts. She proposed an art exhibit on Epiphany Island.

"We contacted all of the artists," says Wanamaker, "and got their permission to exhibit in Second Life. We're also using this as a fundraising project for the Second Life cathedral, so the majority of the artists gave us permission to sell copies of their work. People can buy the portraits to hang in their virtual houses or give them as Christmas gifts to their virtual friends. We're selling them for 200 Lindens (Second Life money -- the equivalent of about 75 cents).

"It's been really successful," she says. "We're happy with the number of visitors and plan to do some more exhibits."

The church of the future?

"I wouldn't say it's the church of the future," says Wanamaker, describing Second Life. "I don't want to see us move away from our incarnational ministry. We're not going to neglect our face-to-face time with our real communities. We still must get out there and interact in the real world. We're still supposed to be in the world and aware of what's going on around us, feed the hungry, house the homeless.

"But this type of 3-D social networking is going to be more and more an aspect of people's daily lives," she maintains. "Twenty years ago, no one would have imagined the Internet would play the role it does in our daily life. Second Life is considered by many to be the next stage of development on the Internet.

"A lot of people try out Second Life because it's a place for them to be someone new, to try things they would never try in real life. I heard an interview with one of the founders of Second Life who said that as they've monitored the activity, they've learned that at first, a lot of people want this wildly hedonistic Second Life with immediate sexual gratification, a big house on the hill, a swanky car.

"But after a few months, they want more. They realize those things aren't enough, and they start searching," Wanamaker says. "I think there are a lot of lost souls, and I think it's good to have a place like the cathedral, where they can come and be safe.

"I believe that our mission as Christians is to carry the Gospel wherever we go. That is no less true now that we are venturing into the strange new lands of cyberspace as it has been in the past. Behind all the strange new beings we may encounter in Second Life are real people, with hearts and minds and souls, all in need of the radical hospitality of Our Lord."

To join Second Life, go to https://secondlife.com/. Second Life is an adult site; viewer discretion advised. To learn more about Anglicans in Second Life and visit its website without becoming a member of Second Life, go directly to http://slangcath.wordpress.com.

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