The lead up to Christmas is always hectic, even in SL, but just before the big day we were treated to an in-world Carol Service led by real life Pastor Pam Smith (avatar Pam Padroclum) and it was a moments peace and tranquillity as we sat in the beautiful replica of the church of St Mary Abbotts in virtual Kensington to listen to Pam’s service.
I was intrigued about Pam joining virtual London to bring her faith into the virtual capital in such a lovely way, ideally a church service in SL is a really good way of involving Christians who cannot make it to church in the real world for one reason or another. I contacted Pam and she kindly answered some questions for me.
Pam, who uses up to date technology via the internet for her work, has an ‘on-line’ real life ministry called i-church. I asked her to tell me a little bit about her career with the church. She told me “I was ordained in 2004 as a deacon in the church of England and in 2005 as a priest (this is the normal progression for becoming a priest in the C of E). Before that I’d been a lay minister and a lay prison chaplain.”
“When you are first ordained you become a curate, which is a training post. I was a curate for 4 years in a large urban parish. At this point i-church (which was opened in 2004 as part of the C of E Diocese of Oxford) were advertising for a new Web Pastor (priest in charge) and as I had previously been involved with online ministry I applied and was appointed in August 2008. I currently support a few local churches by covering services when their ministers are away but i-church is my main ministry.”
I wanted to know when Pam realised that she wanted a career with the church and why she chose the path she did, she said “I first felt a pull towards church leadership when I was a very new Christian in 1989 but I dismissed it as a silly idea – both because I was a new Christian and also because at that time the Church of England did not ordain women to the priesthood (there's a 3fold ministry in the Anglican church consisting of deacon, priest and bishop. Women were first made deacons in 1982 but were not made priests till 1995. And still can't be bishops!). Pam continued “I became a lay minister in 1998 and was involved in prison ministry, but the sense of calling to be a priest never went away. I was eventually sent for training in 2002! So it was a very long time between the first call and becoming a priest.”
I asked Pam how she had heard about Second Life, she said “I found out about Second Life through the media. I joined a couple of years ago.” And was it her intention to carry out her role as a Pastor in SL or did she join for another reason? She told me “I joined to find out about it because I think you can only really understand online things if you go and see for yourself. I didn’t really have a plan other than that!”
In respect of Christianity and SL Pam told me “I think that SL is a place where people look for a range of experiences and so Christianity should be represented. Potentially I think the possibility of reaching people who wouldn’t explore Christianity in RL through the Internet is huge, and in SL people seem willing to try things they wouldn’t try in RL. But we have to work out how to express Christianity in a way that appeals to Second Lifers.” I asked Pam what the advantages were to holding a virtual service, she said “People don’t have to get ready and come out to attend, also they may find it less intimidating than stepping into a real church.”
“I find leading services online isn’t that much different, except that people are more interactive and will ask questions in the middle of what you’re doing which doesn’t happen very much in normal church services.” I asked what it had been like conducting the first service in SL, she told me “I’ve conducted services in chat rooms over the past few years for i-church.org. It felt a bit more exposed than that, as I didn’t know who was coming. Also somehow it feels more personal when your avatar is on screen!” I asked Pam if there were any technical difficulties in organising a virtual service, she said “We were trying it out and part of that is to see how it might develop a specifically SL style. I had a lot of help from others in making music available. I’d hope to evolve a range of styles from very simple to technically sophisticated – but will need other people to make that happen. Just like in a RL church you can’t get very far with one person doing everything.” What did Pam think of the virtual church built by SL master builder TD Reinard, she said “It’s beautiful and has a feeling of sacred space. I hope people are able to benefit from that outside services.”
I was interested to know how Pam felt about Christianity in today’s climate, how did she feel about people renaming Christmas with title’s such as Winterfest or winterval and the apparent banning of Christian symbols such as people wearing a cross. There have been reports in the media about people losing their jobs because they offered a prayer for someone. Did she think Christianity is in any danger of dying out and should the church be taking more of a stand against this? She told me “I think we forget that Christ is head of the Church, Christianity is God’s idea not ours and churches are resourced by the Holy Spirit, so Christianity will only die out if God wants it to – which seems very unlikely.”
“At the moment I think we are in a time of social change and it’s a challenge for all the institutional churches to work out the way ahead. ISTM (it seems to me) God really works by calling people to specific tasks and ministries and it’s the church’s job to empower and resource them. My ministry is currently supported by the Diocese of Oxford, who have a track record of supporting new forms of ministry, and I am very grateful for that since I do want to work as part of the wider church and not as a maverick.”
“When I worked in prison I worked in a multi faith setting and my experience was that people of many different faiths have a profound respect for Jesus Christ as a teacher and prophet and are positive towards Christians. They feel they have more in common with Christians then they have with people who don’t practice a faith. So I believe Christianity has a lot to offer in terms of promoting social cohesion because we understand the importance of faith.”
"When you look into stories about ‘winterval’, objections to prayer etc you find that it’s not usually members of other faiths who are promoting anti Christian ideas, but people who don’t understand faith and are making rather ill informed guesses about how people of non-Christian faiths feel! All faiths have festivals and I personally don’t know anyone of a non-Christian faith who objects to Christian festivals.”
"As far as taking a stand goes – I think we need to talk about our faith as something that’s normal and natural, there are lots of people around who don’t go to church but who identify with Christianity, if they know you’re a Christian you may be surprised that they will be the ones to ask questions or ask for prayer. A friend of mine was known at work as a Christian and she was asked all sorts of things and was actually asked to organise silences for Remembrance Day and various other things. She had no formal position in the church and didn’t go round trying to convert people but over several years she was used very powerfully.”
Returning to the subject of SL, I wanted to know if the virtual world was a good platform for Christianity and if it should be taught there. Pam said “Yes, as long as the material is accurate and helpful.”
I asked Pam about SL relationships and what she thought about avatars getting married in the virtual environment. She told me “One of the fascinating things about SL is the relationship of people’s online and offline personas. I know people who have established completely different personalities for different alts (alternative avatars) and to them I guess these online personas can have their own online life. That doesn’t really work for me. The stories about the effect on people’s RL relationships of what they do in Sl indicates that it doesn’t really work for a lot of people. As a Church of England priest I could not conduct a marriage ceremony if I wasn’t clear in my own mind that they were free and able to marry each other, were both freely giving their consent, and heard that it wouldn’t cause difficulties for the people involved and/or their family and friends or bring the church into disrepute. All that would apply to anything I do in SL as well."
I wanted to know what Pam thought about Debs Regent’s Virtual London and if Pam actually uses SL for socialising, plus would we see her one day meeting us for a dance in one of the London clubs. She said of Virtual London “I think it’s fantastic.” And continued “Yes I do have friends on SL but the main problem is things like connection timeouts and also the amount of time you can spend online – I’m online quite a lot and do try to spend some time in RL! I definitely would like to come to a club and see what it’s like!” And I’m sure the London regulars would be more than pleased to see Pam visiting the Mayhem or Underground Club, not forgetting the Coach and Horses in Mayfair too!
I know Pam is an extremely busy person and I would like to thank her very much for giving her time for such an interesting in-depth interview.