Church dismisses media reports of ‘online baptism’

The Church is not bringing forward plans for 'online baptism', contrary to media headlines ahead of the General Assembly. The Convener of the Legal Questions Committee, Rev George Cowie, says the reporting has presented the most extreme interpretation of what may be discussed.

Baptism

Mr Cowie said:

"Our report makes reference to the possibilities of online membership and even about people gaining access to the sacraments without being physically present in a congregation. This has led to some headlines about 'online baptisms', which would represent a very radical departure from current church practice. It is important to emphasise that the Legal Questions Committee isn't putting forward any such proposals at this time."

Rev Norman Smith, Vice-Convener of the Mission and Discipleship council spoke to BBC Radio Ulster this morning, joining religious affairs commentator Ruth Gledhill in discussing how churches are approaching the development of online congregations. Listen to his inteview here. (1:11:40)

The stories are based on a report in the Blue Book from the Legal Questions Committee that recommends looking into the potential of building meaningful faith communities online in our digital age. Section 9.6 of the reports says:

"As fewer people join up in the traditional sense, and as they make choices questions arise about online membership and as they make choices which include ever greater interaction with the Church through online access and social media, questions arise about online membership and even about access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation. There are no easy answers to some of the questions which are already being asked, but, in a world where the fastest- growing communities are being fostered online, the committee believes that now is the time to open up a wide-ranging discussion."

The Legal Questions Committee proposal was reported in The Herald, who were first to use journalistic licence to suggest the consideration of administering the sacraments to people who were not present amounted to proposing 'online baptism'. The incorrect use of quotation marks in the headline unfortunately given the impression of legitimacy, which has been repeated in the wider media.

Rev George Cowie says the idea has clearly struck a chord, but healthy debate has to be based on the reality of what is being discussed.

"The world has changed immeasurably over the past 20 years with technology having an increasing role in everyday life. Electronic communication enables people to have face-to-face meetings in real time, even though they may be separated by vast distances. From the Church's perspective this presents new challenges, but it may also offer some fresh opportunities.

"Our report makes reference to the possibilities of online membership and even about people gaining access to the sacraments without being physically present in a congregation. This has led to some headlines about 'online baptisms', which would represent a very radical departure from current church practice. It is important to emphasise that the Legal Questions Committee isn't putting forward any such proposals at this time. We recognise, however, that some congregations are already engaged in creative work, broadcasting their services on the internet and enabling worshippers to participate from a distance. In this context the Church needs to give careful consideration, determining the parameters of what can properly be done."

Rev Norman Smith, Vice Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council, says work to define what might constitute meaningful online church membership has to be seen in the context of the other work the church is already engaged with through innovative programmes like Fresh Expressions and the new Pioneer Ministry posts currently being appointed.

"What we as a denomination are looking at is defining the nature of someone's relationship with the church when they do not attend in person. We've found an increasing number of our congregations are developing an online component. They are streaming their services and reaching out to growing numbers of people, and these people already feel part of the church. We are now preparing a theological report which will address this question of what it actually means to be part of this online church community."

The Legal Questions Committee report will be presented to the General Assembly this Saturday.