Devils hit cyber church
By CNN's Graham Jones
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The world's first online church has been forced into an urgent rethink after computer hackers logged in as "Satan" and disrupted services with four-letter expletives and racist remarks.
The Church of Fools said Wednesday it had shut to outsiders its pulpit, lectern and space round the altar to stop less than religious types giving messages definitely not from the Almighty.
The Web site -- launched a week ago by the Bishop of London in a fanfare of publicity about the new 21st century way of connecting to God -- continues and "worshippers" can still join the congregation online.
But the British organizers of the project -- sponsored by the UK Methodist Church -- said their attempts to smite blasphemers have fallen on stony cyberground.
Churchwardens armed with "smite" buttons said they had been unable to cope with calls from around the world and different time zones 24 hours a day.
Bogus "worshippers" -- they join the virtual church as 3-D cartoon characters -- have logged in as "God," "Jesus" and "Satan." They have greeted newcomers with: "Satan loves you" and walked up to people praying, shouting four-letter words.
"But the worst I think is the racism," Church of Fools editor Simon Jenkins told CNN. "Its horrible stuff. People have logged in with racist names, with Nazi names.
"We want to allow freedom of speech as far as possible but we can't allow that sort of thing."
He stressed it was "a serious site with a serious purpose." Genuine worshippers have found the interruptions "very distressing," he said.
A statement posted on the Church of Fools Web site, accessed from http://www.shipoffools.com/ said: "The Church of Fools team has been very concerned about disruptive behavior, including swearing and profanity, inside the church in the past couple of days.
"We've received a lot of e-mail about it, too, asking what we're going to do about maintaining the space as place of prayer, quiet, teaching, community and all the other good things we plan for it."
The Bishop of London with his Internet church double
"The 'shout' function (where people could speak to the whole room) has been completely removed, and this has immediately quietened down the sanctuary ...
"The apse area (including the pulpit, altar and lectern) has been closed to the public. Many 'real' churches don't allow visitors to climb up into their pulpits or wander round the altar, and we think this encourages people to have respect for the place. It also stops wannabe preachers putting on a floor show."
The organizers say they aim to recruit more churchwardens -- all of them thoroughly vetted to ensure no infiltration by devils-in-disguise.
The "good news" for those who see this as a way forward for the church is that numbers visiting the site -- launched for a three-month trial period -- have exceeded all expectations.
After a peak of 30,000 a week ago 12,000 people a day are still logging in and taking a pew.
"It has blown everything out of the water," said Jenkins. "It is four times the number for our previous project, an Internet Noah's Ark reality game show."
Sunday at 9:00 p.m. London time (2100 GMT) will see another full-scale service at the church. A dedication service is also planned -- though the organizers hope one experience of a week ago will not be repeated.
When the Church of Fools went online on May 11 the icon representing officiating priest the Rev. Jeremy Clines turned into a wall and vanished after his computer crashed.