For years, ministers and church lay people around the world have freely traded intimate concerns and prayers, religious and ethical questions, even sermon ideas on their computers -- but not face-to-face.
At a global meeting in Timonium recently, about 200 of these old friends curiously matched faces to names for the first time.
"These were not strangers coming together -- although the majority had never met, except electronically," said the Rev. Donel McClellan, one of the participants.
The Rev. David Lochhead, a theologian from Vancouver, British Columbia, told the group -- all avid computer users -- that a fast developing information revolution, the creation of "a society of generalized communication," has changed the course of religion forever.
In his cautious view, some of the results may be good. "Those who formerly have had no voice will be empowered to speak," he said.
But he warned that -- for clergy, at least -- the revolution is a mixed blessing at best, introducing a Babel of competing, untested ideas about God and his world.
"Orthodoxy and heresy exist side by side, both insisting on authenticity," Mr. Lochhead said.
Members of the group are part of Ecunet, an international computer network that Mr. Lochhead helped found about a decade ago. Ecunet links 7,300 members of 14 Christian denominations and several other faith groups around the world.
Another founder is the Rev. John R. Sharp, pastor of North Baltimore's Govans Presbyterian Church, where the religious computer network has its international headquarters.
Mr. Sharp is the weekly moderator of "Sermonshop," in which scriptural texts are turned into homilies for the next Sunday's worship service through give-and-take on the computer screen.
Ecunet is actually a network of networks, he said.
The United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA and most other mainline Christian denominations -- along with the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches -- have individual computer networks operating under the umbrella of Ecunet.
One of those denominational networks, Quest International, is itself worldwide, serving all the branches of Anglicanism, xTC including the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Through less formal links with nonmember Roman Catholic, Jewish and Baptist networks, Ecunet's computerized ecumenism becomes even broader, said Mr. McClellan, a United Church of Christ pastor in Bellingham, Wash., who was elected president of Ecunet at last month's meeting in a Timonium motel. He succeeded Neil Topliffe of the Disciples of Christ.
"Grass-roots ecumenism, covering everything from Bible study to responses to disasters such as that in Oklahoma City, is one of the gifts of this medium," Mr. McClellan said.
Unlike the unrestrained users of the far broader Internet, "which is sometimes a very rough neighborhood," Mr. Topliffe said, the religious constituency of Ecunet imposes "self-censorship." Even so, added Mr. McClellan, explicit pastoral discussions of such subjects as human sexuality and such issues as homosexual activity among the clergy can make it "an adult network."
The computer is a "safe place for homosexual clergy and lay people to share their perspectives with straight friends," Mr. Sharp said. On Ecunet, "theological arguments can safely be vented without the fear of fists flying," he said.
Instant communication means "emancipation from a unified version of history," Mr. Lochhead said. "Who controls the medium is a factor but not the decisive factor."
He said the global conversations draw on a rich variety of human experiences: "national stories of Africa and Asia, a black community in the U.S. that is no longer ignored, the feminist movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the voices of the far right, voices of the alienated."
While such diversity is not necessarily a bad thing, the vaunted free exchange of ideas on computers "does not always promote understanding in a chaotic and dangerous world," Mr. Lochhead cautioned.
With such immense power comes a need for extra discernment and responsibility, he said.
And "no voice can assert itself as definitive of the Christian Gospel," the United Church of Canada theologian told his mostly mainline Christian colleagues allied with the National Council of Churches.
The voices of Christianity -- diverse as they may be -- "have no privileged footing" on the information superhighway, he said. "We can speak to all the world, but so can everyone else."
Mr. Lochhead, a professor of systematic theology at the Vancouver School of Theology, described himself as struggling against pessimism as he considers a future in which "everyone speaks and no one listens."
His hope, he said, is that priests, ministers, rabbis and imams will not only listen to one another, but challenge one another carefully and effectively.
His ministerial colleagues who gathered at the Timonium Holiday Inn were more upbeat about the fast growth of Ecunet since it was incorporated in Maryland in 1987.
Using telephone systems to connect its more than 7,000 users worldwide, Ecunet can provide exchanges of information and ideas with an additional 21 million users of the global Internet system, Mr. McClellan said. Ecunet charges a user's fee of $11 a month and operates on an annual budget of only about $30,000.
For more information, call (800) 733-2863 or Mr. Sharp at Govans Presbyterian Church, 435-9188.