Is the Anglican Communion as we know it … a commonweath in cyberspace?

The Rector of all Lewes made a comment Sunday that jogged my memory and challenged me to think again about how to view the Anglican Communion. He said, "maybe the Anglican Communion really only exists in cyberspace."

The matter came up while otherwise occupied by the Bishop's visit, confirmations and baptisms and music from the WAM (worship with alternative music) band. It came up because we were discussing the Cartoon Church madman Dave Walker who just started a Facebook group titled "Anglican Bloggers." On that list are a number of friends on the many sides of the various divides in Anglican Land. I was delighted to find both Simon Sarmiento and Martyn Minns, both Mark Andrus and Ruth Gledhill, both Fred Risard and Peter Ould, all in the mix together along with such notables as Fr. Jake and of course Dave Walker, not to be confused with David Walker.

What sort of thing is this Facebook thing? It's hard to know. Dave is unsure just what it might lead to, but my sense is he thought it would be good to connect faces across the various divides so that we are reminded that all sorts and conditions make up the Anglican Communion and Anglicanism, and that real people stand behind the stuff of Anglican Communion politics and concerns.

The more I thought about it the more it seemed the case that the Anglican Communion is increasingly a commonwealth in cyberspace.

The Anglican Communion as we know it in 2008 has emerged from the shadows and exists for a large number of people precisely because of the internet connections. Such luminaries as Louie Crew have commented over that past ten years that the Anglican Communion is mostly a product of networking – the real networking of people concerned for one another. Indeed Louie Crew recently posted a reason for being part of the Anglican Communion that almost entirely consisted of the rationale that the AC is a way to vision the connections among people who share a rather large part of history and an even larger part of mutual concerns. In recent years those network connections have become more and more a product of internet engagement.

From one perspective networking was what the whole idea of Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ was all about – MRI began with the realization that in a globalized world Christians are all bound to one another in ways that point towards greater interdependence and mutual responsibility. MRI is not solely about member churches of the Anglican Communion, it is about a spirit of networked interdependence.

In a book I wrote ten years ago, The Challenge of Change, I suggested that perhaps the Anglican Communion was not real at all, but rather a mental construct for convenience sake that pointed to or signified a variety of connections among members of the various churches networked with one another.

Anglicans Online posts an essay each week, always a good read. This week the essay concerns precisely the question of Anglicans in cyberspace. AO concludes,

"Christian communion is historically reciprocal, deliberate, public, duty-creating, love-impelling, and church-strengthening. As the ground of Christian life it is not something we choose, but something we are given: given from God the Father through God the Son, enlivened by and filled with God the Holy Spirit. It is a profound, ideally eternal relation with people we may never meet or befriend on this side of the veil. It is a far cry from the point-and-click ecclesiastical relationships we watch unfold week by week in Anglicanism. Anything less than reciprocal, public, sacramental, Christ-grounded, God-given communion is less than what it ought to be, and less than the people of God need to really serve and know the one 'unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid'.

Do what you can this year to keep our Anglican Communion from becoming a Facebook communion, and to enliven your friendships with handshakes, telephone calls, letters, shared meals, good walks and good deeds. We'll try our best to do the same."

The great value of thinking of the Anglican Communion as a tactile, existential thing, is that that is incarnational. The problem is that its tactile nature makes real engagement across Provincial lines, and indeed on a level larger than local community or perhaps diocese, something only those with disposable time and money, or the ecclesial or structural power to command the same, can afford. Still it is a warning to all of us who think Dave Walker's idea of connecting by way of Facebook is a good one. Cyberspace is never enough by itself, and social networking on the internet is never a replacement for real tactile engagement.

Confusion of social networking on the internet and social intercourse in person is one of the places of potential perversion of what is best about being human – which is that for us humans all community is at its best and at the last local and specific.

Still, I think there is a way for the cyberspace AC to relate to the tactile AC and there is a reason to do so. Here is something of an outline of my thoughts on the matter. I want to think of three Anglican Communion ideas:

Anglican Communion I, the bishops and whoever else can afford to do so meet.

The Anglican Communion (the great and terrible) is a notion that came into existence only recently (in the early 1800's) and got itself planted in the first of the events put forward in the desire to get together (we would now call that networking.) It is, like the land of OZ, real as an abstract idea, but is primarily an overlay on the communities that gather most often, namely people at prayer. So we pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the Saints (quite a lot of them English) and for our bishops. We pray and hope. This local incarnational reality of prayer and engagement with our own bishops found expression in the Lambeth Conference and the sense of belonging to a larger reality – the Anglican Communion.

The Lambeth Conference and its committees and later the ACC and the Primates Meetings have all served this networking hope. All were small networks of people and until very recently the Anglican Communion when it gathered consisted of people considered "high level" insiders connected to one another mostly through the good offices of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Anglican Communion may have been a network, but it was a Compass Rose, or hub and spokes sort of network. Some of the first efforts to relate groups (Provinces) out at the end of the spokes gave rise to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) and to the Anglican Congress idea, as well as to the Primates Meetings. ACC and the Anglican Congress managed to be about more than the "really important people" at the end of each spoke – the provincial Primates and chosen representatives to ACC and various official representatives of member churches.

Anglican Communion II. Some bishops meet somewhere without bishops they don't approve of, and are joined by others who can afford to do so.

Beginning in the 1970's with changes in the wind involving inclusion of people of color, women and now gay and lesbian persons in The Episcopal Church as well as changes in the Book of Common Prayer, some US bishops began to think that they needed to change venue and find a new way of being the Anglican Communion. Similar ideas arose in Canada and even in England. As this change of venue was reimaged over the years that followed, ones in which the dissenters could not gain a majority in their own churches, the idea of a second structure that would challenge the place of the first arose. The thinking was that there would still be a center and spokes sort of thing, only the center might reside elsewhere than at Canterbury, and at least in the US, that the center might reside somewhere else than the dreaded 815.

At the same time bishops in the Global South were encouraged to meet together to discuss matters arising from their own witness and concerns. Long simmering problems with the elite and northern stance of the Communion, with the imperialistic grasp of the US and its allies and with the scandal of totally inadequate aid to countries and churches in desperate situations, finally came to the fore and were joined to the agenda of those in the North dissatisfied with what they believed was theologically criminal stances by their churches.

The power struggle between the West / North and the East / South is the result. In recent years there has been the suggestion that the center of the Communion lies elsewhere, perhaps with the Global South, perhaps with some synod of Primates, perhaps with some council. A great deal was made of the fact that the "center" of Anglicanism now resided in the South. Internally, this was picked up by the parallel sense in the US is that the center might reside in, say, the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (AKA the Anglican Communion Network) or with something growing out of CANA (The Convocation of Churches in North America). But these power struggles are still part of the old "top down" or "center out" way of thinking. The network was still center out, only the chairs are being rearranged, or perhaps new chairs are being rented. This is old speak networking revised by those who want to make the old thing better.

The struggle has been about the seemingly real world of church structures and their relations to one another. The struggle has been about a particularly odd world of a small group of people speaking from different levels of authority on behalf of their synods and how they do their common work – how they network. In this sense the Anglican Communion exists if and only if those bodies and personages are connected in some way in physical meeting. So the instruments of unity are meetings – either plenary or in smaller groups such as standing committees, and they determine the reality of the network of the Anglican Communion. The effort to change the network becomes a matter of changing leadership and focus. But in the end it is still a small group of mostly men, mostly princes of the church. The new network also has to have its meeting in the flesh – thus the announced meeting in Jerusalem (or where ever) in June 2008 just before Lambeth. Many of us in congregational contexts have very little to do with either Anglican Communion. It all seems a bit rarified.

All of that is being played out and many of us in the blogsphere I call Anglican-land look on and try to make sense of what is happening there. I too share with Louie Crew, Anglicans Online, and many others the sense that the Compass Rose / Wheel arrangement is valuable. I also believe AC II is finally destructive of Anglicanism.

But AC I is only one sort of way to do the networking and a very basic one at that. It is often exactly what is needed, for the basic form of that network is getting together for a meal. And every meal feeds the hungry. At the core of every instrument of unity gathering is the table – sometimes the conference table, sometimes the dinner table, sometimes the Table of the Lord. People gather in groups around a central actual table.

The problem is that the abstract but none the less tactile, incarnational, Anglican Communion, either I or II, is for the elite – for bishops and others who can go to meetings.

Anglican Communion III. Mixing it up with the lowly.

In the 1990's the internet became a reality for many people in Anglican Land and the possibility grew that the Anglican Communion was going to have a third reality to it. This reality got its start in such things as Anglicans Online, Trinity grants for communications access, Louie Crew's Anglican Pages, and so on.

In this reality the Anglican Communion is not going to be a wheel, with a hub and spokes, or a compass rose with Canterbury in the center. The internet has brought a wide range of networking possibilities. On the net all sorts of social structures take form that relate to but are quite different from the networking grounded in a top down sort of physical gathering.

The internet has given rise to a third sort of Anglican Communion, one in which a great number of people are connected by a wide variety of concerns that all somehow arise from the communities of people growing out of the work of separate churches. The communications that are now taking place, the network that is now building, assumes that the Anglican Communion is a networking of people on all sorts of ecclesial levels. It is not enough that the Church of Ireland speaks to the draft Anglican Covenant. It becomes important that Tobias Haller or Brad Drell has an opinion. It is not enough that this or that primate speaks out, it becomes important to know what Stand Firm or Fr. Jake knows about the issues. What Anglicans Online has to say carries weight not because its writers have ecclesial power, but because they are the Anglican Communion deep down and personal, howbeit in a virtual space. But in all these examples it becomes clear: It is not enough that the bishops and others in high places reign or speak on our behalf.

There has emerged this wide community of people who call themselves Anglican who are networked and connected and engaged in ways that do not conform to the Anglican Communion as a product of the instruments of unity. And yet, of course, those same instruments have been at times a real help. It helps to be able to think of the Communion represented in the Lambeth bishops actually meeting. It helps, sometimes, to think of the Primates gathering for mutual consultation. What cyberspace does is provide a way for an Episcopal community to be not just bishops but actually community.

Most of the people in this wider network are part of churches that are part of the Anglican Communion as physically represented by Primates and bishops, but some or not. Many in this larger network are related to bishops who don't talk to one another very easily if at all. But the nature of the network for Anglican Communion III is that it stands at much at the center as do the bishops and Primates. Anglican Communion III makes the center less the crown and more a crossroads.

The Anglican Communion as a commonwealth in cyberspace will not please many in positions of power or authority. The ecumenically tidy crowd will find it yet again a sign that Anglicans simply can't get their act together. Those who want purity will find themselves disappointed once again. There are too many rooms in the mansion and too many strangely garbed occupants for it all to be clear and pure. The whole mass that is Anglican Communion III is, as Archbishop Tutu once said of Anglican Communon I, "lovely but very very untidy."

It is however a land, an Anglican Land in which we are all theologians (as Professor Fredrica Thompsett says) if we want to be, and we will all take our lumps in public discourse and find our pleasures in the social intercourse that pervades life in cyberspace. There will be plenty of virtual places to meet and there is food for the soul and a warm place to dry our socks. Sometimes there will be jumps from cyberspace into a local coffee house or conference or parish, sometimes we will meet in the corporeal world at large tribal gatherings – General Convention, the edges of the Lambeth Conference grounds, someone's wedding, the occasional burial. But most of our meetings will be in cyberspace. Facebook is simply a very minor part of the social networking growing from the virtual Communion that is the product of internet connections.

Any attempt to revamp Anglican Communion I, or form Anglican Communion II, that does not take into account the Anglican Communion as a commonwealth in cyberspace will be doomed. AC III for all its stumbling carries an essential ingredient for the future of Church: it is not bound to the bishop as prince, but to bishop and community as community. In some ways the Anglican Communion as a commonwealth in cyberspace becomes the people of God, visiting on the wings of electrons. It can never replace real touch and real bread, but it can connect and feed.

For Anglican Communion III, the great sin is the one known in other places in cyberspace, the sin of disdain. Those parts of Anglican cyberspace that are hate-filled will eventually be spammed by all but the seriously maladjusted. Those who are left will perhaps find lots to disagree about, but will be led by a deep sense that perhaps it is true, that God loves absolutely everybody (thanks Louie Crew) and that if that is so perhaps we need to work on our communication skills just a bit more. In the end Anglican Communion III will perhaps help lead AC I or II or the fragmentation that is the whole of the broken Church into a place where it is not princes but local folk, even if the local folk are princes gathered, who constitute the people of the meal.

So, just perhaps the Anglican Communion is a commonwealth in cyberspace, for which the corporeal Anglican Communion is the servant. Then again, perhaps vice-versa. It is, after all, no longer about bishops, but about bishops and people.


  1. Thoughtful. Brilliant. Thought provoking.


  2. Blogging Episcopalians also has member bloggers from across the political/cultural/theological/whatever spectrum.

  3. A commonwealth in cyberspace is sadly another version of empire, for it priviledges those who can afford the internet.
    Many of the lowly are not in cyberspace.

  4. Thanks, Mark, for this important article. I loved the phrase, "the people of God visiting on the wings of electrons."

    The mission work of ACIII should not be overlooked either. With Paypal instead of ushers with brass plates, we just raised $10,000 from the international cyber community for a small parish in Rio. Donations and support continue to pour in from all over for the Diocese of SJ. This is not an artificial community, it is real. And it will increasingly be, as you insightfully note, a major aspect of the AC as it evolves.

    Thanks again.
    - David Walker
    (not to be confused with Dave Walker!)

  5. Friends...I blew it. I inadvertently deleted a note from Obdiahslope (probably misspelled that as well) who writes often to these pages. To paraphrase what she said, She allowed as how the internet was also a privileged and possibly imperialistic device, since many cannot afford to be on the net.

    The answer is yes and no, I think. Of course any instrument - telephones, books, even the post is not available to all. What I was trying to point out was that the community of people involved in the conversations on the internet is much more inclusive of people from all levels of church than any tactile meetings of particular church leaders. It can not replace those meetings, but it can make the question of what the Anglican Communion is look different. Does it reach everyone? No. Does it allow for all the imperialistic and class differences? Yes. But it lets a lot of people through the door into the conversation about the Anglican Communion than any other device.

    There is the question as to whether or not this is a good thing. My sense is that it is, with the proviso that we are episcopal in ministry leadership because we see that role as an essential component of common life. So we are bishop and people together. Until recently this might have been true on a diocesan level, but no where else. Now, in AC III we are all in the act.

    It turns out I have to pay attention to folks in Australia and Singapore and Manila and Nairobi and on and on, not because of the Primates or even the bishops, but because I know people who connect on the internet.

    I know enough to have to apologize for screwing up and deleting rather than posting when that is what I wanted to do.

    On the other hand it may have been a comment to another entry entirely and I simply can't find it. Cyberspace has many rooms, some of them quite lost to me.

  6. Mark,
    no it was ME who mis-spelt Obadiahslope! I take your point that the internet has changed the communication potential within the AC. But it is still worth remembering our brothers and sisters on the otherside of the internet curtain. It is hard to blog on $2 a day. Overcoming the barriers to including the poor will keep all three Anglican Communions busy for some time yet I fear.

  7. Worried about cyber space and the AC? History is simply repeating itself. The way individuals group together via either a location or medium, started with the early Church and has emerged in different manners. Cyber AC is just another extension that shall gain more attention in the next few years and then then the AC can ordain people to the Ministry unfer the title of "Minister to Faceboook 'enter group name here'"...

    The best is yet to come, the current social networking sites are going to evolve in the new 24 months and we shall see a new and amazing way of connecting on the internet!

    Hold onto your hats, it's going to be a fast ride....


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.