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Cyberspace

15 March 1998

The General Synod introduces itself in cyberspace with a line no parodist could improve: "Every large, active group of people needs some sort of committee to discuss important questions".

The only thing to be said for this as a way of presenting the Church of England online is that very few people will stumble over it. A quick search of Northern Light, my favourite search site at the moment, showed up more than 20,000 uses of the phrase "General Synod" on the Internet, divided into handy subcategories: Presbyterian, Incarnation, Christian, Anglican, and Adultery. Naturally, I checked the last of these, to find 36 copies of the Westminster Confession distributed around the web. .

The Church of Englandís synod site came fifteenth on this list, after a lot if internal papers from the Bible Presbyterian Church Unaffiliated and some other Presbyterian organisations I was unable to identify on a quick scan.

In part these results reflect the lunatic difficulties of finding anything on the world wide web, and the curiously topsy turvy view of the world that one has once there. But there are a couple of serious points arising. The first is that these difficulties of presentation can be overcome, and that the Church of England should be doing more to overcome them. The World Wide Web is more like a library than it is like anything else in the outside world. But it is a library where all the footnotes lead at once to the things they refer to ó a hyperlink is just a footnote that works ó and the librarians, though very energetic, are insane. This is because they are mostly computer programs. Few humans would choose to illustrate the connection between synods and adultery with 36 copies of the Westminster confession.

Despite these difficulties, the web remains a marvellous resource for Christians, and this fact has been grasped by energetic lay people long before the central bureaucracy of any church woke up to it. In the Roman Catholic church, the theological library at Trinity and All Saints College in Leeds was online long before the Vatican, and the same pattern is repeated across the other denominations. The Church of England, or rather the Anglican Communion, is fortunate to have among its members some of the people who really know how the Internet works because they built it, and four years ago a group of them reserved the name anglican.org as an address in which all the resources of the Church could be combined. This address is not a physical computer. It can comprehend almost any number of sites located anywhere around the world. But the group which owns it, the Society of Archbishop Justus, make addresses ending in "anglican.org" available to any diocese in the communion, along with free web space if they want it.

Church House, of course, has ignored this and invented an improved wheel, one with corners. They prefer addresses that end "churchnet.uk". and which have a link with a particular Internet company which owns the space. The argument about what name Anglican organisations should use when they are online may seem esoteric and unimportant. But it actually matters a lot. The physical arrangement of computer networks doesnít, or shouldnít, matter at all. The computer which doles out names for Anglican.org is in Palo Alto, California and I have frequently had more trouble connecting to machines in Canary Wharf. In this situation, the network is mapped by its logical and organisational divisions.

That is why it matters that the constituent parts of the Anglican communion should have an address in common, even if they canít keep their theologies in line. Each site on the internet is identified by a unique number, like 158.53.240.3, but these are entirely invisible to most users, since the overwhelming majority of these numbers also have names attached them, like Maxwells.demon.co.uk. Demon was one of the first Internet providers in the UK, so there are a surprisingly large number of Christian sites whose addresses end with "demon.co.uk" despite the potential embarrassment.

Internet addresses are handed out by a largely American oligarchy of "wizards": the people who built the net by inventing and keeping in good repair the software that links everything together. It was one of these people, Brian Read, who claimed "anglican.org" as a domain four years ago. This was an act of great imagination and resourcefulness, which was just ignored by Church House. This is of course entirely in character. Though their web site requests that any comments or questions be addressed to the Director of Communications, a call to his office produced the reply that they had no idea what I was talking about, and would return when knowledge was available. That was a week ago.

This kind of absurdity can only survive in an almost wholly self-regarding bureaucracy; and though the Internet has many faults and failures, it is at least a place where bureaucracies canít flourish. Central control just doesnít work there. The technology enforces subsidiarity. This might provide great opportunities to a sufficiently loose and flexible sort of Anglicanism: everything on the Internet works like a communion of autonomous provinces. But it wonít happen except by the efforts of individual, unorganised lay people, who should not be discouraged.

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