Church Times

27 MARCH, 1998 WEB EDITION No. 51

Next week, the Church Times will have been on-line for a year. Today we launch a new monthly Internet page. Andrew Brown addresses the issue of names and sites


Tangled in the Web

THE GENERAL SYNOD is introduced 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 on-line 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 sub-categories: 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 General Synod site quoted above came 15th on this list, after a lot of 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 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 page describing the General Synod as a committee came as a dreadful surprise to the Synod's press office, which has itself only put up a page saying that more information will be available in the future. I couldn't find out who was responsible, but it seems to be from someone who was genuinely trying to explain why this thing exists. (Presumably not Pete Broadbent.)

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 -- a hyperlink is just a footnote that works -- and where the librarians, though very energetic, are insane.

This is because they are mostly computer programmes. 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 was grasped by energetic laypeople long before the central bureaucracy of any Church woke up to it.

The Church of England, or rather the Anglican Communion, is lucky to have among its members some of the people who really know how the Internet works, because they built it. 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 that 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 act of great imagination and resourcefulness, and has invented an improved wheel: one with corners. It prefers addresses that end "churchnet.uk". and that have a link with a particular Internet company that 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 doesn't, or shouldn't, matter at all: the computer that 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 can't 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.)

Church House's website, which eschews the "anglican.org" address, requests that any comments or questions be addressed to the director of communications; but a call to his office produced the reply that they had no idea what I was talking about, and would get back to me when knowledge was available. That was a week ago.

This kind of absurdity can survive only in an almost wholly self-regarding bureaucracy; and, though the Internet has many faults, it is at least a place where bureaucracies can't flourish. Central control just doesn't 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 won't happen except by the efforts of individual, unorganised laypeople, who should not be discouraged.


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