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Helping the Anglican Church Move Online

A summary of comments received as part of an
informal consultation on how the church could use
electronic networking to assist its communications

edited by Tod Maffin, June 1995

An Introduction

The comments summarized in this report come from people who subscribed to an unofficial, daily electronic journal following the events at the 1995 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.

More than one hundred Anglicans from around Canada (and a few scattered elsewhere in the world) responded to a call for comments on "how the church could use new technologies to reach people outside the church or to help us inside the church communicate better."

This document is not intended to draw conclusions -- it is only a digest of the comments received.

Communication (Internal)

Many respondants cited the new direction of the church, coming from the streamlined "Preparing the Way" plan adopted at Synod. One of the overwhelming messages in that plan was for the church to use networking more efficiently to share resources and information between dioceses.

To that end, people responding to this call for comments all agreed that a decentralized model would help the church better address its responsibility to offer effective ministry, while being responsible stewards of our financial resources.

Most agreed that this meant the church must be willing to do more than simply accept "grass-roots participation" in the life and work of the church, but to embrace and support it.

One of the suggestions for how to improve communication within the church was a call for the establishment of an Internet mail list server for each diocese, to distribute news, clergy information, upcoming events, council/committee minutes, etc.

One parish in the Maritimes is already using such a model:

"Our parish has been on the net for six months now. We have a page on the World Wide Web and use a listserver to distribute parish information around the parish (and beyond)."

Some suggested such an automated e-mail distribution system might make for an effective way of fostering Bible study groups -- the national office could distribute the lectionary readings for each month to subscribers so they could study the readings before church.

Many people said they already participate in prayer circles distributed by electronic mail. They commented that, especially in the case of urgent prayer requests, this medium would suit a prayer group well.

At the national level, a majority of respondants said they enjoyed receiving daily updates from General Synod and believe there is an even wider audience for such immediate reports from national committees and consultations. A few even suggested this would be a good way to distribute occasional messages from the Primate on special occasions.

The Anglican Journal was cited as a valuable resource within the church. Nearly all who commented about the Journal affirmed its role as a positive influence in the church, and suggested that it could serve as the catalyst for two-way communication on the issues it covers. Some people said they would appreciate the opportunity to correspond with Journal writers (and noted that the Journal's address on Ecunet either does not work or goes unanswered).

Some felt frustrated at having to wait more than a month for coverage of significant events in the life of the church, and suggested the Journal could run short "snippets" of its upcoming stories and distribute them either by e-mail or publish them on the World Wide Web. One diocesan newspaper (Ottawa) has already begun such a venture.

A few respondants mentioned they appreciated the "official" reports from the church. Two comments, which were similar to the others:

"Lose the filter of the secular press...."
"There's nothing wrong with hearing the official reports of what happens at the national level; it's refreshing to have news in a pure form, rather than having it fed through the biases of journalism."

Many positive comments were received about the Anglican Video coverage of General Synod on Vision, though many had not heard about the daily shows.

"If I hadn't heard about Synod highlight on Vision tv through your internet service I wouldn't have tuned in. It was wonderful to see my church on TV!"

It was noted that after people have been assembled in an online "community," such as Anglinet, Ecunet, or an Internet mailing list, many people thought that group could make an excellent pool from which to gauge wide opinion.

They suggested it might give the national committees access to immediate feedback about proposed plans or models.

"Would the primate like to know the response of all parishes to a particular issue/question? It would be there."

Finally, some respondants from northern parishes noted that they are often great distances from their diocesan synod office and that electronic communication could open up a new sense of being "connected" to Synod office staff and other parishes around the diocese.

Evangelism (external)

Of the comments received about communicating our message to those outside the church, the overriding message was: "We should be doing more to meet Christ's call to minister to people where they are."

And a lot of people are in cyberspace.

Respondants to this call for comments said their experience with online services led them to believe a lot of people are there to talk with people, perhaps they're lonely, and many are young adults. Two particularly memorable comments:

"Cybercommunity is one of the surest ways of wrapping in those two boys of mine, and many disaffected teens and young adults as well."
"We spend too much time believing that the way to reach young people is through rap music. When I was a teenager, my generation's rallying cry was Rock and Roll. Today, it's the Internet. We're barking up the wrong tree."

Many expressed the opinion that part of being young includes a search for indentity through spirituality, and that the Anglican Church is missing a unique opportunity to offer young people a sense of what we have to offer.

An overriding feeling among respondants was that if the Christian community doesn't "wake up and smell the coffee," young people will indeed find some form of spirituality anyway:

"Many of us are already in here and there is a lot of religion to be encountered. Everything from anarchy to satanism to fundamentalism. The Koran, the Bible, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are already prominent on the 'net. There's already a great deal of religious debate producing much smoke and little heat. What is needed is an example of faith lived out."

Many people thought the church should be proactive in delivering information about ourselves.

"We can't just throw the door open to our churches and expect people to walk in; we need to get out there and tell people what Jesus can offer..."

To that end, a number of suggestions came from respondants:

A lot of people mentioned the value in the Internet's anonymity. They suggested that some people may feel safer discussing issues of faith with a priest they know they'll never have to meet face to face. A number of clergy said they would enjoy this kind of ministry (one priest already receives encrypted confessions over the Internet).

One comment:

"I find it is often difficult to talk with the parish priest(s) about personal problems, or theological questions - everybody's busy, plus it takes a certain amount of nerve to approach the priest, especially if you're shy or are a member of a very large parish. I think if priests had Internet mailing addresses that members of the congregation could use to write them, they might be able to get to know and help more of the congregation."

Ministry and Mission

One respondant from western Canada summed up her thoughts on the role of electronic networking in the ministry and mission of the church this way:
"The most common complaint that I hear about Diocesan, Provincial and National programs and resources is "I didn't know about it." Part of the reason for this is that the systems currently used to disperse information are hierarchical. Each level of the church hierarchy depends on the level above to pass the information along.
"Unfortunately it is usually the average person in the pew who is the last to know. By using electronic networks, information about programs and related issues can be circulated quickly, inexpensively and inclusively to people at all levels of the church.
"As we "Prepare The Way" for the next paradigm of the Anglican Community we would be remiss if we do not embrace all available communications technologies."

Among the comments received was a suggestion that electronic communication would make a cost-effective link between dioceses, companion dioceses, and partners in mission. Some suggested it could be a valuable resource for "instant communications" in response to disasters and subsequent PWRDF response.

One person made the point that while church attendance is declining in Canada, studies continually show that a majority of people in society say they "have a strong spiritual sense." He suggested this could be due, in part, to society's faster pace, leaving us all with less time, different working schedules, and more reasons than ever to not be able to attend every 10am Sunday.

Electronic communication could provide that link to the church, for those unable to attend Sunday mornings. Some suggestions included a national weekly Bible study online (distributed by e-mail) and other such regular contacts with people.

Some parish ministry, of course, could never be replaced by the human touch. But many respondants said they believe the church could offer resources to assist in that "personal touch" ministry. For instance, information could be made available for people in bereavement, to help them understand what to expect at a funeral, what a priest will ask at the first meeting, and perhaps offer pointers to other online resources to help people grieving.

Financial Implications

Almost all of the respondants saw the potential of electronic communication as a way to reduce costs. For instance:
"Printing costs and mailing costs for study manuals, Synod circulars, and such material would be entirely eliminated if sent electronically (leaving the user with the option to read electronically or print out);

One person thought there was often unnecessary duplication of efforts:

"It is not infrequent that we receive two separate mailings from our Diocesan office on the same, or succeeding days. These obviously come from different departments, but, if e-mail were used, and info sent during cost-effective hours of the day, it seems to me that significant funds could be saved, and used elsewhere."

As well, national committee work could continue in between meetings, with members sharing reports and papers immediately, without having to wait for Canada Post or burn up fax paper and long distance phone charges. Some people even suggested electronic networking could, some day, replace some face-to-face meetings, though they stated all members would have to be online for such an arrangement to work.

Beyond the issue of saving money, some people suggested that the church could use networking technology to actually raise money. Some ideas:

Concerns Expressed

Some people expressed concerns about the use of electronic networking; most feared that the church would turn to computer communication entirely, leaving some people feeling disconnected. Almost all said the church should use the technology, but not base its entire communications plan on it. It should be viewed as an available option, not the only way of communicating.

One person said they felt that rural and northern parishes may not be able to afford computers and modems and may be left "out of the loop." She offered this suggested remedy:

"I'd like to see computer webs among youth groups -- perhaps youth-group fundraisers to buy a computer for each parish, a national youth campaign to purchase hardware for Northern, remote, and Aboriginal churches."

Secondly, some respondands expressed a desire to see some direction from the national church or Primate on the ethics of such communication:

"[We need] a clear statement from the National Church on the ethics of cybercommunication, ethical guidelines for those in positions of responsibility, and a code of conduct for users. We may need some appeal mechanisms/disciplinary standards; at the moment, that's entirely up to the [discussion forum moderator], with no appeal."

Finally, a number of people commented that it may be difficult to measure the effectiveness of the church's reach into electronic networking.

Taking the Next Step

Overall, there appeared to emerge two primary foundations of how to next move toward implementing the call for increased networking in the Preparing the Way plan.

1. "Whatever we do, we need to do it now."

There was a sense of urgency among the comments. Many people said they believed the Preparing the Way plan's success rests on the ability of the church to share existing resources better. They said that now that the leadership structure is in place with national committees, the church should begin building that network of shared resources.

Many people believed the first step was for the national office to have a useful presence online.

Several people cited the looming release of Windows 95, the long-awaited upgrade to Microsoft Windows, already installed on more than 100 million computers around the world. The new Windows 95 will offer immediate one-click access to the Internet and we can expect a massive influx of people to jump online.

"It is my view that our Church cannot afford to move slowly in its use of computer networking. It will take time to create a national and inter-diocesan computer networking strategy suited to our needs, but we must seriously move ahead now and in earnest."

A number of respondants suggested that the financial resources the church could save in implementing such a network would easily pay for a "director of electronic resources", whose job would be to begin the process of using electronic networking to effect the church's call to be better stewards of our existing resources.

2. "We should make distinct the roles of sharing of resources and communicating among one another."

There was a sense that one of the models that should be explored more deeply was that of a two-part system:

  1. The inter-diocesan/parish sharing of resources (such as study manuals, liturgical texts, Sunday School curriculums, congregational development newsletters) should be placed on an open-systems architecture such as the Internet;
  2. Inter-person communication (such as online committee meetings, online Bible studies, etc.) could be kept within the virtual communities which have already been established, such as the Anglinet network of BBSes, Quest/Ecunet, Internet mailing lists, etc.


Now that we have a firmer grasp on what's possible, perhaps it would be appropriate to start thinking of where we should put our priorities.
"Given limited resources, should we be looking at developing useful applications with those dioceses that are already online? Encouraging more dioceses? Concentrating on pumping national stuff out there? Dedicating staff time or recruiting volunteers? Centralising electronic information flow in-house, to concentrate proficiency; or striving to get all staff literate? Supporting ECUNET or BBS links or Internet?"

If you have any ideas as to how the church should priorize its work in this medium, please send them to me with the subject header "next step".

The final words go to this contributor:

"My experience tells me that online Anglicanism can only help the church to minister, to grow and to spread its message -- and isn't that what the whole thing's about?"