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A screen shot of the Google Earth programHallo again to all.

Perhaps we'll blame this letter on Google Earth, the breathtaking application that lets one explore virtually any region on earth via interconnected satellite photos, zooming down from far in space to just above a rooftop, or 'flying' from place to place on the globe. It's fascinating, addictive, and a bit unnerving. But whatever Google Earth is, it's not real earth, real dirt, reality. It looks entirely real, as if you could reach out and touch it, but it's an illusion. It's an extraordinary illusion, but it is just an illusion, just a picture of the earth on your computer screen.

Google Earth got us to thinking about land and boundaries and just what those mean. It wasn't much of a jump to flying bishops, DEPO, letters dimissory, and violations of episcopal jurisdictions by bishops on the move. We mused more when we read Bishop Pierre Whalon's well-reasoned and clearly expressed paper on jurisdiction and boundaries in Europe, a subject of perplexity to Anglicans since the late 19th century (don't miss it). But for the first time — and we've brooded about these issues in some detail for decades — we found ourselves thinking in an entirely different way about just what it means to draw lines on the earth and call them dioceses. On the one hand, it's a clear enough business of canons, jurisdiction, legalities, and temporalities. Most of the disputes and difficulties occur at this level, and rightly so.

But rather suddenly we began thinking about dioceses as symbolic and important manifestations of the Incarnation, as strange as that thought might be. If the incarnation of Our Lord was the willing submission of the timeless and omnipotent into the time-bound and limited, we too accept the limitations of our 'Brother Ass', our bodies with their grace and their gout, their abilities and their disabilities. Much of the Anglican gift to theological understanding has been the exploration of incarnation, both its abundances and its absences, and a steady refusal to veer towards manicheanism or dualism. The early church's rejection of gnostic heresies was, to some degree, based on their emphasis on secret knowledge and their dismissiveness of the everyday and the ordinary.

If incarnation is about ordinary human life lived on earth, then a diocese is an incarnated mark on that dirt and a temporal, geographical sign of a group of Christians in one place attempting to live that out. The chessboard in Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis CarrollIt can be messy, quarrelsome, and difficult, but it is real. The understanding of a defined place with a bishop and people — a diocese — is found in the earliest Christian tradition. It was a way of ordering the church, linking the members of the body, and spreading the Gospel. It was bound by time and space. In the ease of our age, with aeroplanes and internet, it's simple for diocesan lines to be traversed, for like-minded people to bond together in a 'virtual' diocese, connected by similar positions rather than physical boundaries. It's a reasonably trivial matter for a bishop from one part of the world to enter, without permission, the diocese of another bishop on another side of the world. But such traversing may have a theological implication that we'd not discerned till now. It comes close to, well, 'dissing the incarnation'. It's ignoring the tiresome business of being incarnate, of living in one place at a time, with this woolly-minded bishop and those irritating people. It's taking technology and turning it into a neat theological trick: Hey presto! It's the Diocese of Namirembe in Natchitoches, Louisiana! No, actually, it isn't. This side of heaven, Louisiana is Louisiana and Uganda is Uganda. To pretend that it isn't is to strain and stretch and disfigure the boundaries of incarnation.

Not for a moment, in this musing about boundaries, are we referring to the courtesy extended by one bishop to another to come into a diocese, the protocols agreed upon by a college of bishops for pastoral oversight, or the voluntary acceding of a diocese or a church to a request by an authority (singular or corporate) recognised within the Anglican Communion. These are all reasonable and proper ways of crossing lines. Other ways, through other means, are not.

Let's say a hotheaded priest finds he cannot abide his bishop or the positions and perspectives of the majority of the people in his diocese. He cannot bear any longer to work within the existing canonical and juridical systems for change. Should he not be willing to put his life over the line, so to speak, and find another patch in his national Anglican church where he can move house, to live and work with more peace of mind and heart? Taking it to the next level, it seems to us if one is no longer willing to work within the existing systems for change in one's national church, then should not one be willing to consider a change to another communion or denomination? Even a physical move to a place where church and culture are more in line with one's beliefs and thinking? To use legerdemain and a techno sleight-of-hand to deny time-and-space-based reality (call it incarnation) seems to us to be unworthy of anyone who has ever claimed the name of Anglican. Leaving is honourable; legerdemain is not.

'Step on a crack, break your mother's back', went the old and rather grim childhood chant when one inadvertently stepped on the crack in the pavement.* Children are often wiser than we know. May bishops be the same.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 29 January 2006

*American: Sidewalk

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