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Dave Walker says much with few wordsHallo again to all. Happy New Year, and Happy Epiphany.

When we started our first year of college, the orientation committee distributed a little book showing the names, photographs and hometowns of our new classmates. It was meant as a kind of aide-mémoire to encourage us to meet new people. And although the book was issued just to new students, it was worth its weight in gold to upperclassmen at our coeducational school where it had some extra value for its indication of how generous the gods of the admissions office had been with potential contributions to the post-graduation gene pool. This book was (and is, in some places) called the facebook. As we have forgotten some of the names and faces of those with whom we took our degrees, our old facebooks—with their reminders of 'old friends, old scenes'—are still helpful to us now when we consult them before alumni functions to sharpen our recall.

The great age of printed facebooks was of course before the advent of social networking sites like Myspace, Friendster, Linkedin, Mixi and, to name some of the most popular. There are now more registered members of the largest few alone than there are members of the Anglican and Orthodox communions combined. In short order, social networking websites have become a ubiquitous feature of educational life, and their largest-growing cohorts of membership are for users older than the usual age for undergraduate education. Precisely half of our production staff have profiles, and in that we have something in common with quite a surprising number of bishops of the Church of England as well as many, many Anglican clergyfolk and other laypeople. (We should note that we have no strong attachment to Facebook itself: we've simply looked at various such sites, found them all lacking, and decided to join the one most of our real-life friends used after they invited us.)

If you do not use a social networking site (and we are not suggesting that you do—they're frightful time-bins, despite the enjoyment they can offer) this is how they work. One creates an account or 'profile' with particulars like Name, Age, Sex, Political Background, Religious Views, Location, Educational Background, etc. One then invites the owners of other profiles to create reciprocal hyperlinks with your profile. The owners of these profiles then accept or deny these invitations. According to social networking theory, the connections among these electronic profiles are powerful indicators of the reach and shape of real-life communities. Users can also use their profiles to join 'groups' of other profiles whose owners have like-minded interests, whether or not their profiles are connected to one's own.* Networking websites facilitate proxy relationship among profiles that belong to real people, but people identify so strongly with their profiles that it is sometimes hard to remember this.

Just before Christmas, a characteristically thought-provoking story on American National Public Radio raised some important points for us, and got us to thinking about how Anglicans use social networking sites. The more we considered it, the more we began to see that Anglicans may be in danger of regarding relationships of ecclesial communion with the same degree of seriousness as Facebook users treat adding and deleting 'friends' or creating, joining and leaving special interest groups online. The primary point of intersection is in the non-reciprocity of the relationships of Facebook friendship and Anglican communion. One can, apparently, be in communion with a central figure in Anglicanism, yet not with other people, dioceses and provinces in communion with that bishop's province and diocese. Likewise in Facebook friendship, one's profile can be connected to another profile without any relationship being created thereby among other profiles. Neither are the sorts of personal friendship and ecclesial communion that measure up well with the best examples God has shown us in history.

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.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 6 January 2008

* These self-selecting groups can be remarkably precise with respect to their topics. Some of our favourites include those with titles such as the Ornaments Rubric Society, the Gaslight Appreciation Society, the Noble and Most Ancient Society of Book-Smelling, Full Frontal [don't worry; it's about altar frontals], Phonographiles, Maniples and Merbecke, and Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Farmed Salmon.

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