Hallo again to all.
The fractiousness of the Anglican Communion as we know it is a product of easy electronic communication. We have always known this, but we came to understand it even more clearly last week when we discovered the text of an 1858 liturgy celebrating the completion of the first transatlantic telegraph cable.
Before the submarine cable link between Ireland and Newfoundland established what passed for instantaneous contact among Europeans and North Americans, delays of weeks and even months accompanied the exchange of information between continents. This was true for matters of extraordinary common concern—the beginnings and endings of wars, major economic fluctuations, natural disasters and the births and deaths of friends and relatives—and of course for all ecclesiastical intelligence of any kind. Telegraphy changed this, and heralded, at least for its earliest adopters and adapters, a new era of spiritual unity for Christians. In one of the first three telegrams ever sent, James Buchanan told Queen Victoria of his hope that telegraphy would, with 'the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world'. Christians of many affiliations took the telegraph as a subject for joyful, laudatory sermons; examples from Presbyterian, Dutch and German Reformed pulpits survive in print.
In short order, however, it became clear that faster, easier communication generally weakened and did not strengthen existing bonds of Anglican affection. It became too easy for ecclesiastical tattletales to flash information about doctrinal or disciplinary problems back and forth across the ocean. Although no study has yet been made about the impact of telegraphy on the formation of the Anglican Communion, we find it interesting that the precipitating problems leading up to the first Lambeth Conference—the erection of new sees and missionary jurisdictions, the complexities of synodical government in an international context, and the limits of toleration for theological opinion as exposed in the Colenso affair—all received fresh weights of immediacy and importance when Toronto could share its insights with Canterbury, and Armagh could communicate with Albany. The tensions of diversity within unity were so clear after this ease of mutual communication that it was just nine years later that Lambeth I took place in 1867.**
Our old friend George Washington Doane had another vision altogether for what he called 'consecrated lightning' in a newly-discovered sermon preached at Trinity Church, Wall Street during the aforementioned liturgical commemoration:
The telegraph provided an opportunity for the earthly realisation of the doctrine of the communion of saints, issuing in common liturgical worship and mission:
This was a positive good for Doane, because it meant that Christians could henceforth with more ease live and work
With our tired, retrospective eyes tonight, we are forced to admit that our recent history has not borne out Doane's startling vision of easy communication as the handmaid of unity. As Anglicans have come to know one another better through email and the worldwide web—the telegraph's great-grandchildren, to be sure—we have discovered dissimilarities and unlikenesses that, depending on the spiritual disposition of those doing the communication, lead many of us to pull away from one another rather than to draw closer. There are wonderful exceptions to this observation, and we have always tried to be one such.
None of this means that Bishop Doane was wrong-minded any more than it means that Anglicanism has failed, or that the world's peoples have been served poorly by the technological developments that have made our communications easier. It means only that despite our ability to share about ourselves, and to learn about others, we have failed along the way to find Christ in our electronic midst. Since this is a matter of our inclinations, orientations, devices and desires, it is something we can do, with God's help. In the changes and chances of this life, ecclesiastical and electronic, Christ is in our midst as the author and finisher of our unity in the faith. We have it on the best authority that if we take honest care to seek him we cannot be disappointed.
See you next week, consecrated lightning being our helper.
* We've been unable to turn up published sermons by Anglicans or Episcopalians from the occasion. The Trinity Church service order was printed immediately in 1858, but Bishop Doane's sermon did not accompany it; the reconstructed event and sermon appear here together for the first time. The good Bishop Edward Feild of Newfoundland did preach a cautionary sermon on telegraphy in 1866, by which time the first cable had ruptured and been replaced.
** One could easily draw parallels to the simultaneity of the various Ritualist crises of the 1870s-90s: Pimlico, Folkestone, Milwaukee, New York, Boston, Montreal, Chicago, Sydney and Philadelphia all experienced the same Anglo-Catholic liturgical controversies at roughly the same time.
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