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Hallo again to all.

We were thrilled this week by an announcement from about the release of a new digital collection with some 326,657 images. This vast collection is the Diocese of Newark's sacramental registers, spanning from 1809-1970—almost two centuries of hatching, matching, and dispatching as chronicled in the official acts of Episcopalians from dozens of parishes.* It is marvelous to think of the millions of sacramental interactions detailed here in careful order—the names of parents and sponsors, the places of birth, the causes of death, the maiden names, the wedding witnesses, the emergency baptisms. The raw data are invaluable to genealogists, but also to social historians and students of the local. Each piece of information tells us with utter clarity that in this place on this date the Church assembled to do what the Church does, and that God acted to bless these persons in this way.

The announcement was significant not just for its scale and its usefulness for the history of Anglicanism in the northern third of New Jersey, but because it is the first of a number of such diocesan sacramental archives to be digitized to the highest possible standards. New York and New Jersey are in the queue, and several other dioceses may be following in short order since a presentation by Ancestry at the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists annual conference in 2014. As these collections grow, they will combine accessibility and preservation at no cost to the insitutions, and allow researchers to use material from their own devices rather than needing to travel. They will also provide the dioceses their own digital copies of records that are often brittle because of the misguided nineteenth- and twentieth-century use of acidic wood pulp paper. The cut-off dates provide for reasonable privacy in keeping with Ancestry's own guidelines.

Mirabile dictu, there are persons who find these major ecclesiastical-archival advances upsetting and threatening. One diocesan archivist, now retired, was terrified at the notion that Mormons would be able to find out when and where her grandparents were married. Another was afraid that it would make his own job superfluous if researchers no longer had to visit the diocesan archives.

Such fears are faithless and ungrounded: Ancestry is not affiliated with any religion, though Mormons are indeed very good at genealogy because of some tenets peculiar to their faith. If Mormons wished to know where Canon Hennypenny's grandparents were married, they would find a way to get that information with or without (Amusingly, Ancestry is positively ham-fisted when it comes to religion, asserting in its introduction to the Newark records a fabulous history of the Church of England 'since its establishment by King Henry VIII in 1534'.) And the important work of diocesan archivists will always need to be done with physical objects even if there are digital copies available.

Anxieties about digitizing church records have some of their roots in longstanding disputes within archival communities about the appropriate balance between preservation and accessibility. The anxieties are also a common symptom during times of institutional decline or change, when the control of information becomes a refuge for persons who have lost perceived control of their surroundings.

Anglicans Online—and our parent, the Society of Archbishop Justus—have always been committed to the free dissemination of knowledge about church life. (We differ from Ancestry in that we never have charged and never will charge a farthing for our data.) We are not confused in thinking our Lord said that data would set us free, but his Johannine comment about the truth—graven upon the seal of the Anglican Communion—points to truth and transparency as touchstones for a healthy church community.

Ancestry's partnership with the Diocese of Newark—and other such partnerships, as they go live—is a fine, positive, and healthy gift from that small part of the Church to the world.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana

7 August 2016

* The Newark collection contains material that predates the establishment of that diocese. It was calved off from New Jersey in 1874 as the Diocese of Northern New Jersey, and acquired its current name in 1886.

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