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© 1998 The Society of Archbishop Justus, Ltd
Good morning Anglicans:
This week's letter is narrowly focused. It's also the longest front-page letter in the history of Anglicans Online. It's about Bishops, and lines of authority. But first we have the usual collection of new parish listings, a new diocesan listing (British Columbia). The Mothers' Union World Headquarters has a web page. It's all listed for your reading pleasure in our New This Week section.
Today's newspapers carried the story of the sudden death of Jonathan Postel, who is absolutely the most influential and important person in the 30-year history of the Internet. I am privileged to have known Jon for 25 years. But this essay isn't about Jon, it's about what he stood for, what his death means, and what this has to do with our church.
The Internet isn't about technology. Technology is easy. It's just wires and transistors and disks, and when they break, you buy more. The Internet is all about boundaries and authority. Everybody involved needs to agree on the boundaries between sections of the Internet. That is in fact what the "inter" means. There is no one in charge, no pope, no supervisor, no general manager. There is instead a set of fundamental principles, a set of traditions, and ordinary common sense. Anglicans call this Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, and although the Internet documents were written by graduate students and not holy apostles, the parallels are striking.
While most of the Internet works on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, there are two absolutes. Everyone must agree on what the names mean, and everyone must agree on what the numbers mean. The name ANGLICAN.ORG must mean the same thing everywhere, and its IP address 126.96.36.199 must also mean the same thing everywhere. For the first 25 years that the Internet existed, that hegemony was provided by Jon Postel. He was the arbiter of what names and numbers meant. About three years ago, the Internet's planners and experts realized that the name and number systems needed to expand, but in those three years nothing resembling an agreement has been reached about the central governance of names and numbers in the Internet. So Jon Postel continued to do the job, more or less alone.
Yesterday Jon died in the hospital after heart surgery. He is gone. With him the line of succession ends. There is no heir to his throne, no clear and universally-accepted successor. There are hundreds who would like to be in charge of part of it, and maybe a dozen people who have expressed an interest in being in charge of all of it, but there is no majority opinion about what to do. We Internet professionals expect a period of stasis (no one will permit change right now) and tremendous political turmoil, that could last a year or two or three. Jon's power did not come from God, it came from the consensus of his community, but that power did not include the power to choose or define a successor. The Internet is so new that almost nobody involved in it has died, but now Jon is dead, and there is no person and no process to do what he did.
Jesus had a similar, though larger and more important problem: he knew that he would leave this world in mortal form, and he needed to continue his teachings. So, before he died, he consecrated twelve people, and taught them how to do the same. These apostles, and their successors, define our church. They are our bishops; they are the means by which our church survives time. Part of what makes us Anglicans is that we think this is a good system.
So it is always big news when a new bishop is consecrated. In today's News Centre you can read about two newly-named bishops in the USA. The consecration of a new bishop is as exciting as the birth of a new baby; one event perpetuates the church and the other event perpetuates the species.
Every bishop carries apostolic succession; that is what makes him or her a bishop. This means, however, that if a bishop chooses to withdraw from one church administrative unit and join or create another, that he must be free to do so. To forbid a bishop from doing this would be to put an administrative authority above an apostolic authority. And bishops, being human, sometimes do this. They become independent bishops, or join other communions.
So our Anglican church has many pieces. The biggest piece, The Anglican Communion, is well known. The smaller pieces are less well known. Anglicans Online has for several years worked hard to keep its Not In Communion section up to date, but in recent months that has become almost impossibly hard. The very definition of what it means to be "in communion" borders on the mystical.
We work unbelievably hard on Anglicans Online. Every member of the AO staff has a full-time job and a life somewhere else, but among the three of us who produce it every week we probably put in 50 hours of work. In looking for some way to reduce that to 40 or 30 hours of work, so that we can sleep more and attend more cinema and swim more laps at the YMCA, we proposed to drop the Not In Communion section, partly because it had become less relevant (everybody uses the web now) and more contentious (we get more complaints about that section, many quite strident, than any other section). We were rather amazed with the quantity and ferocity of the complaints.
So we're going to try something different. We're going to rework the section into a "Not In The Communion" section, and make it be a simple directory of churches with independent bishops. We didn't like our brief tenure as Anglicans Out Of Line, and we do like being able to bring you Anglican information every week. We would still welcome, with open arms, someone volunteering to take complete responsibility for that page. Maybe the right number of people to be producing Anglicans Online is not three but twelve?
See you next week. Oh, and I'm doing the letter this week because Cynthia's computer is broken.
Last updated: 25 October 1998