By Richard J. Mammana
For 25 years until the last quarter of 2019, visitors to anglicansonline.org saw a new issue each Sunday night (or Monday morning, depending on their time zone). Each “issue” — the site always referred to itself as a news magazine — contained an introductory essay, a list of new links, a news summary, and a section of sometimes-strident letters to the editor. Each issue was the product of about 200 emails per Sunday among the staff in our several time zones, generally beginning when we returned home from post-church coffee hour and continuing until the issue was published — usually in the early evening New Jersey time, but sometimes as late as 10 or 11 p.m.
The site was emphatically lay-led and independent, aimed at Anglican comprehensiveness, and logged about 25,000 visits a month or a little over 300,000 a year. In some years, the site was its own press agency, offering live reports on the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and the then-decennial Lambeth Conference. The staff were always volunteers, the spelling was always according to Canadian English, and Anglicans Online was remarkably stable in appearance from 1994 until the very recent present. It was intended to be a one-stop landing page for everything Anglican, and eventually included close to 35,000 outbound links to parishes, dioceses, news sources, book reviews, schools, independent organizations, religious orders, full communion partners, church vacancy listings, discussion forums, and guest essays by a host of contributors across the theological spectrum. We published our last regular issue in October last year.
The site will go on in a mainly static manifestation without the weekly essays, news summaries, and the rundown of new links variously called “Noted This Week” and then “Noted Recently.” To use a phrase well known, and in this case perhaps overblown, Anglicans Online has been changed but not ended. The opportunity to offer a personal retrospective on the website is a happy and welcome thing, if here emphatically personal. Anglicans Online’s inner workings were always a group effort of deep magic, and I was a relative latecomer to the project, first starting my connections with and contributions to Anglicans Online around 1998. My memories, opinions, and gratitude are limited and only mine.
Anglicans Online began in 1994 as the personal undertaking of young Canadian General Synod delegate Todd Maffin, who had noticed that there was nothing on the nascent web for young Anglicans. It grew quickly in the three years of his editorship from one page of links to ten pages of links. These were the days of the Internet’s Wild West, when a site could grow from nothing to something in very short order. American computer scientist Brian Reid offered technical assistance to Todd. When Todd was ready to set the site aside in the summer of 1997 in order to focus on what he described as his work as a “technology futurist and one of Canada’s busiest professional speakers,” Brian and church communications consultant Cynthia McFarland stepped in to carry Anglicans Online forward. They, with Cynthia’s husband Frederic McFarland, were the stable core of the staff when I came on board.
I came to Anglicans Online in the summer between high school and college, excited to have my first email address and flush with interest in the wide world of church life online. Facebook’s creation was still in the distant future, two thirds of a decade. Most Anglican provinces still had print publications or national news services. The first stable iteration of episcopalchurch.org was launched in 2001, and anglicancommunion.org followed in late 2002 (to great fanfare from the International Advisory Council on Telecommunications for the Anglican Communion, or IACTAC, during a Primates Meeting). By contrast, Canadians had always been pioneers in this field, launching anglican.ca in 1996; churchofengland.org did not go live until almost 2004. Anglicans Online aimed at providing an interstitial and supranational web presence that could offer a venue for irenic commentary without relying on the glacial pace of ecclesiastical decision-making structures to direct editorial policy and technological responsiveness.
Anglicans Online was formed at the same time as a body whose work continues in 2020 and beyond — the Society of Archbishop Justus (SoAJ), which promotes Christian unity by providing online services to Anglicans and Episcopalians around the world. The overlapping International Anglican Domain Committee, including Simon Kershaw, Cynthia McFarland, Rob Pickering, Brian Reid, and Simon Sarmiento, registered anglican.org in their first year to hold the domain in trust for any province, diocese, or institution acknowledged as part of the Anglican Communion by the London-based Anglican Communion Office.
The American Internal Revenue Service acknowledged SoAJ as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in 2001, and I became a director of SoAJ in 2005 along with Peter Owen. Helen Gordon and Allie Graham, both from the United States, became SoAJ directors in 2014, and Benjamin Hicks followed in 2015. SoAJ published Anglicans Online for the entirety of its active publishing run — meaning that SoAJ underwrote the purchase of software licenses and computer hardware for the weekly cycle of Anglicans Online’s work. SoAJ continues to administer more than 1,500 domain names, listservs, websites, and other internet properties, including my own beloved Project Canterbury and bodies like the Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee; the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue Consultation in the United States, founded in 1965; and the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, founded in 1867. We also host dioceses far and wide, including Barbados, Belize, Edmonton, Ely, Montreal, Peru, Quebec, Rochester, Saskatoon, Southwestern Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Truro, and the Church of the Province of Melanesia.
Anglicans Online was somehow something slightly more than the sum of its constituent members, even though we only met as a group in person on a handful of occasions. Two of the saddest were the result of the cancer that preoccupied much of our energies for several years, namely, the funerals of Fred McFarland in 2008 and my godmother Cynthia McFarland in 2014. Brian Reid and I served as pallbearers at both funerals, at the second of which I carried my toddler daughter Emilia in one arm while I propped up a beloved friend and colleague’s coffin with the other arm.
The funerals and the mutual support that preceded them were a reminder that Anglicans Online depended for its functioning on a mutuality of trust in one another’s editorial instincts and technical abilities. This was the primary reason why the undertaking always remained small in personal numbers but large in personal capital. We were able to do much together because we shared sensibilities, but also because we trusted one another to write with the collective “we” that was always one of the site’s hallmarks.
As Anglicans Online’s weekly manifestation wound down, it was not because of any crisis or crises, or any breakdown in the abilities of our staff. Life situations had changed substantially for all the principals over the course of a decade, with older members moving into active retirement and younger members with growing families discovering that the demands of a religious Sunday with children were increasingly inimical to an intensive production schedule.
There were always many hours of unpaid work necessary between Sunday issues for the checking of links and the maintenance of accuracy in listings. As, for example, several American dioceses changed legal status and lost large numbers of parishes, a major responsibility became the work of conforming those dioceses’ online presence and constituent parish listings to the correct data. The same was true in a Canadian context with the emergence of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh and the bankruptcy of some church institutions in response to the Residential Schools intergenerational trauma. So, too, we spent our weeks in the trenches of the reorganization or “transformation” of the dioceses of Ripon and Leeds, Wakefield, and Bradford into the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales.
A curious duty connected with Anglicans Online, which fell mainly to me, was maintenance of a directory of hundreds of churches in the Anglican tradition that are not part of the Anglican Communion. They ranged from the venerable Reformed Episcopal Church and the Church of England in South Africa (both products of 19th century schisms who maintain a robust life in the 21st century) to organizations that sometimes seemed to have little more than a self-appointed archbishop, a pedigree of some form of apostolic succession, and a website using a mashup of the terms Anglican, catholic, church, apostolic, rite, province, diocese, archdiocese, etc. The only legal expenses ever incurred during Anglicans Online’s 25 years were related to a bishop of a Continuing Anglican denomination who threatened to sue us for including a link to his church on Anglicans Online; the great majority of correspondence in this topic was from individuals who insisted that we list them.
One of the oddest byways of working for Anglicans Online was the amount of Anglican and Episcopal pure-chemical wrath we received in emails during the course of most weeks, most from clergy, and all from persons who would not likely say out loud the things they were somehow willing to include in electronic communication. The webmaster of a devotional society told us to “go to Hell” because of some perceived slight. The rector of a large evangelical church excoriated us and questioned our salvation for not having listed his parish website — which of course we promptly listed once he had told us about it; we were never possessed of the gift of telepathy that might have helped us to know about websites without ever having heard of them. People routinely demanded with anger and vexation that we explain what church our website was in communion with, and they were routinely disappointed when we replied that websites are not in communion with anything because websites cannot receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. That fine theological point never seemed to be something we could establish with wide acceptance over the course of 25 years.
Is there something to be said by way of valediction to a website? Our language has yet to develop such a formula, and the passing of early sites may be a marker of maturity in our online discourse. The durability of Anglicans Online — even a changed Anglicans Online — in the Anglican world of the internet is itself a notable thing. The frantic emails of production Sundays are now behind us, but the site was the leader in its field, and the game was worth the candle while it lasted.
Richard J. Mammana is archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a parishioner at Christ Church, New Haven and the founder of Project Canterbury, anglicanhistory.org.
Anglicans Online essays by Richard J. Mammana