Anglicans Online Goes Offline – For a Little While
Back in 1994, in the Dark Ages of the Internet, a Canadian Anglican set out to locate Anglican sites on the World Wide Web. He found nothing. After a while, he discovered that his initial search had been fruitless because there were only four Anglican sites in the entire world. Undaunted, he started his own Web page listing these four sites.
His page was very popular – among the friends for whom he had designed the site. Seven or eight of them stopped by to visit the page during the first month of its existence. One of the friends, though, belonged to a Christian discussion group on the Internet. He happened to mention that, Oh, by the way, there's this new Anglican site on the Web.
Overnight, the new page received 500 visits.
This was the beginning of Anglicans Online! (the exclamation point has been part of the official name). By last month, the site had 100 pages edited by 11 volunteers from around the world. It was receiving 50,000 visitors each week (not hits – visitors). As one Anglican bishop put it, the site became the world's largest Anglican congregation.
Tod Maffin, the Vancouver native who started the site, remains bemused by the success. Even the name, he said, was intended as a joke – a take-off on America Online. Yet his story epitomizes the quirkiest feature of the Web – the manner in which unofficial sites can compete with and outstrip official sites.
Perhaps the easiest way in which to see this would have been to visit Anglican Online's General Convention page this summer. In order to provide visitors with news from the Episcopal Church's triennial convention, Anglicans Online set up a list of links – a very revealing list. There was, of course, a link to the official General Convention site, which was filled with informative reports from Episcopal News Service, one of the leading religion news services. But jostling it for space were a dozen other sources of news: sites set up by conservative organizations convinced that the Episcopal Church would fall apart if certain resolutions passed, sites by liberal organizations convinced that the Episcopal Church would fall apart if the resolutions didn't pass, jaunty reports issued by an Anglican Internet society that had sent its own reporter to the convention – even daily journal entries by a concerned churchman.
All of these sites provided healthy competition to the official site, and though the quality of these reports naturally varied a great deal, they all provided glimpses of the strong and varied views held within the Anglican churches.
Overall, the Web is not longer the Anglican wasteland that it was three years ago. In addition to various official Anglican sites, lengthy links pages exist: the unofficial Episcopal Church Home Page, edited by Brother Thomas Bushnell, which came into existence while the Episcopal Church was still scrambling to catch up in the Information Age; Welcome Links, a site with flashy graphics edited by Dan Porter; and the Anglican Pages of Louis Crew, rich with links on gay-related issues.
The largest and most best-known site, though, has remained Anglicans Online. It was designed to overflow with information: listings of churches, not only within the Anglican Church of Canada, but throughout the Anglican world; clergy resources; a live chat room; a voting booth on Anglican issues; a news center issuing bulletins on breaking Anglican news, generally before the official Anglican news sources have posted anything. Anglicans Online has routinely appeared in lists of the best religious sites, catching the attention of those outside the Anglican world.
Thus the Web's religious community was dealt with a shock during the last week of August when visitors to Anglicans Online arrived to discover that the site had disappeared.
"A victim of its own success" is how Tod Maffin described the site in the page he posted in place of the usually replete table of contents. "Closing the site has been an agonizing decision for me--one I've spent a year praying about and considering," said Mr. Maffin. The work, though, had become too much for him and the other volunteer editors. By the end, he explained to Greenbelt Interfaith News, the site was receiving 20 to 30 requests a day for postings.
The two features that have most characterized Anglicans Online are timeliness and variety. The first was almost accidental – at the time that South African archbishop Desmond Tutu was announced as having cancer, many of the site's visitors were eager for information. Mr. Maffin therefore set up a news center that became a permanent feature of the site.
Variety, though, was intended from the start: the editors listed both liberal and conservative sites, as well as Anglican churches that are not part of the Anglican Communion. "I can't say the site was unbiased, because I have my own particular bias, my own way of preferring to worship," says Mr. Maffin. "We would try to cover all sides, though. The only time we would reject a site is if it was not Anglican – selling birdseed, for instance – or if it was commercial. We listed noncommercial sites only."
Mr. Maffin says that he does not regard this as an ending as much as a renewal. "I've taken the site as far as I could," he says. "A good model for ministry is that you get [a project] off the ground, and then it's time after a while for new ideas."
The group in charge of "new ideas" is the Society of Archbishop Justus, which has agreed to take over Anglicans Online. The society is devoted to providing Internet services to the Anglican community – it is the same organization that recently provided coverage of the General Convention. It operates the server on which Anglicans Online is located, so it is natural that it would maintain an interest in the site.
The new version of the site debuted this week, and has much the same look as when Mr. Maffin was editor. "The Society of Archbishop Justus plans to run a version of Anglicans Online that carries as much as we can manage of the spirit and energy and content of the original, while evolving it into something more international in flavor," says Brian Reid, one of the society's directors. "My guess is that the biggest single change that people will see right away is that we will lose the exclamation point out of the title, and we aren't likely to promise to update it as frequently. Beyond that, we'll just have to wait and see what we can find the resources to do. We hope, in the fullness of time, to have it remain a world-class electronic publication that continues to meet the needs of cyberspace Christians."
As for Mr. Maffin, he will be kept busy with what he describes as his "70-hour-per-week job." His main work is developing strategies on new media, and he continues to edit a technology news analysis digest, Emerging Trends This Week. The result of all this, as he concludes in a biographical sketch at his work page, is that he "sleeps about every four days."
In the meantime, he is busy answering a new flood of e-mail – from people who want to thank him for his work at Anglicans Online. "Since closing the site, I've been overwhelmed by the wonderful comments . . . I've received," he says. "It's very flattering and I'm grateful that the site was able to serve a need."
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©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson