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Western Australia is a long way away from anywhere else in the world. Its capital, Perth, is almost literally on the opposite side of the globe from Philadelphia. The next nearest city of any size in Australia (Adelaide) is 2800 kilometers away. In the late 19th century, pioneering men relied on camels to help string telegraph lines across the desert that separates Adelaide from Perth and to this day there is not much in the way of settlements between the two cities.
When I lived in the relative isolation of Western Australia I became keenly aware of the importance of the internet in keeping me connected to the rest of the world. And today the internet keeps me connected to my dear friends in Australia.
If you go surfing online you can find pictures of the strange, mostly barren landscape that is Western Australia. You will read about the giant termite hills, the vast distances, karri trees and jarrah wood and crayfish and witchetty grubs. You might discover that it is dangerous to drive on country roads at dusk because that is when kangaroos are most likely to come bounding unexpectedly out from the bush and into the side of your car a kangaroo can do some serious damage to a car, but normally doesn’t fare too well itself in the encounter. And you might wonder, as you look at photos, how anyone could ever see beauty in the gangly, awkward shape of a gum tree. And if you go surfing on the web you could also learn a thing or two about the Anglican church of Australia and the diocese of Perth. You might learn something about all these aspects of Australian life, but you would not really know them; you would certainly not have any experience of them.
It is a strange dynamic of the contemporary life of the Anglican Communion that so many of us mistake what we read about and learn on the internet for the kind of knowledge that allows us a real experience of something. There is a ‘virtual church’ out there with parish web pages, special interest groups, diocesan public relations machines, blogs, newsgroups and God-knows-what-else. It can sometimes be easy, when we encounter this virtual church, to mistake it for the real thing and to reach conclusions on the basis of these encounters.
I believe that the current crisis in the Anglican Communion is fueled in no small way by the error of relying on the false sense of knowledge we gain in our encounters with the ‘virtual church’. And I know, from my years on the other side of the globe, how misguided and inaccurate and, frankly, wrong-headed the conclusions can be that people draw on the basis of their ‘virtual’ encounter with a ‘virtual’ church.
I fool myself, for instance, that I have some real knowledge of the thinking and experience of the conservative Anglicans who gathered in October in Dallas to plan the next steps in their journey of faith. How silly of me. While I could describe something of the parameters and contours of the discussion they must have had, based on my reading of the various websites set up to promote the event, I do not actually know anything of the journey that has brought this group of people to this moment in time.
Thy mystery of the Incarnation — the birth of Jesus — which has always been at the forefront of the way Anglicans think about God, is precisely the mystery that the God of all creation should choose to engage his creation is so personal, humble, immediate and vulnerable a way. And Anglican theology has been shaped by the idea that a Christian’s encounters with God and with other Christians (in whom we believe we meet God) should also be personal, humble, immediate and vulnerable.
The dynamics of the recent controversy have very little in the way of the personal, the humble, the immediate and the vulnerable, and seem to be shaped more by the geo-politics of the cold war and the triumph of the marketplace than by the revelation of God in Christ.
Regardless of what conclusions we reach about the issues of scriptural authority and human sexuality that this controversy has raised, the way we deal with one another is at least as telling of what we believe.
It took me a long time in Australia to learn to see the beauty of a gum tree which has none of the graceful, balanced majesty of an oak or a fir or even a maple — the kinds of trees my northern hemisphere eyes had been trained to enjoy. There is more to this crisis than learning how to love a different tree, I know. And yet I feel quite certain that no one will ever learn to love a gum tree by reading about it on-line. But take my word for it, they are beautiful trees; I hope you have a chance to see for yourself some day.
Father Sean Mullen is curate of St Mark in central Philadelphia, in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.