Anglican World Wide Web wars, Part I

Soon after the Episcopal Church voted to offer "pastoral care" for those in "life-long committed relationships" outside of Holy Matrimony, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey met with some American bishops who were worried about the future.

Once upon a time, views aired in a private Lambeth Palace gathering such as this may have been discreetly shared with other bishops or edited into a safe, uplifting press release.

Today? Forget about it.

"My motto is 'Take no prisoners,' "said evangelical David Virtue, a raging cyber-scribe who never uses a flyswatter when a baseball bat is available. "If I hear something, I'm going to put it out there and I don't care who gets mad."

Relying on a source inside the Lambeth meeting and others caught in the fallout, his "Virtuosity" ( email list reported that Carey was worried that the Episcopal Church's sexual agenda could cause a schism. Carey and these bishops were said to have shared their concerns with U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

Anglican Communion News Service editor James Rosenthal struck back, issuing a bulletin on Nov. 2 that quoted Carey saying that Virtue's report was "a bare faced lie."

But then the Church of England Newspaper confirmed key elements of Virtue's report. Then Carey's own staff asked that the Rosenthal bulletin be withdrawn. Lambeth Palace said the story containing the "bare faced lie" quotation "didn't emanate from here."

Journalists do not enjoy being called liars. Virtue wrote Rosenthal: "I expect a ... retraction or I will sue you. You have defamed me."

That is where this tempest in a British teapot stood until May 9, when Rosenthal released a public apology, conceding that his press release "lacked clarity and the content was inaccurate." He asked all news services, web pages and email lists to kill the story.

There is one big unanswered question: Where did the "bare faced lie" quote come from? At midweek, Lambeth press aides and Rosenthal's office had not responded to numerous inquiries about this issue.

What is happening? All over the ecclesiastical map, bishops and bureaucrats are learning that the wise crack is true -- freedom of the press really does belong to people who own one. The web has given legions of people the ability to ship documents, speeches, transcripts, letters, statistics, fact sheets, opinions and embarrassing press reports into scores of pews and pulpits.

A Canterbury press release goes all over the world. But so does a Virtue email carving up a bishop's revealing remarks in a local parish forum that was captured on tape.

While only 3,000 users have signed up to receive his press reports, that number includes 30 or more traditional Anglican writers and editors -- in Canada, Latin America, Asia, Australia and, especially, Africa -- who forward his work to thousands of their own cyber-subscribers. Many of them click "forward" once again.

Virtue claims to have 80,000 readers. His critics on the Episcopal left dispute this and have conducted their own investigations, trying to undercut that statistic. Of course, those critics have their own web sites and email lists.

The official church press is no longer the only game in town. Ask the Presbyterians or the Baptists. Ask the United Methodists or the Greek Orthodox bishops. Ask just about anybody. The World Wide Web wars are turning up the heat in a growing number of religious sanctuaries. This, in turn, affects how the shepherds relate to their flocks.

After all, noted journalist Andrew Carey of the Church of England Newspaper, when Episcopalians read denominational press releases, it seems that their church is "in perfect health, and merely trailblazing for a more enlightened Christianity. The rest of the Anglican Communion will follow -- you mark their words!" Yet when they open an email from Virtuosity or the Third World bishops, it seems the Episcopal Church and "other liberal provinces ...are on a downward spiral into hell, if they have not already arrived."

It does little good, he said, for clergy to moan about this. The web has changed the rules of the game.

Carey the journalist should know. His father is the archbishop of Canterbury.