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CYBURBIA

Old-Time Religion Gets a New Venue--the Net

September 24, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Father William Morton is based in Campbellton, New Brunswick, a town of about 9,000, but his ministry stretches across Canada, into the United States and as far away as Australia.

That's not unusual in this era of broadcast religion, but the work of the quiet-spoken Morton, who is an Anglican priest, hardly resembles that of a televangelist. Morton does his preaching the old-fashioned way--one-on-one. He just does it in a digital fashion, on the Internet via e-mail.

"Communication has always been a theme of the church," said Morton, speaking from Campbellton, a spot so far east that it's in the Atlantic time zone, four hours ahead of Los Angeles. "When Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press, the Bible was the first book he printed. So it's not so unusual that someone like me would be using the Internet today."

Morton, 39, came to his calling later than most in the clergy--he has been a priest for only seven years, the last two as parish priest in Campbellton. Before all that, he was a sanitation worker, a writer and for a brief period in the early 1970s, a clerk in an electronic supply store.

"I was there when the first Apples starting coming out," he said, "and been involved with computers ever since. I was online long before it was popular to be online."

His enjoyment of computers and the Internet continued after he became a priest in the Anglican Church. And about four years ago, he found himself in alliance with the cyberpunk movement's strong advocacy for privacy online.

"I was interested in what they were saying, because confidentiality is vital in my line of work," he said. "If people don't have confidence that they can speak to you with assurance that it will go no further, you're dead in the water."

Morton usually didn't mention his line of work to others online, "but that information sort of leaks out," he said. And when it did, he began to get messages from people who didn't want to discuss only Internet issues. "They just wanted to talk, make some sort of personal connection."

These people, who came from a wide range of religious backgrounds, wanted to discuss problems in their lives. "The issues ranged from marital and abuse problems to issues at work, office politics and sometimes just overall frustration," he said. Some who contacted him had lost a loved one and could not resolve their grief.

The e-mails were frank, sometimes painfully so, and dwelt deep into personal matters. Some told him things they had never discussed with anyone in their offline lives.

"I think the anonymity of e-mail has something to do with that," Morton said. "It's like someone sitting next to you on an airplane during a long flight. The person knows they will never see you again, and that creates a kind of confidential space. They just pour their heart out to you."

Morton began to treat these online communications as a part of his ministry, although he shies away from that word in describing them. "I have struggled to find a term," he said. " 'Presence' is the one I like. That denotes a reality. It's different from a person trying to be someone else online--men saying they're women, women saying they're men, teens trying to be older.

"A 'presence' is different. You are there, and it's just you."

To ensure his conversations could have depth--and because he is busy with his own church matters in Campbellton--Morton limits his e-mail relations to only a few at a time. Currently, his Internet flock numbers 10.

The conversations are often about matters outside of what is traditionally thought of as the scope of religion. But that's of no concern to Morton. "Life is a faith issue," he said. "You don't always have to be taking about religion to be operating within the faith."

It is, to him, the communication itself that is important.

"The good news of the gospel is 'relationship,' " he said. "God relates with his creations, and thereby enables us to relate in transformed ways with each other."

Amid the anger, arrogance and even bigotry that is all too often expressed via online communications, Morton's message is one that is likely to be welcomed by many in the Internet community. But he asked that his e-mail address not be printed as a part of this column.

"There are a lot of people in Los Angeles," he said. And more than a few of us would like to receive e-mail from someone as understanding as Father Morton.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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