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virtual communionMark Howe on Ship of Fools wants people to experiment in online communion. Mark contends that those against this do so out of a “denial-and-emotion response”.

I see online mission and ministry to be essential in the third millennium. This is a newly-discovered land in which so many people now live. The church is slow to provide mission and ministry in this new land of the online world. It is often brushed off as puerile. Encouraging “experiments” in twitter sacraments and the like does nothing to enhance ministry and mission online, but reinforces the appearance that the church online is for wacky, nutter, extremists.

Mark sets up a dualism: “real” and “unreal”, attacking those who are cautious about virtual sacraments as claiming virtual is equivalent to unreal.

Mark also puts a lot of energy into showing that there is a lot of Christian diversity in opinions about sacraments. But once Mark has demonstrated Christian diversity and confusion he does not leave us with any suggested definition or theology either for sacraments or church. Twice he uses “simulcrum” when he means “simulacrum” (update: corrected now after reading this post). All we are left with is Mark’s challenge to “try some experiments”.

Mark, having already specified that Christians disagree about what communion is, what we receive, and what happens when we receive, etc., leaves me struggling to work out what he understands as possible results of his experiments? How does Mark intend to measure results? And against what standards?

In his article Mark certainly doesn’t provide something other than seeking a person’s “experience” once they try his twitter-communion experiment. In a Christian tradition that sees sacramental actions as being independent of how one “feels” about the action (you are baptised whether you “feel God’s presence” or not!) it is Mark, it seems to me, who leaves us with nothing but an “emotional response” to his call for experiments.

I have already seen quite a bit of debate on Mark’s call for experiments. You can follow the Ship of Fools own discussions on this here, and complete their online survey here.

I blogged about virtual eucharists three years ago.

Let me put some of my own presuppositions on the table:

  • I do not demarcate the virtual world as “unreal”. Online and offline are part of my one reality. An online encounter can affect me as deeply as offline. Just as I am impacted by images on a movie screen, and ink on paper. With over 74,000 followers on twitter, and my profile devoted to liturgy, I come with a positive, not negative attitude to what can be done with social media.
  • Sacraments are not magic. I stand in the tradition of a community praying to God with bread and wine, and our faithful God acting transformingly in response to our prayer; and this community not being a haphazard clustering but with God-given structure and leadership. This does not translate into a priest magically tweeting “hocus pocus/ Hoc est enim corpus meum” and someone hold their laptop open with bread and wine beside them and that tweet being tranformative. Holding bread and wine in front of a screen, where a YouTube video is playing of a priest reciting the Last Supper story, may, at its most generous, be a pious exercise resulting in spiritual communion – at its worst it becomes a mockery of the Christian mystery.
  • Christianity is an incarnational spirituality. If God were becoming incarnate today, this would not be in the form of an avatar on screens, who died and rose again solely online. We do not feed the hungry by sending them virtual bread. A sacrament is “outward and visible”.

There is so much that we can do online. There is so much that can nourish spirituality, and community. We can pray together online. We can resource each other, nourish and encourage each other. But when people urge us to experiment with online sacraments without any solid theological underpinning, guidelines, or even ideas what one might look for in “results” of such an experiment, those who take little notice of online mission and ministry just have their prejudices reinforced that online church is a sideshow for nutters: Be ordained online now! Get your virtual marriage here. Tweet this and you are baptised!

Once again, if you are seriously interested in this topic, I suggest you read my post on virtual eucharists to complement this post, as I won’t repeat all of that here. Nothing has altered my position: don’t take up Ship of Fools’ challenge to mock Christ’s sacraments by experimenting with having a communion service on twitter.

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76 Responses to twitter communion

  1. personally it doesn’t float my boat but, having been a member of a real-world community where a minister was forced out in circumstances that became very stressful for a lot of people – a community I no longer consider myself in communion with – I can see why people are attracted to it.

  2. There are Christians isolated by carer duties, distance to church and many other reasons who have been blessed through becoming part of a virtual church community. Part of the inclusive nature of such churches is that their doctrinal basis is simple. Virtual communion is not for everyone but for some it fills a need. It is a crime against the expressed intention of the Eucharist that Roman Catholics and Protestants are usually prevented from partaking together. Virtual communion accepts that our understanding of the sacrament my differ while we are one in Christ.
    Five centuries ago good men gave their lives for differing views on Eucharistic consecration. Thank God we have moved on. There are no reasons to suppose that virtual communion won’t be meaningful and reverently celebrated by the few who chose to.

  3. I really appreciate and enjoy your blogs, Bosco! Thank you.
    Virtual communion seems to me, as to you, to miss the essence.
    There are many ways to bring home the sense of community as ‘communion’ online, without the Eucharist being offered.
    And, remembering ‘hocus pocus’ remember also ‘mumbo jumbo’ (dominum nostrum…)

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Bene. That God’s grace can work without the sacraments etc. is quite classic theology. That we replace the sacraments with something else, equate the sacraments with our replacement, and then use the theology of God being active alongside the sacraments as a way of arguing that our replacement is, hence, identical to the sacrament is the sort of argument I am seeing in favour of the confusion. Even from a bishop. Blessings.

  4. Hi Bosco. I help to lead an Anglican group in Second Life called the Friends of St Matthew’s. We say the daily office together several times a week, and I agree with you that the distinction between virtual worlds as “unreal” versus the non-virtual world as “real” is not an accurate way to describe it. When we gather together, we are praying as a community and not role playing church. If it were role playing church, I would not do it since to me that would be a mockery of church.

    Since all of us who participate regularly at St. Matthew’s are lay people, the issue of sacraments in virtual worlds has not really come up. As an Anglican/Episcopal Christian, I would have a hard time participating in the experiment as described by Mark Howe. My understanding of the sacraments does not fit with his understanding, and I am not ready to jump into that pool yet.

    Having said that, I am interested in finding out what they learn in this experiment. My position is that as a church we should have some serious thought and discussion about whether it would be possible to celebrate the sacraments in virtual worlds and if so, what that might look like. As more and more Christians find their way into virtual worlds and as Pidge writes, for some the only connection they have to church is in a virtual world or setting, we need to do the work of figuring this out. We may very well come to the conclusion that it is not possible, but I think that we need to do a good exploration of this before we come to a firm conclusion one way or the other.

    Doug Estes writes about this in his book SimChurch, and makes some compelling arguments that can be a good starting place for an exploration of this.

    • Thanks, Caoilin, for your thoughts, and the descriptions of your experience which are similar to mine.

      There are two different points, that you appear to mix, in regard to sacraments in the virtual world which I have already pointed to. (1) is “compelling arguments” – I am all for intelligent discussion. (2) is “finding out what they learn in this experiment”. The nature of most sacraments is that we cannot “experiment” with them IMO. We cannot “experiment” with washing with shampoo and facewash to see if it spiritually has the same result as eating consecrated bread and wine together. Hence my point, “How does Mark intend to measure results? And against what standards?” An experiment has a certain shape which includes the questions I am asking.

      I am also interested to hear your points from your last paragraph.

      Blessings.

  5. Hi Bosco,

    I was referring in the last paragraph to a book by Douglas Estes published in 2009 called “SimChurch, Being the Church in the Virtual World” (Available on Amazon of course!) Without digging the book out again and re-reading the relevant sections, one of the points I took from it is that for a Christian community to be fully church, it needs to be able to celebrate the sacraments. As Mark Howe points out in the Ship of Fools posting, not all churches celebrate the sacraments (specifically, communion and baptism), but for most of the church, those are the norms.

    We have done a good job of figuring this out in the non-virtual world, with each church denomination figuring out who is authorized to lead the celebration of the sacraments and how they are to be celebrated. His point that I took from the book is that one of the marks of church is that it celebrates the sacraments, and that for the church in virtual worlds to be fully church, we need to figure out how to do this. He cautions that this must be done carefully and with a great deal of thought, which I do not see in the proposed Ship of Fools “experiment”. Estes also delves into various ways that communion and baptism might be celebrated in virtual worlds. For communion, he discusses various models including the “have your bread and wine ready where you are while the pastor speaks the words of blessing” to the sending of consecrated hosts in the mail to members who are geographically scattered. Lifechurch.tv, which has a presence in both the virtual and non-virtual worlds, including Second Life, does this already. They stream a video of their service at set times and people can log in and engage in moderated chat while viewing the service. At a the service I participated in at a certain point the pastor told everyone to have their bread and grape juice ready for him to speak the words of blessing. Then there is the Post the Host website that one of the commenters on your Virtual Eucharist posting refers to.

    I don’t see how the first model can work in the Anglican tradition. The “post the host” method is more akin to giving a person communion from the reserved sacrament or bringing it to someone who is home bound, and could work within the Anglican way of doing communion, qualms aside about turning the Body of Christ over to the postal service or FedEx for it to be delivered alongside the rest of the mail, and concerns what if it gets lost.

    There is a lot of debate about whether it is even possible for the church to exist in virtual worlds, as evidenced by the range of comments whenever this subject comes up in blogs, including this one. I am not going to revisit that debate here, since I am convinced that it is possible. This is based on my actual experiences of leading a Christian community in Second Life over the past 3 plus years.

    For me, I start with a lived and pastoral position rather than from a theological position. Many of us, including myself, who participate in church in Second Life are also very involved in our non-virtual church communities, but some are not. A focus of the Friends of St Matthew’s group is to provide a place where people who have been hurt by or alienated by the church can have a safe place to re-engage with the church, or perhaps engage with the church for the first time. There are also many people who use Second Life who find it hard to engage more fully with non-virtual churches due to physical handicaps or emotional or mental health issues, or just the limitations on their time that prevent them from coming out to a Compline service on a weeknight in the non-virtual world. There might also be the situation where someone lives in a part of the world where it is dangerous to go to church or a church is not available. What we offer is another avenue into Christian community. I think that we in the non-virtual church need to use these technologies to reach out to our sisters and brothers who otherwise will not darken the doors of our brick and mortar churches just as we have used the internet to reach out and give new avenues of entry. As part of this, I think that we need to have serious exploration as to what it would take to offer the sacraments to those who connect to the church through virtual means. As Anglicans we take seriously that entry into the church is through baptism and that we are a church that is centered on the Eucharist. Can we be fully church in the Anglican way if we cannot offer entry through baptism and be centered on the Eucharist?

    I honestly don’t know whether or not it will be possible to celebrate the sacraments in virtual settings. However it is my position that we need to do this exploration before we dismiss out of hand the possibility. I hear many who state that it is not possible, so don’t even have the discussion. My point is, we can’t know if it is possible unless we are willing to engage in the exploration.

    Regarding the proposed “experiment” by Ship of Fools, I agree with you that it will be hard if not impossible to measure the results or to establish the standards by which the results will be measured. To use your example, I can experiment by using brand A of shampoo for a month and then brand B for another month and I can evaluate which one does a better job of controlling my dandruff. But I agree with your point, how can we measure the results of online communion. Will asking everyone who participates questions such as “did this feel real to you?” or “did you feel spiritually nourished?” even give valid results? The validity of communion in our tradition is not dependent upon whether someone feels like they got something out of taking communion or being present at the mass. To take another view, some in the Catholic Church will say that Anglican orders are not valid. To follow that line of thought, if that is true then what we do in our Anglican churches on Sunday morning is nothing more than eating pieces of bread and drinking wine. How do we measure the reality of this? Part of my wariness about the Ship of Fools “experiment” is that I do take communion seriously and for me, my concern is that they are jumping in to this too quickly and not taking into account the legitimate concerns of others. Frankly I found that Mark Howe was a bit too quick in dismissing as irrelevant the criticism of church in virtual worlds without really engaging with the criticism.

    What I am mainly interested in is reading what conclusions the Ship of Fools come to and perhaps joining in the discussion about that. If it turns out that they cannot objectively measure results, then so be it. Perhaps it can at least contribute to the exploration.

    Peace,
    Caoilin

    • Thank you, Caoilin, for your comment and thoughts. They seem to range from arguing for having virtual sacraments to against this. Certainly no one here is dismissing the discussion out of hand.

      I disagree with your suggestion that “We have done a good job of figuring [sacraments] out in the non-virtual world”. We have done some good things – mutual recognition of baptism by the majority of Christians is one example. Nor can I agree with you that if the church resides solely in the virtual world that it is “fully church”. So the argument “this is fully church; fully church has sacraments; therefore we do sacraments in the virtual world” just doesn’t follow.

      Since you have rightly pointed out we cannot feel whether a sacrament works or not, you have not offered any way that the Ship of Fools experiment can be measured.

      Blessings.

      • It appears to me, Bosco, that you have not been fair to Caolin thoughtful and considered note. You are caricaturing his argument in ways that are inaccurate. I think you should read it again and then respond as civilly as the original post is civil and thoughtful.

        • I apologise, Clint, if there is anything in what I write that appears unfair, unthoughtful, unconsidered, caricaturing, inaccurate, and uncivil.
          I have re-read my three responses to Caolin and do not see where I am doing this.
          Sometimes online expressions can come across in an unintended manner. If you can be more specific it would be helpful.
          Blessings.

          • Bosco, specifically, both of his early posts you said he was, essentially, equivocating. Here are the examples:

            “They seem to range from arguing for having virtual sacraments to against this.”

            And in the first response:

            “There are two different points, that you appear to mix, in regard to sacraments in the virtual world which I have already pointed to.”

            This tends to be a way to weaken someone’s argument, to say they are equivocating or confused somehow. I found his argument to have a cohesive center.

            The result is you end up talking past each other because you don’t recognize the core of his argument.

          • Thanks, Clint. If you want to pick up specifics and press the point, or what you see as “the core of his argument”, the “cohesive center” and move it forward, please do so. When I re-look at the first comment of mine you draw attention to, for example, I re-read Caoilin’s comment that I’m responding to and continue to see it as seeming to survey a whole spectrum of options. Hence, unlike you, I do not read my response to be saying Caoilin is confused. Blessings.

  6. I am an Episcopal priest in non-virtual life and I have a perspective that I have not seen mentioned…so I mention it here. To have sacrament in virtual worlds is laziness. If the Church believes fully in the “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” that we need to get our butts out of the pew and visit those who cannot come to worship and bring the sacrament to them. I do it each week as does my deacon, as do the lay eucharistic visitors I’ve trained. I cannot consecrate what I cannot touch. My hands do not reach through cyberspace. There is a reason for one bread/one body/one cup of blessing… We are one in the body of Christ. One is not baptized simply because one splashes water on oneself. (Though I would point out that any baptized Christian person may baptize if the situation requires it.) As for the other five…I don’t much care to debate them. I cannot confirm anyone as I am not a bishop. I cannot anoint the sick if I cannot touch them. I am uneasy offering reconciliation to a penitent over the net, though it would be possible to do. Marriage must be done in person. Ordination over the internet is absurd and something I wouldn’t do…though there is the Universal Life Church that does. In any case, the purpose of sacrament is to outwardly receive the means of grace. I do not see how that is possible without human contact. It is not the fault of the person seeking the sacraments though, it is our fault in the Church when we do not make sure they are available to those who need them because they are far away or “not part of my parish.”

    • I appreciate these insights from Pearce who has the perspective of serving as a priest in the non-virtual world and also leading a Christian group in Second Life and actively leading worship services there.

      I accept your point about it being our responsibility in the church to reach out to those who seek the sacraments but cannot come to us. How can we can do that in virtual settings such as Second Life? I know that I have worked with people who do not have a non-virtual church home to find one, using online tools like the Believe Out Loud website that lists LGBT friendly churches in the United States.

      Peace,
      Caoilin

  7. Hi Bosco,

    I am not trying to defend or validate the Ship of Fools experiment, so I will not try to do so in this comment. I am simply curious to hear what they say about it once they have completed the “experiment”. I might also participate as an observer to see how it goes. I am a curious person and am willing to see what they are doing.

    My point about the churches having figured it out in the non-virtual world is that most churches that celebrate communion and baptism have clear rules about who can lead the celebration of the sacraments and what the format is. This can certainly differ greatly from one church/denomination to another, but for the most part each church or denomination has figured out who can lead and what the format should be. As Pearce points out, in our own Anglican tradition there are very clear rules as to who can lead the administration of which sacraments. For example, he and I have discussed online in Second Life where he also leads services in an Episcopal group whether or not grape juice can be used in place of wine in an Anglican Eucharistic service and he has shared with me the clear rules that only wine is authorized for use in an Episcopal Eucharistic service. Certainly other denominations authorize the use of grape juice and some in fact prohibit the use of wine. The point is, each denomination, even if it is congregational church, has pretty much figured it out for themselves.

    I have not made the argument that “this (church in virtual worlds) is fully church; fully church has sacraments; therefore we do sacraments in the virtual world”. I have instead stated that if the church is to be fully present in virtual settings, that it needs to figure out how to celebrate the sacraments in those settings. I have also stated that I am not even sure if this can be done, but that I am open to the exploration of this. I do not believe that I have ranged from arguing that we need to do it to being against it. I am saying that I honestly don’t know whether it is possible, but that that exploration of the possibility is something that we should engage in so that as the church in the non-virtual world we can make use of the technologies that are available to us to bring more people into the church.

    Having written this, I am done defending arguments that I have not made.

    Peace,
    Caoilin

    • Thanks, Caoilin for your points. I’m certainly not trying to be argumentative for argumentative’s sake.

      Let’s take a parallel experiment. In TEC & ACANZP this week there are formal debates about marriage for gays. I don’t think the proposal “let’s experiment marrying gays and then see if they really are married” would fly. As with other sacraments, as I’ve said, there is no way to see the results of such an experiment. Unless Ship of Fools or anyone else can tell me what is being measured in and after such experiments…

      I also guess I am not post-modern enough to say that each denomination is right to hold to what is true for them. I think there are truths, including truths about sacraments, and it is not sufficient to say that each denomination’s approach to sacraments is equally true, and that if I don’t like what denominations offer I can go off and start another denomination in which what is true for me will now be true because it’s the truth of my denomination.

      Blessings.

      • Bosco, I think it is true that not every denomination believes the same things about sacrament; however, I am certain that the Holy Spirit makes whatever practice they use work. The reason Anglicans permit only wine to be used is because that is how Jesus instituted the practice–or so we’re told. I am sure that the United Methodist Church, which prohibits the use of wine because of its history in the temperance movement, is still receiving “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven/The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” even if the grape juice hasn’t been fermented. (Besides, if they stopped and went with wine again, it would put Welch’s grape juice out of business…ha,ha.)

        • Thanks, Pearce.

          If the True Followers of Christ Church eschew ordination and moved by the Spirit draw lots and the one it falls on leads the service of the day, and they use chocolate and coke to have a contemporary communion, and they insist that Jesus did not mean it to be in any sense his body and blood – who am I to tell them that actually what they receive in chocolate and coke is the same as I do when I make my communion?

          To be clear – I still think God can and does work in the midst of the True Followers of Christ Church.

          Blessings.

        • I have heard from a Vicar about the time he celebrated Holy Communion in wartime, about to go into battle, using a potato and some water. He says – even now 60+ years later – that it remains one of the most moving and memorable celebrations he has ever been a part of.
          We understand what we are doing, but we need the ‘hands on’ literally, consecrating and revealing in even these simple elements, the Body and Blood of Christ.

  8. What the comments seem to be centring on is the view of Eucharistic consecration. This is also where the Church is so painfully divided. For those who hold to transubstantiation or consubstantiation a virtual Eucharist is going to be more problematic than for those with a more spiritual interpretation of the elements. Mark Howe is coming from a Protestant tradition where the elements remain bread and wine being symbols of the believer’s oneness with Christ as he is in his Father.
    For virtual communion to work the barriers that divide us have to be broken down and I suspect that even details such as whether the bread should be unleavened and the wine alcoholic will prove divisive.

    • Yes, you certainly make a very important point, Pidge. For people who see no potency in the symbolic and where the reality happens solely within their heads there is going to be much less of an issue with doing the same online. Fascinatingly, such people are much less regular in the celebration of communion – why, then, even make it an issue online? It feels like another way of pushing the anti-sacramental polemic? Blessings.

    • If Mark Howe is an Anglican, then his tradition, (if not he, himself), holds that communion is not merely a memorial but a participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Most mainline Protestants are not memorialists either.

  9. I’m not sure it can be fairly described as ‘anti-sacramental’ I see it rather as a different view of what a sacrament is. Good people died horribly on both sides of this debate during the Reformation. There should be a way forward that doesn’t involve opening old wounds.
    It needs careful examination point by point and that isn’t easy when all of us are both emotionally involved at the deepest level and even in some cases have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

    • If you can come up with a better shorthand word for seeing sacraments as happening in your head, Pidge, I’m very happy to switch to that. I use sacrament to mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, and have been clear about that. If I read someone has a sacramental view of the universe or of nature, just as examples, I would understand that to mean these are vehicles for the divine. Why “should” there be a way forward that doesn’t involve re-examining the past you speak of? Doing that honestly may be the only way forward? Blessings.

      • I misunderstood your use in the context of ‘anti-sacramental’ Your definition is, of course, the standard one. Perhaps we should start that far back and examine the whole category of ‘sacraments.’ What we do has a biblical basis but the separating of sacraments from the other things we do as commanded by our Lord is founded on Church tradition. An exceedingly early tradition admittedly but if virtual communion is being considered it seems reasonable to question why virtual communion seems wrong whereas prayer in a virtual setting feels perfectly acceptable.
        I’m an Anglican so I looked up in the Prayer Book the Articles and although much is understood that is not written down that which is written down wouldn’t make virtual communion impossible.

        • Thanks, Pidge. If you are following the comments on this thread, Mark, from whom I started this post, is now commenting – and it seems that his idea of “twitter communion” does not involve my understanding whatsoever. His idea is as different from Holy Communion as the footwashing is different. I think to use “virtual communion”, then, for whatever he thinks he is developing is a misnomer and certainly confusing those who are wanting to “experiment” following his challenge. Blessings.

          • Thanks Bosco,

            I suppose we have to use the words we’ve got. If ‘virtual church’ can be church to those who attend then for them ‘virtual communion’ would be communion. It has always been the case that the sacraments have been possible without all the circumstances being ideal. Midwives have baptised babies about to die, prisoners have shared the Eucharist with bread and water and without a priest.
            By talking about the possibility of a virtual communion, whatever label we give it, we are also seeking the irreducible core of the sacrament.

          • Pidge, as we’ve found here that Mark is using the concept of virtual communion in a way that disconnects it from the bread and wine I and most connect the word communion with, if we are going to have a sensible discussion you are going to have to describe what you mean by virtual communion. Mark’s lack of this clarity in his original posting has resulted IMO in significant confusion. So can you describe what virtual communion is when you use those words. Blessings.

        • Pidge,

          I will admit to never having done more than glance at the 39 Articles, but I am interested in hearing more about how what is written in them would not make virtual communion impossible.

          • Hi Caoilin,

            The context of the 39 Articles is the aftermath of the English Reformation. To a modern Anglican they can seem a curious mix but on the ‘Lord’s Supper’ they veer to the Protestant end of the spectrum. XXVI says that the sacrament is ‘Christ’s ordinance’ and doesn’t depend upon the worthiness of the minister. (Though it seems understood that the minister should be ordained) XXVIII defines the sacrament as ‘a sign of love’ and ‘of our Redemption’ It describes transubstantiation as ‘repugnant to the plain words of Scripture’ ending ‘The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.’ XXIX and XXX cover eating worthily and communion in both kinds. Scripture says that we should ‘examine ourselves’ so XXIX shouldn’t be a barrier to virtual communion and as far as I can tell none of the other Articles exclude the possibility.
            The service itself is a different matter but it is arguable if the most used modern service even includes a proper epiclesis.

          • I’m a little confused, Pidge, particularly by your last sentence – there wasn’t an epiclesis at the time of these Articles, but I would have said in most contemporary Anglican services there is now. Even so, I’m not sure where you are going with this and how it connects to twitter communion. Blessings.

  10. Thanks, Pidge, for the link…

    … and thanks, Bosco, for pointing out the mis-spelling of “simulacrum”. It’s not a word I ever use, and, as I think the quotation marks in my article make clear, I only used it at all because the word featured in someone else’s tweet. I’ll get it corrected.

    The explicit claim in that Twitter conversation was that online was “not real”. I believe that “x” and “not x” are generally polar opposites. In that same conversation, we learned that analogue hifi will always be better than digital. There were lots of false dichotomies but I don’t believe many of them were mine.

    Expecting the supernatural world to perform transformations whenever and only whenever we follow the correct rite is pretty close to the sociological definition of dualistic magic, not to say the Hollywood definition of magic.

    As for what I would propose positively… watch this space, but there are some preliminary thoughts on http://mvahowe.blogspot.fr/2012/04/in-response-to-colwell.html

    • Thanks, Mark (to readers I remind you this post began with Mark’s ideas) for contributing here. Much appreciated.

      I am not sure to whom you are responding with “Expecting the supernatural world to perform transformations whenever and only whenever we follow the correct rite is pretty close to the sociological definition of dualistic magic” – I can see no one in this discussion who has suggested anything like that.

      I struggled to connect your link with this thread other than possibly you are suggesting God can work through different, yet-unthought-of vehicles. I cannot imagine anyone contributing here so far having a problem with that. That God works in and through twitter seems pretty obvious to me (otherwise I’m really wasting my time there 🙂 )

      Blessings.

      • In your blog entry you said “Sacraments are not magic. I stand in the tradition of a community praying to God with bread and wine, and our faithful God acting transformingly in response to our prayer.”

        I’m saying that if that transforming act is expected to happen whenever you do this, and only when you do this, it sounds a lot like magic to me. Or, if you don’t expect it to happen every time and you don’t think that what happens then is unique, then I struggle to see in what sense the dominical sacraments are different to any of the other myriad ways in which God’s grace can be experienced.

        It seems to me that writing about this topic is full of phrases like “our faithful God acting transformingly in response to our prayer” which obscure what, for me, seems to be a very basic choice. Either sacraments “do something” because of the detail of the rite – in which case the details and edge cases become vitally important and the the specification of those details acts a lot like a magic spell – or they don’t. Guaranteed and unique efficacy when we do something physical is quasi-magical in practical terms even if the mechanics involve God’s grace. If it happens whenever we do something (and, post-donatists, apparently regardless of whether the priest is even remotely sincere in his acts), the rite does “make it happen”. If doing the rite is both necessary (it doesn’t happen otherwise) and sufficient (doing the rite is all that is needed), there’s no room for any other causality.

        I would argue, as I tried to argue on my own blog, that Jesus didn’t institute a rite. I think that opens up the possibility of remembering Christ as we meet – and encountering the risen Christ in the process – in ways that are different to the culture-bound scene in only three out of four gospels that no church today reenacts in all its detail anyway.

        For a start, and putting to one side online considerations, John’s foot-washing scene is also couched in terms of “do this” (John 13:14-15). Given the date of John’s gospel and the fact that, by then, we know the Lord’s Supper was part of the Early Church’s worship, it seems very hard to me to explain how the Last Supper gets omitted from the Fourth Gospel and replaced with something else, unless John is telling those Christians not to get hung up on the mechanics of one particular rite.

        I don’t believe that God created bread and grapes and yeast just so that Jesus could make a sacrament out of them. Theophany always involves God condescending to indwell culture – human culture. Abraham’s three visitors didn’t pick the menu. In the Upper Room, Jesus takes human-made culture and gives it back to the disciples with new meaning. And if that’s how our God acts with respect to one culture, why would we expect God not to act that way towards other cultures, including our own?

        • Thanks, Mark, for your many points. You see the idea of a community praying to God with bread and wine, and our faithful God acting transformingly in response to our prayer as magic. And use “magic” as a pejorative word for my, and many Christians’, belief. My concern has been with those who place bread and wine/grapejuice in front of a laptop to have someone else tweet some words, or in front of a YouTube video of communion – that, to me, with respect, veers more towards magic than the traditional Christian belief in God’s faithfulness that I describe.

          I’m not convinced by your slipping “necessary” into the tradition’s “sufficient”. Nor am I convinced by your suggestion that Christ being present at the eucharist necessarily means he is absent apart from it. Of course Jesus didn’t “institute a rite” in the sense you bring to that. He transformed a regular activity that he knew his disciples would continue. Of course God didn’t create bread and grapes and yeast that Jesus could make a sacrament out of them. Where are you getting these ideas from my post?

          If you are now suggesting that your “twitter communion” be as different from Holy Communion as the foot-washing is different from the breaking of the bread it would have helped had you said so in your original posting. It would also help if you didn’t use the word “communion” in your concept – just as John didn’t.

          Blessings.

          • Many interesting points are being made here but, now that the column width is approaching the length of a single word, I think we’ve reached the limits of debate through blog comments.

            I don’t think I have ever promoted “Twitter Communion”. My only point in the Ship article was that the mere suggestion appeared to create panic in a denomination that is hardly known for high sacramentalism, and that the theological reasons for this panic have never been articulated by that denomination. Both the panic and the absence of theology seem to me to indicate what a minefield the sacraments have become, regardless of anything that may or may not happen online.

            With respect, I think concerns about “how John used the word communion” are anachronistic since, to the best of my knowledge, neither “sacrament” nor “communion” had the narrow, technical meaning now ascribed to them. One problem in this whole area is that we tend to read back into Scripture our own practices, as if, eg, the members of the Corinthian church were meeting, all together, in a sanctuary, and queuing to take communion from a priest at an altar at the end of a hymn-prayer sandwich. The reality, in this case, is that the Corinthian church was probably what today some would call a “network church” that only ever met in small groups, that it was led by people for whom Paul claims no apostolic succession (to put it mildly), and whose “shared meal” was really A Shared Meal.

            And yet Paul doesn’t say that Corinthian communion was invalid for lack of a priest, or for lack of a consecrated place of worship, or because of the nature of the rite. He says it is invalid because of the failure to recognise Christ within each member of the community…

            Thanks again for the discussion. Hoping that some specific experiments will give us something more concrete to discuss.

          • Mark, I am increasingly astonished at your ability to put forward ideas as if they are being presented here and then arguing against these ideas. In logic this is called creating a straw man.

            No one, but no one, either on this thread, or as far as I recall on this site has ever given the impression that “the members of the Corinthian church were meeting, all together, in a sanctuary, and queuing to take communion from a priest at an altar at the end of a hymn-prayer sandwich.” No one is suggesting Paul says “that Corinthian communion was invalid for lack of a priest, or for lack of a consecrated place of worship, or because of the nature of the rite”. Your exegesis of what Paul does say is open to discussion – but let’s leave that to one side lest it distract from your lack of addressing what is said here.

            Again, I have not written about “how John used the word communion” – please read what I did write if you want to comment on the points here. Your comments tend towards being condescending.

            You say, “My only point in the Ship article was that the mere suggestion appeared to create panic in a denomination that is hardly known for high sacramentalism, and that the theological reasons for this panic have never been articulated by that denomination.”

            I think others, in the discussions about your post, see more than this sole point in what you are pressing for.

            Ship of Fools in pointing to your article state: “From a Minecraft Mass (featuring bread and milk thrown on the floor to feed the flock) and a Home Delivery Pizza Agape, through to Handy Wafer and Juice Packs received in the mail, we are going to leave no loaf unbroken and no chalice unspilt in our pursuit of the definitive, pixellated, sacramental moment. Our online survey (and application to take part in the experiment) is now closed, and we’ll be posting here soon to say when the experiement is taking place. If you’d like more info on where we’re coming from, read Mark Howe’s Digital bread and wine, anyone?”

            You say, “Maybe, here on this website dedicated to Christian unrest, we could aspire to more than the simulacrum of a discussion. Maybe we could even try some experiments. How hard can it be to crack this online sacraments thing? Who’s up for it?” Even here you conclude, “Hoping that some specific experiments will give us something more concrete to discuss.”

            But you have not answered once what the shape of such an experiment might look like, nor how one would even begin to analyse the “results” of such an experiment.

            Blessings.

        • Hi Mark,

          I went back and re-read your posting on the Ship of Fools website, and find myself fascinated by several of your points and some that you have made here. Specifically, what exactly did Christ institute? Was it a meal that followed the same form that He followed or was it something different all together? If He was referring to a meal like He had with his disciples, it certainly didn’t look like the mass that that I go to on Sunday mornings at my Episcopal parish.

          I am also intrigued by your call to dig deeper into just what it is that we are doing when we celebrate communion, and that the Protestant reformers probably missed a chance to really dig deeper into this.

          I will admit, the Catholic and Anglican Christian in me is cautious about participating in what you propose on the Ship of Fools forum. To share a personal story, I went to a Lutheran church for a few years, and was shocked when I walked into the sanctuary after church one Sunday morning to see someone vacuuming up all the crumbs that had fallen from the communion bread, and then barely survived witnessing the altar guild ladies pouring the unused consecrated grape juice back into the bottle for storage in the fridge for reuse the following week. But I didn’t consider that Christ was any less present at that service than at my preferred Catholic or Anglican mass. It was just outside my comfort zone.

          This has given me new things to think about.

          Peace,
          Caoilin

          • I understand your discomfort. My own most uncomfortable communion moment was at an anglo-catholic sunrise service when I accidentally kicked over the chalice on unconsecrated ground…

            At the other extreme, I know a US army chaplain whose chapel used to tip leftover bread from communion onto the floor and sweep it up because, after all, it’s only a symbol. He asked the military personnel if it would be ok to wash the floor with the American flag, since that’s only a symbol too…

          • Mark, I have never heard anyone suggesting that kicking over the chalice on unconsecrated ground would be any different to kicking it over on consecrated ground. Please elaborate how this would differ.

            The army chaplain is correct. I think the words just, only, merely should not be associated with words like symbol, metaphor, story, etc. It is just a symbol, it is only a metaphor, it is merely a story…

            Blessings.

  11. “Since you have rightly pointed out we cannot feel whether a sacrament works or not, you have not offered any way that the Ship of Fools experiment can be measured.”

    I have an idea. We could take the wine and bread consecrated in person, and that consecrated over the internet, and submit it to a lab at a university and ask them to do a break-down comparison of the two for us. I have contacts at U of T that I could ask.

      • “The nature of most sacraments is that we cannot “experiment” with them IMO. We cannot “experiment” with washing with shampoo and facewash to see if it spiritually has the same result as eating consecrated bread and wine together.”

        Sure we can. And a lab analysis would show any difference, non? For instance, Pearce said he can’t consecrate what he can’t touch. A lab analysis would reveal any difference after he touched it.

  12. I’m put in mind of Christians on the American frontier. When the Church of England drew their clergy back after the War of Independence, the new nation was left without a way to ordain new clergy. Add to that the slowness of the new Episcopal church to move into newly settled territories and you’ve got a lot of people without sacraments.

    John Wesley’s approach was to create a new breed of bishops and a new breed of clergy, the kind that got on horse back and rode to those remote communities and provided them with clergy care.

    Brother Charles Wesley’s response:
    ‘How easy now are bishops made
    At man or woman’s whim
    Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid
    But who laid hands on him.’

    There sure are a lot of Methodists out there paying attention to clergy not ordained in the apostolic succession. Do they have sacraments?

    • Thanks, Judy. I am waiting for the punchline how this connects to the twitter communion discussion; and don’t really want this thread to get distracted onto the “validity of orders” but…
      Firstly – anyone can baptise. So, yes, they have baptism.
      Secondly – the jury is still out on whether presbyters can ordain and bishops ordaining do so in a delegated way from the presbyterate…
      We know who laid hands on John Wesley… And Charles knew that too!
      Blessings.

      • Interesting way to look at it Judy! I sometimes think of virtual worlds and settings as a new world, with a bit of the feel of the Old West to them. Is it not then our responsibility as Christians in these new worlds to figure out how to come together as church in them and to reach out to those whose only avenue in to church is in these virtual worlds? Pearce made this point quite well in his comment that it is our failure to reach out to those who desire the sacraments. To take the new world analogy even farther, at some point we will send people to other planets to either live permanently or to be away from the Earth for extended periods of time. How will the Christians in those groups be church in those places?

  13. I was thinking more of the need to serve a population that is distant from churches. Those circuit riding Methodist preachers took God’s word to people cut off from regular churches by distance. That may not be so very different from the folks coming into Second Life religious groups who are cut off either by distance or by feeling unwelcome in RL.

    I do know that when I gather with Cao and others for compline I do feel as close as I do to others in a RL gathering. And I am certain that I would never being heading off to RL church at eleven o’clock at night as I do to meet at St. Matt’s in SL.

    • There is no question, IMO, that praying Compline, Judy, in SL, or as it is done regularly on Twitter, is appropriate and wonderful and I totally encourage it.

      And I agree, feeling unwelcome in church is a serious issue.

      Blessings.

  14. I don’t seem to be able to reply to Bosco’s latest two posts…

    Bosco, you said ‘It would also help if you didn’t use the word “communion” in your concept – just as John didn’t.’. Unless I’m failing to parse that sentence at a really elementary level, that sentence seems to suggest that John’s use of the word “communion” before the end of the First Century would tell us something about the dominical sacrament of communion today. And my response is that this is anachronistic, because that word didn’t have today’s sacramental baggage in New Testament Greek. You may not agree, but I don’t think I imagined the sentence I just quoted, and I don’t think that my reading of that sentence is completely at odds with conventions for reading English.

    Ditto the other points you make. I quite clearly wrote “One problem in this whole area is that *WE* tend to read back into Scripture our own practice…” It was a general observation, not a direct response to anything written there, and I think my use of the first person plural made that reading possible if not almost unavoidable.

    The plan is to experiment with different approaches to online communion. We’ll announce those experiments as we get to them. We may announce some of the publicly after we’ve run the experiments. What I’m not going to do is try to prove the merits of any of these approaches before we’ve even finished defining them, let alone trying them. We want to stimulate a genuine, open discussion about this whole area, and I hope you’ll join us as that discussion develops.

    Thanks again for the conversation.

    • Thanks very much, Mark, for letting me know you cannot respond to the comments. There are different ways to format comments. Regulars here, when asked, preferred this style of being able to comment on comments rather than chronological. You’ve highlighted two issues with this. I am halfway through rebuilding this site and there is much work to do on it. Finding time is the issue (plus learning the skills required). So I will definitely keep these issues in mind – eve though I’m not sure I can solve them.

      Your use of language and of parsing sentences seem to be an obstacle. You keep talking, for example, about John’s Gospel’s use of the word communion. Please point to where he is using that word that you accuse me of reading anachronistically. Ditto your defense of using “we” when you don’t appear to hold this position, I certainly don’t hold this position, and no one in this community around this site appears to hold this position. There may be “some” who have the weird views you describe; I have never met them – but whoever they are they are certainly not “we”, almost unavoidable though you think that word is.

      Your similar unusual use of language applies to your reading of John’s Gospel. You wrote, “For a start, and putting to one side online considerations, John’s foot-washing scene is also couched in terms of “do this” (John 13:14-15). Given the date of John’s gospel and the fact that, by then, we know the Lord’s Supper was part of the Early Church’s worship, it seems very hard to me to explain how the Last Supper gets omitted from the Fourth Gospel and replaced with something else, unless John is telling those Christians not to get hung up on the mechanics of one particular rite.” Although not unimportant, I am not going to get stuck on Matthew & Mark’s lack of “do this”, nor on how Luke and Paul use the imperative and John the subjunctive for “do this”. What comes through your comments is that the bread and wine are incidental, accidental, culturally determined within that particular context. And that John emphasises this by intentionally “omitting the Last Supper” (let’s also leave that in my Bible John does have a supper, presumably Jesus’ last one, at John 13:2) and replaces this with a foot-washing as another way to celebrate whatever it was that Matthew/Mark/Luke/Paul meant with bread and wine.

      If I am understanding your approach correctly, you see footwashing as being another cultural expression of the bread and wine (what you keep referring to as) “rite”. And you are now embarking on a virtual version, a virtual equivalent of whatever the bread and wine means in Matthew/Mark/Luke/Paul’s context, and whatever footwashing meant in John’s context. So this digital “rite” of yours will look as different to the bread and wine “rite” as the footwashing “rite” does to the bread and wine “rite”. Have I got this correct?

      If that is so, you have been grossly misleading your readers. Whatever you think you are saying – that is not what they are hearing. They, and your Ship of Fools promoters are seeing very much only digital bread-and-wine-type “rites” whatever word you will not allow me to use for that: “From a Minecraft Mass (featuring bread and milk thrown on the floor to feed the flock) and a Home Delivery Pizza Agape, through to Handy Wafer and Juice Packs received in the mail, we are going to leave no loaf unbroken and no chalice unspilt in our pursuit of the definitive, pixellated, sacramental moment.”

      As is clear I am committed to “genuine, open discussion about this whole area”. But you are unwilling to even sketch how you would interpret “results” of “experiments”. So I continue to urge people to not experiment with what Christ himself has given us to celebrate and be drawn into his life, death, and resurrection. Mockery, blasphemy, and sacrilege may be what you discover to be the the unintended results of such experiments.

      Blessings.

  15. Bosco, maybe you could explain, positively, exactly what you meant by “It would also help if you didn’t use the word “communion” in your concept – just as John didn’t.” Why is John’s failure to use that word in his First Century context significant, and what what would change if he had used that word in his First Century context?

    Re the chalice-kicking-over incident, the anglo-catholic priest present certainly didn’t react as if it didn’t matter whether or not the ground was consecrated. One observer quipped, after watching him trying to mop up the wine and get it back in the chalice, that he appeared to be considering cutting up the turf. I don’t pretend to understand the theology behind his behaviour, but that’s what happened.

    In the interests of even-handedness, I also recall a scene at a church I attended that claimed to have a very low sacramentality, where one of the children took a cup of non-alcoholic grape juice and drunk it after the service. This alarmed the minister, who took away the cups, ran off to the vestry and returned with fresh cups and the rest of the carton of grape juice and gave it to the children. I never managed to get an explanation of how any of this made sense within the (non-) sacramental theology he preached.

    Both these cases seem to me to show that, sometimes, there’s a gap between the theory and practice of the sacraments. I would suggest that this is how, for example, one Catholic post on the Ship discussion says that baptist fruit juice and bread is closer to valid than online sacraments. I have no idea what a midpoint between valid and invalid could possibly mean within a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist: partial transformation?

    No, I don’t see footwashing as “another cultural expression of the bread and wine”. I see them both as cultural expressions of something else – or maybe, more accurately, someone else – and I believe Jesus calls us to focus on that something else.

    In John 13:34-35, Jesus gives a very clear commandment – a New Commandment, even – to his disciples. It is by their love for one another that the world will recognise that they follow him. That’s the sign to the world.

    It seems to me that Jesus washing his disciples’ feet just before that commandment is one example of what loving one another looks like in practice. Of course footwashing is a profoundly cultural act, and washing sterile toes in a modern service on Maundy Thursday is a long long way from what footwashing involved after a day of walking through open sewers in sandals. That, maybe, is one reason why the church hasn’t given footwashing much prominence in its praxis.

    Table fellowship is another way to show love for one another. Indeed, in the First Century, it was maybe *the* way to show love and acceptance to each other. Many theologians see the wider table fellowship context as at least as relevant to the development of the Lord’s Supper as the Passover context.

    We see Jesus stoking controversy by eating non-sacramentally with all the wrong people throughout the synoptics. Table fellowship with gentiles is one of the key issues in Acts – I have never heard anyone suggest that Peter’s dream about eating unclean things was the Spirit proposing a change of eucharistic liturgy. Paul’s concerns about church meals seem to be very much about full-blown meals – about the danger of eating to excess while my brother has nothing, and about the consequences of eating red meat previously offered to idols and then bought cheap for the church banquet.

    Inviting someone to sit at your table and eat with you, and showing them hospitality, is maybe the quintessential First Century act of acceptance that, of course, finds echoes in older biblical culture going back to Abraham at least.

    Scroll forward 2000 years, and it seems to me that the cultural resonance of table fellowship has changed somewhat. Yes, eating together is a universal human experience and, yes, doing so in a Christian context is always meaningful. And, yes, we can and indeed should be willing to act in ways that recognise our one-ness with Christians across the centuries. But table fellowship no longer communicates (sorry) what it communicated in the First Century. You could have dragged a random pagan off the street shortly after the Resurrection, shown them Jews and Gentiles eating together, and the random pagan would have “got it”. I don’t think that would work in any modern context. We have to give people a history lesson in order for them to see the analogy.

    And that’s precisely the kind of process Jesus *didn’t* model in the Upper Room. Both footwashing and table fellowship (before, during or after Passover) were perfectly in tune with the culture of the time. In that culture, the acts spoke for themselves. 2000 years later, I think followers of Jesus still need to be performing acts that speak for themselves, and which display their adherence to Christ’s explicit command to love one another.

    When we act, together, in ways that celebrate our love for each other, that remind us of what Christ has done for us and that look forward to his return, I believe that God is with us in a special way. I believe that the body we are called to recognise in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is to be found in those who are hungry during a full-blown meal in 1 Corinthians 11:21. I believe that eating a meal together, or washing feet, are “just symbols”. But there’s nothing symbolic about the very Spirit of God indwelling my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I’m sorry, but I simply don’t know to ‘sketch how you would interpret “results” of “experiments”’ in this area. If sacramentality means anything at all within any Christian framework, it surely has to include God’s action. So, if I could tell you, now, how the experiments will pan out, it seems to me that I would have conceded in advance that the experiments are doomed to failure.

    As you may know, Ship of Fools ran an experiment a few years ago with Church of Fools. Unlike the current experiments, this was really conceived as a bit of fun with clever technology. But, the first time people logged in to the environment, and after playing with the technology, someone suggested praying, for real. And, somewhat alarmingly, those present realised that they really were praying together. This unexpected realisation led to the birth of the online community currently known as St Pixels. My hope and expectation is that God has not yet finished surprising us.

    Finally, I would respectfully suggest that, actually, the eucharistic meal you presumably consider to be normative is itself to some extent the result of “experiments”. Theology and liturgy develop in dialogue between Scripture, tradition and experience. So, to take one of many possible examples from the anglican priest and respected historian Paul Bradshaw’s “Early Christian Worship”:

    “… we see that a major change took place in the way in which the rituals were performed after the Peace of Constantine… The members of the Church were no longer a highly elite group of highly committed believers… According to John Chrystostom, for example, they pushed and pulled… gossiped… and pickpockets preyed upon the crowd.

    “In order to impress upon worshippers the solemnity of what was happening in the eucharistic rite… the style of eucharistic celebrations underwent a significant alteration. They became much more formal and elaborate; they used such things as ceremonial actions, vesture, processions, and music in order to make an impression upon the congregation; and in word and action they stressed the majesty and transcendence of God and the divinity of Christ present in the eucharistic mystery…

    “John Chrystostom was particularly vigilant in warning those who abstained not to return to the supper of the Lord without amending their ways…

    “Unfortunately, as so often happens, the results were exactly the opposite of the intentions of the preachers. Many people preferred to continue to refrain from receiving communion rather than change their behaviour… the ecclesiastical authorities were eventually forced to accept this practice, by making provision … for a formal dismissal of non-communicants…

    “For those who now began to receive communion only infrequently, the Eucharist not only ceased to be a communal action but was not even viewed as food to be eaten… It is not surprising, therefore, that… ancient liturgical commentators therefore began to interpret the rite in terms of a drama that unfolded before the eyes of the worshippers.” (pp70-74).

    Now no-one involved with this experiment would for a moment claim to be a John Chrysostom. But it seems to me to be a simple historical fact that experimentation – including unintended consequences – got all branches of the Church to where we are today.

    • Mark, your description of how the priest reacted to the chalice-kicking-over incident is no indication whatsoever that he would have reacted differently on what you term “consecrated ground”. This way of mishandling logic seems to be the way you continue to proceed.

      I got your point that you see both John’s footwashing and Matthew/Mark/Luke/Paul’s bread and wine “rite” as equally being expressions of “something else”. And I think it is this “something else” that you want to see experiments about in the new digital context. We tend to call the footwashing, “footwashing”. We tend to call the “bread and wine rite” a number of things, but “communion” is not an uncommon one.

      You see “footwashing” and “communion” as equally, in their different contexts, manifestations of “something else” – in this comment you even suggest the “something else” is “loving one another”.

      If you used the word “communion” for footwashing – I would correct you (and so, I suggest, would John – but please don’t get distracted by that suggestion!). If you used “footwashing” as the term for the bread and wine rite – I would correct you (and so, I suggest, would Matthew/Mark/Luke/Paul – but please don’t get distracted by that suggestion!).

      You, and Ship of Fools, haven’t called for experiments in digital footwashing. You, and Ship of Fools, haven’t called for experiments in digital “loving one another” or even “something else”. You, and Ship of Fools, have called for experiments in digital communion – and now you act surprised that we think you mean “something with bread and wine”. And hence will no doubt act surprised at the strength of the reaction and find your original opinion that all reaction to you is “denial-and-emotion response”!

      Whereas the real issue is that your reasoning is illogical and your expression of what is seen to lie at the heart of our Christian faith is careless.

      Blessings.

  16. The distinction concerning unconsecrated ground was one expressed to me at the time by other anglo-catholics within that congregation. It’s surely not a distinction you’d expect a baptist like me to come up with… As I have said, it didn’t make much sense to me either – any more than trying to mop up the wine once it had been spilled on grass. I’m simply recounting what happened. My logic doesn’t come into it, and I’m not going to misrepresent what I was told by anglo-catholics at the time to make either of us sound more logical.

    Since there is absolutely no consensus across denominations about what “communion” means, there is absolutely no concise way to describe anything in this area that doesn’t run the risk of ambiguity from one ecclesial perspective or another. I think you are reading far too much into what is clearly merely an introduction to a much more detailed exploration of the issues.

    Again, I’m not going to make any claims for the validity for something that hasn’t even been defined yet. If you feel able to declare invalid something that hasn’t even been defined yet, that’s entirely your decision. And, however this experiment pans out, I doubt that the consequences will be as dramatic or as far-reaching as, say, the unintended consequences of John Chrysostom’s innovations in this area.

  17. Also, I believe that, in my original article, I defined and illustrated what I mean by a “denial and emotion” response. So, eg, saying “online community is not real”, and then repeating that assertion without elaboration, isn’t any kind of argument. That’s precisely what happened in the specific Twitter exchange with which I started the article.

    I’ve just finished content analysing the open-ended responses from over 350 questionnaires. The participants expressed a wide range of hopes for the concept of online sacraments, and an even wider range of concerns about the concept. We’ll now look again at our ideas for experiments to take into account those concerns.

    There’s actually no need to deliberately court controversy to get a reaction regarding online sacraments. I wrote a sober, 9.5k-word peer-reviewed booklet about online church a few years ago, and the couple of sentences in passing about online sacraments generated more discussion than the rest of the booklet put together. I’m taking an amount of notoriety surrounding these experiments as a given. It’s not the goal. But, if it helps to get more people engaged in the conversation, great!

  18. Apologies for this comment being out of order and having had most points already covered by others. I tried to post it yesterday but was unable to. Please feel free to ignore it but it seems only polite to give an answer even if it is late.

    I’m trying to think this through rather than taking a hard line position.
    The word used for ‘bread’ at the institution of the Lord’s Supper indicated everyday bread although the bread used would, during Passover, have been unleavened. Bread was the staple food of the region, would rice be a suitable substitute where rice is the staple food? Was there really a difference between an agape meal and a communion service in the Apostolic church? How important is the physical togetherness of the participants to the symbolism? It is difficult to question the particulars of a service that means so much to individual Christians but if it has gathered accretions over the centuries can there be harm in stripping them away? I see it rather like playing a piece of classical music using the original score and instruments, it will sound completely different from what we are accustomed to but neither could be called ‘wrong.’ Except, of course, that in this case it is the other way round and the music is being played with instruments completely different from the original.
    Mark has a point, most of us don’t feet wash, most of us don’t greet the brethren with a holy kiss etc. we have adapted to fit our society. The house setting of a virtual communion could well be closer to the original than our churches as might the gathering of the elements from our everyday food store rather than having special communion wine and wafers.
    Throughout the world only a handful of people are likely to try virtual communion; from that point of view it is unimportant, more important is the examining of what communion is.

    • These are very good questions, Pidge. Thanks. If you are following the discussion with Mark, it is hard to get any real idea now what his call for experimenting entails. It may not entail bread-and-wine-type-things whatsoever, just as footwashing doesn’t. But many will go off (and do) digitally have communion (either with bread-and-wine-type-things in front of a computer, or with bread-and-wine-type-thing-images on the screen). I suggest that is more than a handful, but leave that to one side.

      The church is way behind in its use of new technology. Many Christians look at virtual mission and ministry as irrelevant, unreal, on the edge. People experimenting with the most sacred of our sacraments online will not help that image. This sets us back – not moves us forward.

      Blessings.

    • On “Holy Kiss”, I always enjoy telling French Christians about English translations of the Bible that say “Greet one another with a hearty handshake.” They generally consider this to be scandalous since, from a French perspective, it is so obvious that kissing is what the text says and what we are commanded to do.

  19. You are right to observe that online communion is already happening. It is no longer truly an experiment. It needs clear thinking to sort out which, if any, of these services are really a communion service. Is it a real service when people take the elements at the same time as in a virtual church? What about listening to a podcast of a Eucharist and joining in alone though the people were recorded some time ago? Then there is the service composed of bits of liturgy from different services that have been stitched together for online use. The best of wonderful services from around the world can be included but how far can this be being part of the ‘body of Christ’ when no one else at the service is known?
    St.Laika’s, gives the invitation,
    “If you want to physically partake of communion you will require a small piece of bread and a small amount of drink (preferably made from grapes and containing alcohol). How you view the nature of this part of the service is completely up to you.”
    In some ways I wish that I could agree with you that online communion would hinder evangelistic work online but I rather suspect that here in Britain and in most of the West we are so post-Christian that this will only be an issue for Christians.
    There will be people that the chance of online communion will be very precious to. They will often be people in tough circumstances. If I was forced to nail my colours to the mast I think I would come down on the side of it being done as reverently and well as possible rather than opposing it.

    • Maybe part of the confusion here is the definition of “experiment”. By my definition, “experiment” doesn’t mean “never done before”. It means “scenario constructed in such a way as to maximise the chances of learning something, and usually in such a way as to disprove some pre-existing theory.”

      • Everything suggested here has been done before, Mark. So I don’t think the issue is your use of the word experiment. It’s more your refusal to give even one example of what you mean. And by what standards you will reflect on the “results”. The only person here who has suggested anything close has been Randal Oulton: Take bread and wine non-virtually consecrated and virtually consecrated to a lab and analyse them chemically. We know the results; because we know the results of chemical analysis before and after consecration – but at least Randal is highlighting your problem. Blessings.

        • With respect, what you are describing is really not my problem.

          When I preside over communion within the French Reformed Church, where I am licensed to do such things, I don’t expect anything to happen to the bread and the wine.

          Virtual consecration would be more than the elements get in our French Reformed services. We give thanks for the food and drink. Gratefulness works quite well at a distance.

          We pass the bread and wine to each other, and remind each other verbally that Christ died for us. We stand in a circle to do this to show that we are all equal in Christ. We invite all who know Christ to take part, and those who for whatever reason don’t want to take part to stand with us anyway. If you are ever passing, you will be very welcome to join us!

          It’s often quite a moving event, especially when we meet in a building on the site of a Waldensian church razed during one of the waves of religious persecution that have blighted our country acros the centuries. But it’s not moving because anyone consecrated the bread or wine. We don’t expect the bread and wine we consume to do anything that the bread and wine most French people consume every day does. We do expect God to be present, not least because we are temples of the Holy Spirit and a royal priesthood, as St Paul and St Peter remind us.

          (Actually, the last time I presided we skipped the wine altogether because I clumsily snapped the cork off in the bottle in mid-service, and this didn’t seem to particularly bother anyone present. Well, apart from the concern about corking a good bottle of wine, but that’s France for you. I’m still amazed no-one in the congregation had a corkscrew in their pocket. But I digress.)

          Life is quite simple for us mere memorialists. To see whether the memorialistic rite “worked”, you just need to ask people if it helped them to remember. The analysis we have planned is a little more nuanced than that…

          I am aware that many Christians – possibly including Calvin – believe in Real Presence or more. I respect that, and I realise that, for them, those beliefs have consequences. But it’s not the only position, or the only position for which a coherent theological case can be made, or even the majority position among Christians who took communion today in many countries.

          Regards,

          Mark

          • Thanks so much, Mark – you have finally responded with some concrete information. “Life is quite simple for us mere memorialists. To see whether the memorialistic rite “worked”, you just need to ask people if it helped them to remember.”

            When you are prepared to let us know the little-more-nuanced-than-that analysis, I look forward to it.

            Blessings.

  20. So I’m very curious, Bosco, about how you would repsond to the same question. Whenever anyone considers a change to, or a new form of, communion (or any other sacrament, or rite, what whatever word is most comfortable), how would *you* have them decide if that change or new form is effective, is real, is what it needs to be in order to still be valid? You want Mark to tell you the details of how he would (and, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are rather uncharitably snarky in expressing that); I’d like to know how you would. Are all changes forbidden, because they might make things not work anymore? But the things that you practice today are very different from the original models; how do you know those differences are okay? And how to you know (and you seem pretty sure, I think?) that the differences involved in taking the activity of communion into a virtual space would not be okay? What are -your- criteria?

    • That’s such a good question, David. And, first, let me say I apologise if some of my responses appear “uncharitably snarky”. That certainly is not my intention. I have spent an inordinate amount of time on this dialogue. Mark finally did come up with his answer, “Life is quite simple for us mere memorialists. To see whether the memorialistic rite “worked”, you just need to ask people if it helped them to remember.” It may have been lack of clarity on my part in forming the question that it took so long to be clear about this. Plus it did take some time to come to the understanding that Mark didn’t think the bread and wine were requirements at all and that the footwashing was a different manifestation of the same “thing”. So I think that what may come across to you as uncharitable snarkyness on my part could also be seen as an attempt at really trying to work out what Mark was saying – within the limits of time and the internet. And let me say that, having a much clearer idea of what Mark is saying (and since it took so long to get that clarity, I suspect that many of the readership of his original piece at Ship of Fools are misunderstanding that) I respect his position and think it has consistency and integrity. It is not my position, and I think he needs to be more open about it so that people are not misunderstanding what he is calling for, but it is a consistent position within the Christian spectrum IMO.

      Now to your good question. First a straightforward example. The inherited Western tradition did not have an epiclesis in the Eucharistic Prayer. The revision of 1662 (much on that on this site, being 350 years this year) led to suggestions of inserting an epiclesis where 1662 doesn’t have one. There was international, ecumenical, scholarly peer-reviewed study of this, meetings in councils in different denominations, etc. etc. Clear drafts were produced and debated over many years. Finally, in my church, it was passed at the General Synod of our church, every diocesan synod, passed General again, and was left a year for people to appeal before it was implemented.

      More controversially, perhaps for some, was can a woman lead such a service? The same process as the preceding paragraph was followed. Very many Christians still do not have women so leading. I am strongly in favour of women leading equally to men. Of course I might be wrong. I am not a “mere memorialist” – again I might be wrong.

      Blessings.

  21. Thanks for the very open answer, Bosco! So I wonder if, whether or not one is a Memorialist, experiments like the ones that Mark is talking about might be an early part of the process by which, eventually, there might be a suggestion to perhaps consider various virtual activities to be (for instance) genuine communions, and that, at some time in the future, General Synods might be voting one way or another on the issue, after lots of study and debate and consideration. This is a rather different way of thinking than the suggestion that these things will result in “mockery, blasphemy, and sacrilege”…

    • I think if you go back through the discussion, David, you will find that Mark is seeing communion (bread and wine) and footwashing as both manifestations of “something else” [this took quite a while to get to – and I repeat what may come across as snarky was my (poor) attempt to gain clarity (at least for myself)]. I think that Mark is seeking to do this “something else” virtually/digitally. Had he expressed it so I would have supported him strongly rather than seeing it as leading possibly to “mockery, blasphemy, and sacrilege”. I do not think that many reading his call saw that is what he was doing (because he used the word “communion”). I do not think that the Ship of Fools quote that connects to Mark’s piece helped to give the impression it wasn’t to be about bread and wine, but a new way of doing the “something else”. I think, for example, your use of the words “genuine communions” as moving away from the clarity that I think we have come to in relation to Mark, rather than towards further clarity. But certainly I am no predictor of what the future holds. And again – I may be wrong. Blessings.

      • I guess I would like to explore why it is that you are so comfortable with the idea of something virtual that touches the same place as the Sacraments, but is clearly marked as Something Else, but at the same time so deeply uncomfortable with something virtual that is called Communion. What we know as Communion today is very different than the original model (most obviously, the celebrants aren’t sitting down to a meal together!); on what basis do you think that those differences are okay, but this other difference, of taking place in a virtual world, isn’t okay, at least not if we are still going to call it Communion? How sure are you that, twenty years from now, partly as a result of ‘experiments’ like this, some Grand Synod will not be voting to allow virtual Communions, fully so called? You’re much more comfortable with the label Something Else firmly in place; I guess I’d like to explore the edges of that comfort zone… 🙂

        • David, while I appreciate your questioning, as far as I can tell this thread is the first time you have participated in this community. Am I correct? Generally regulars in this community appreciate that this is a place where difference can be explored safely. And people tend to be quite straight forward about their own position. You have accused me of being uncharitably snarky in trying to understand Mark’s position. Let’s not have that happen again. There will be much about your questions about the development of the Eucharist and why I am happy to refer to what Mark refers to as the “bread and wine rite” as “Communion”, but would, for example, be against referring to passing a Bible around the pews while people remembered Christ’s death as “Communion” – much about this development you will find on this site. Have you read my book, for example, as a starter. Explore the place I give to the Holy Spirit’s action in the life of the church, especially the earliest church…

          Then, maybe, you could tell us a little more about yourself. Tell us your beliefs and positions – as Mark finally was prepared to do. Which ultimately helped, as I had hoped at the start, to lead to better understanding. Tell us about the edges of your comfort zone. Is the Bible significant in your beliefs, as just one example? How was it constructed? Would it matter to you if the book of Revelation was now removed? The book of Wisdom? The Gospel of John? Or if certain books were now added? The Didache? The Gospel according to Thomas? Do you include the meal in Communion? If not, why not? [You will, by now, have understood my pointing to the normativeness of the early church as beginning to point towards my own approach].

          When we get a clearer picture of what the context is that you are asking your questions in – let’s explore them further together. That is if you are really interested in exploring them. As I do.

          Blessings.

  22. Yes, this is the first time I’ve commented here. And if this is a place where pointing out that the owner is being snarky earns a “Let’s not let that happen again”, I suspect I will not be a welcome long-term resident. 🙂

    I came here following a reference about religious practices in virtual worlds. I’m very interested in the kinds of things that people do, and don’t, think are possible or legitimate in virtual spaces. My own religious beliefs are significantly different from yours; for myself I don’t think there is anything that is not legitimate in virtual worlds, from a religious point of view, if the participants believe it is legitimate. On the other hand, there are things that may be less effective in a psychological or even physiological sense. But note that I’m not interested in convincing anyone that my views are correct. 🙂 I just like to understand why various people have the views that they do.

    Is possible for you to summarize briefly why you think that activities in a virtual world can touch the same thing that Communion touches, but cannot actually be Communion? If that’s a valid statement of your position. I will look around the rest of the site as well and see if I can figure it out myself. 🙂

    • Dear David, might it be possible please for you to read whatever you find on this site in its most positive interpretation you can muster. You are VERY welcome here. I live a very busy life and ministry. In the midst of that I provide this site as a resource. Sometimes/often I am rushed in the presentation of what I write here. Others suggest I am too conscientious in participating in the discussions and I should reply less.

      Firstly, I am not sure that I accept that I was being snarky (your second sentence above). I do, of course accept, that as a new person here that may have been what it appeared like to you. Secondly, the “let’s not let that happen again” was in reference to me – not to you! I was hoping that I might not, once again, come across to you as appearing snarky. Please approach what is on this site in a more positive spirit. You are welcome as a long-term resident in this community. Blessings.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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