Virtual Last Supper

This post is the fourth in a series. Please read these first:
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 1 (3 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 2 (5 minutes reading time)
Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 3 (4 minutes reading time)

This post looks at some of the theology around worship using the internet, especially the discussions around remote consecration.

Let me once again begin by stressing – let’s not, especially at this time, encourage a litigious culture. And let’s be generous and charitable towards individuals who are doing their best in a difficult time. That having been said, this does not mean that everything goes, everything is appropriate, right, or even helpful. Discussing practices with some rigour is necessary.

See! I told you so!

As well as trying to encourage the Church into the Third Millennium where so many people live online in the virtual world, I have long been contending that we should have been discussing the theology of this digital context.

At the start of the Millennium, the online virtual world, Second Life, was thriving. Here, people “create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, and are able to interact with places, objects and other avatars”. A few Christians were seeing that the church should be where people are. And there were a few who were discussing – could sacraments work in the virtual world: if your avatar was baptised in the virtual world, were you now baptised IRL (In Real Life)? If a priest’s or bishop’s avatar led a Eucharist in the virtual world, and your avatar received communion in the virtual world, would you have effectively received communion IRL? Would this involve the priest using bread and wine IRL? And the congregant using bread and wine IRL? [Here is one of my posts on this subject from 2009].

The Church and the Web formed a “fringe event” at the Lambeth Conference of 2008, but the bishops were far more concerned about facing off and splitting into factions about who could love whom to deal with such mission and ministry in the Third Millennium. To me, it was like one of those parallel universe novels: the Reformation ignoring the printing press…

Suddenly, with the arrival of Covid-19, Christians more used to faded handwritten notices pinned to church notice boards discovered how easy it is to produce everything from Zoom services through facebook live to edited YouTube videos – and all with a button or two on what most everyone is carrying in their pocket. And now, in a Church where even many seminary-trained clergy’s sacramental theological competence would struggle to tell their anamnesis from their epiclesis, a lot are calling for remote consecration – or just “doing it”.

Remote Consecration

Hard cases make bad law. We would be very unwise to rush during the (relatively brief and) exceptional circumstances of lockdown for Covid-19 into (officially/formally) altering two thousand years of Eucharistic practice. This, as I indicated above, is a discussion we should have been having leisurely and rigorously during the last two decades.

After centuries of acrimony, we finally have some wonderful ecumenical agreements on the Christian sacramental tradition: baptism, eucharist, ordination. Rushed, ill-thought-through changes may jeopardise this trajectory.

Some, who know that I have been reflecting on this, have contacted me with: “Well – what’s the answer?!” Let me underline again what I am pointing to above: this is not something for me or another individual to pontificate about or to put into practice – this requires the unhasty, robust investigation by theologians, pastoral, and digital experts, ecumenically and internationally. Here, I simply want to give some pointers towards some of the things to take into consideration.

Remote consecration is the concept of consecrating not by being physically together but through a virtual medium. The question first arose with the advent of radio and television: can one consecrate through these mediums? And the answer has always been, No.

Christianity is a down-to-earth, physical spirituality. Incarnation is about flesh (cf. ‘carnivore’). The Resurrection of Jesus is not a ghost story – in the appearances, the Risen Christ is physically present:

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ …They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Luke 24:39,42,43

The Risen Christ shares a meal, he walks, he shows the wounds of his crucifixion, people take hold of his feet, he invites Thomas to place his hand in his side.

Matter matters to God. (Until this question came up about remote consecration) sacraments and sacramental actions in Christian spirituality are physical; they require physical presence. Can baptism happen virtually? Can a person in isolation pour water over him/herself while someone else pronounces the baptismal words on a screen? Can marriage happen virtually? Can a couple in isolation be married by Zoom? [NB – the State says No]

There is another, important dimension to the physicality of Christian spirituality. In a piece in the Church Times, the Rev. Alice Whalley emphasized the down-to-earthness of Christian spirituality in our digital focus : YouTube sermons will not feed the hungry (you can also read this here). As a priest serving in the Church of England, she noted that “368 tweets in Church of England Twitter feed since 18 March. 161 on virtual worship. 4 on physical poverty (all of which are re-tweets).”

It seems to me that those who advocate remote consecration tend to come from the two extremes of the Christian spectrum: those who have a magical, clericalist understanding – where the priest has sacred powers that transform the bread and wine and these powers are not limited, they extend through ether, wires, and wifi, transforming bread and wine from a screen; at the other end of the spectrum is the understanding that nothing happens to the bread and wine – it all happens in your head, and that can just as easily happen in your head with bread and wine in front of a screen. This is not to say that these positions might not be correct, nor that there might not be a middle way between these, or by combining these positions.

To be continued…


I add to the list I put earlier in this series of some posts off this site that are worth considering in these discussions:
Online Worship: From Disruption to Participation

Some of the other resources and reflections on this site:
Holy Saturday in a Covid19 World
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter in a Covid19 World
Coronavirus solitude self-isolation and spirituality
Streaming services, online spiritual resources in coronavirus times
New Zealand Prayer Book Daily Prayer
NZ in lockdown
Covid 19 moves churches into the Third Millennium
Spiritual Communion
Carthusians Covid-19 and Communion
Learning from Hermits in a Covid19 World

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