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Virtual Last Supper

Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 4

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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19 thoughts on “Lockdown Liturgy Lessons 4”

  1. I read somewhere (but can’t remember where) that a marriage [speaking at a theological level, not attempting to manipulate the laws of our country] could take place remotely because (as often observed pre Zoom times) “the couple marry each other, the priest is but a witness.”

    I think I may even have seen a news story about such a remote wedding … New York? … perhaps their laws are different.

    1. Thanks, Peter. That would be fascinating to know more about. Certainly, I understand the ministers of the sacramental action of marriage to be the couple – I’m not sure if we have that clearly expressed in our formal NZ Anglican teaching? Easter Season blessings.

    2. Chris Malcolm

      Virtual or Proxy weddings were not uncommon before the age of modern transport. Prince Arthur (Tudor) and Catherine of Aragon we’re married that way. Her proxy was a man called Rodrigo. Although she was not physically present it was still valid marriage ceremony.

  2. I understand the bishops in the Wellington Dio saying that we can’t celebrate the Eucharist remotely. But what I haven’t seen is ‘permission’ to celebrate our own ‘agape meal’ at the same time as others joining in a worship service, ie without requiring consecration. I realise it’s a symbolic thing, but it seems to me a way for us to feel less deprived of sharing Communion IRL? Our home-group used NZPB pp730-737 before the instructions came out, and it was a holy and sacred experience, even without clergy and using the liturgy for lay people.

    1. Thanks, Corinna. I am not clear how you used NZPB pp730-737 for an agape meal. It would be helpful if you clarified that. P 729 indicates how this service is intended. In future post(s), I want to reflect on the sort of thing you are describing, so your clarification might help. I think many people do not have the agility to distinguish Eucharist, Agape Meal, and Passover Meal. Eeaster Blessings.

      1. We used it as a framework to go through a process of preparation, confession, lay absolution. No Great Thanksgiving. We said the Prayer of Humble Access, gave each other in our bubbles bread and wine, said the LP and lay version of blessing. We didn’t ask permission so it may be that we didn’t do it right in Anglican terms. But we followed all the instructions for clergy not being present, and made no claim of the elements being consecrated.

        I led the service, and I did read p729 carefully. I’m sure some distinctions didn’t apply to us. But what I am searching for is a way to simply share bread and wine without claiming it’s consecrated.

        1. Thanks, Corinna. I think the sort of rite you describe can be done and done well, and I had (have) in mind to include ideas akin to this in my continuing reflection – as you will see there, I simply think there are many who will not be able to make the distinctions as clearly as you are. I muse: why bread and wine? Why not other elements of a shared meal? Blessings.

          1. I think we used familiar elements because it was about grief for what we could no longer do. We had done a Bible study first, and the theme was repentance, which was why we wanted to join in confession. After the Bible study and concluding prayer, we shifted the focus by each turning out the lights, lighting a candle, and we had already prepared bread and our choice of wine/juice/water.

            I should add that before this I attended a Zoom service of a large Anglican church in another town, who called it ‘Home Communion’ (but changed the name to ‘agape meal’ the next week, after the bishops issued instructions). This church had a priest leading, and used that same section of the NZPB. So I did a lay version of that. I’m not claiming to be a trailblazer, but our small service ministered to us all in ways that we were longing for.

          2. Thanks. If you look at the other comments, Corinna, to this post – you will find a TEC agape rite. I am going to think through adapting what they have beyond Maundy Thursday. Blessings.

      2. Chris malcolm

        Another alternative might be to revive the Orthodox practice of giving unconsecrated bread out to those who are not able to receive the sacrament – at the conclusion of the liturgy. The blessing of that bread – in the homes of those viewing the livestream could legitimately be prayed by any person who might normally “say grace” in that household.

        1. Bosco Peters

          Thanks, Chris – yes, I have been thinking along similar lines, and intend to pursue this in my 6th in this series. Easter Season Blessings.

  3. I agree that it is important not to lose the physicality of the sacraments nor the sense of being gathered. For a eucharist to be effective it requires physical elements and the gathering of the people around a presider. But I feel like I could be persuaded that the gathering could be a remote gathering – if we are gathered on say, zoom with the intention of offering thanksgiving over the bread and wine and each person has with them their own bread and wine could this not still be eucharist. I know we are not then sharing one bread and one cup but our intention is to be united by the prayer and the bread and wine available to us in that moment. I feel this would be much more satisfying and much less clericalist that watching a priest preside and not be able to receive the bread and wine. I feel like if we were in lockdown for months on end that would have to be an option considered.

    I am interested too to hear more about the agape meal idea – I see this mentioned in the US context and they have a Maundy Thursday service for this in their supplementary prayer book material, but it not something I have used in a formal sense. i have certainly done Maundy Thursday meals (not seder I hasten to add) but the agape meal format they have is new to me.

    1. Thanks, Helen. I am going to have to look for TEC’s agape meal – I presume it is online? Sharing one bread and one cup would be rare in Anglican circles (and other circles) – so that cannot be determinative. I might be pointing more towards sharing one table. The whole question of whether Eucharist be televised is not a new one. You are anticipating well some of the considerations I want to continue pursuing and reflecting on. Easter Season Blessings.

    1. Brilliant, thanks, Helen. It is worth thinking through how this might be adapted beyond Maundy Thursday 🙂 Blessings.

  4. Hi Bosco. This is an interesting issue. In some ways the use of zoom and other similar technologies add a further dimension to traditional metaphysics and mysticism. But I can’t help thinking of a comment made by Sir Thomas Beecham that the English do not really like music – they like the sound of music. To do something clever in order to enter in to the feeling of “having” a Eucharist is not the same as being part of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is not just a single thing we do repeatedly; it is an entering in to the one action which God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I agree very strongly with your view that this is a time to renew ourselves in the use of the Daily Office. In the strongly sacramentally-oriented parish of which I am part we have had, each Sunday, a zoom “morning prayer” centred on the three readings and psalm appointed for the Eucharist that day, along with the Gloria and Lord’s Prayer (music played by our Director of Music on his piano at home as we normally sing them at the Sunday Eucharist), a reflection on the readings from the priest in charge, and prayers with space for people’s additions, along with time spent together speaking over zoom, which is a sort of informal exchange of the Peace. God continues the divine work of creation, redemption and resurrection even when we do not engage in the sacred rites which are so close to our hearts. There is a lot within our Christian tradition to sustain us authentically through this difficult time and renewal within this might be a life-giving, strengthening experience to bring us to the point when we can once again enter authentically into Eucharistic life. This is a different time and rather than trying to hold on to the feeling of what we cannot have for the moment we can offer the denial of the Eucharist at this time as a prayer for healing and explore the deep authenticity in other strains of our shared spirituality which are readily to hand. If you like, we could exchange being clever for seeking to be profound.

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