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Can sacraments work in the virtual world?

The Revd Professor Paul S. Fiddes, a Baptist minister and Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford and Director of Research, Regent’s Park College, has just written a short paper arguing in favour of celebrating Eucharist in the virtual world.

Anglican Cathedral in Second Life

Anglican Cathedral in Second Life

Mark Brown, an Anglican priest and CEO of the NZ Bible Society is the founder of the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life. He has just placed Professor Fiddes’ paper on his blog and invited me to respond. Unfortunately Mark himself has to date not entered the discussion. Having just relinquished his position in the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life he may be giving the impression that he is in favour of expanding services in the virtual world to include “sacraments.”

Can bread and wine be consecrated via the internet?

When televised services first became possible, there was discussion whether bread and wine, placed before a television screen, would be consecrated by a priest presiding at a service being televised. Now serious discussions are beginning to take place about sacraments in cyberspace.

Professor Fiddes contends “Theologically we should develop a notion of ‘virtual sacraments’ rather than an ‘extension’ of the consecration of elements over a distance, and their direct reception by the person employing the avatar.” He makes this statement, however, without any substantiation why avatars administering and receiving sacraments within a virtual world is OK but extending this into real life via the internet is not. In general, however, this is in the context of a church that is often struggling to catch up with the potential offered by the internet.

Baptism, immersion into the Christian community, the body of Christ, and hence into the nature of God the Holy Trinity may have some internet equivalents – for example, being welcomed into a moderated group. But my own current position would be to shy away from, for example, having a virtual baptism of a second life avatar. Nor would I celebrate Eucharist and other sacraments in the virtual world. Sacraments are outward and visible signs – the virtual world is still very much at the inner and invisible level. Similarly, in my opinion, placing unconsecrated bread and wine before a computer or television screen and understanding this to result in consecration tends away from the liturgical understanding of the Eucharist (liturgy = work of the people/ something done by a community) towards a magical understanding of the Eucharist (magic = something done to or for an individual or community).

Sacraments 2.0

Professor Fiddes summarises

An avatar can receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist within the logic of the virtual world and it will still be a means of grace, since God is present in a virtual world in a way that is suitable for its inhabitants. We may expect that the grace received by the avatar will be shared in some way by the person behind the avatar, because the person in our everyday world has a complex relationship with his or her persona.

I strongly disagree with this argument. Professor Fiddes contends that God is present in a virtual world providing grace for its inhabitants. In Fiddes’ theology God gives grace to the avatar. This grace, Fiddes’ expects, will then be “shared in some way by the person behind the avatar.” The concept of an avatar being the receiver of God’s grace is astonishing from an Oxford Professor of Systematic Theology, let alone a Baptist minister, who normally would not allow God’s grace to be present in an inanimate object, not to mention a virtual one. Yet, surprisingly, he presents no justification for his startling assertions. In Fiddes’ perspective does all of the grace received by the avatar automatically get transferred to the person behind the avatar in a sort of ex opere operato mechanism? Or in some (many, most) cases is only some of the grace transferred, with the avatar retaining grace that was originally given by God to the avatar? What in Fiddes’ theology is the use of God’s grace to this avatar? What happens to this grace when the computers fail and the virtual world ceases?

Following Fiddes’ approach one would logically hold that God gives grace to a cartoon character like Mickey Mouse with whom an observer (or cartoonist) identifies – and that Mickey Mouse passes this grace on to the observer or cartoonist. Similarly God, according to Fiddes’, would give grace to a character in a computer/video game and that grace is then passed on to the person playing that character.

Mark Brown in Second Life

Mark Brown in Second Life

Although Fiddes claims that grace is not some sort of liquid, some sort of “substance”, there is nothing in his thesis that supports this claim. Putting to one side the comment that celebrating Eucharist in Second Life parodies Real Life church (and so would tend towards sacrilege), and the complexities of who might preside at a Second Life Eucharist (only an ordained person behind an avatar? only an avatar ordained within the virtual world?), I think it is better to examine the sacramental theology underlying Fiddes’ contention.

The majority Christian position (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran,…- but, it is to be noted for this response, not Baptist) holds that Christ is truly present in a distinctive way in the Eucharistic species of bread and wine. A sacrament requires particular “matter”. Baptism uses water, Eucharist uses bread and wine. We cannot pour a jar of jelly-beans over someone and say they are baptised. We cannot consecrate a bicycle and say this is the Eucharist. Such sacramental theology is also clear on whom we might confer the sacrament. We cannot baptise a pram. We cannot give communion to a letterbox.

Hence, we cannot baptise an avatar in the virtual world – as there is no water there, nor is an avatar a person on whom we can confer baptism.

There is within Christianity a minority position that regards sacraments as primarily something happening in one’s mind, or metaphorical heart. This position holds that the bread and wine are reminders to the faithful person receiving them. Fiddes, an ordained Baptist minister, is faithful to the Baptist foundations of Regent’s Park College in his sacramental ideas about an individual receiving grace by being mentally involved in a computer simulation. In the Eucharist, bread and wine are the medium by which one makes oneself present to the death of Christ. One wonders why Fiddes would continue this in the virtual world when there one could simulate the death of Christ directly. Communion in his view of the virtual world adds another now-unnecessary layer between Christ’s death and the person on the keyboard.

There is no denying Fiddes’ statement “There is a mysterious and complex interaction between the person and the persona projected (avatar).” This relationship is, in my opinion, akin to identifying with a character in a novel, play, or movie, or with a string puppet one is controlling in a puppet theatre. A baptism, marriage, or celebration of communion in such a novel, movie, or puppet show may deeply move the person identifying with the character. Such a person may very well be graced and transformed by God at such a time. But there is no sense in which the person identifying with the character is thereby baptised, married, or receiving the Eucharist.

The gothic architecture of the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life may mimic the gothic architecture of many cathedrals in Real Life and encourage a sloppy translation into Second Life of everything from Real Life. But, in fact, any architectural construct can be designed in a virtual world in a way that it cannot in Real Life. What we need is not a parodying in the virtual world of that which is particular to Real Life – we need to discern appropriate ways of mission and ministry in and through the virtual world that may very well be significantly different to what we can do in the Real World. It is that which is its blessing and its challenge.

Update: check here for a funny and thought-provoking video on the church’s use of new technology! 🙂

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