Virtual church

Is there competition or complement between living ‘on-ground’ and living ‘on-line’. The debate surfaces in offices, counselling rooms, churches, entertainment venues and retail. How will the on-line and on-ground worlds co-exist for the church in a post-Covid world? [Article]

Michael Flynn


Ever since transport became affordable the system of a local parish church in a village, town or suburb has been under pressure. Most Christians would normally drive past their local churches to attend worship that suits their preferences. Of course, this mirrors the rest of our highly mobile lives.  Until the current pandemic lockdowns we had largely stopped working, studying, shopping or relating in our local neighbourhoods. This shift, which began at the close of WW2, has moved us from neighbourhoods to social networks and now to online networks. This is why for many years now the ‘front door’ of our local church has not been the opening to our church building, but rather our web presence. Lockdowns have naturally increased the number of people joining in worship by subscription rather than attendance.

This competition between virtual and physical community (or online and on-ground communities) is brought into focus by the question of whether or not we should celebrate communion using video conferencing, streaming or recording or simply leave it to the time when Christians can physically meet together again in worship. Our Diocesan web site, early in the first Melbourne lockdown, expressed three views on this. 

Spiritual Communion. 

Andreas Loewe and Brad Billings from the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne revived an idea from the Reformation which we find in our prayer books under Ministration of communion for the sick. The rubric in the Book of Common Prayer reads: 

“But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.”

This year the Church of England published a liturgy we are allowed to use for Spiritual Communion. I went as far as making a video recording of myself using this liturgy for our own pre-recorded worship services when I realised it offered nothing more than what we are already promised in the liturgy we use for confession. Repentance is also a means by which God promises to be with us (Isaiah 57.15; Revelation 3:16-20; 1 John 1:5-2:6)

Online Holy Communion.

Peter Adam, Vicar Emeritus of St. Jude’s Carlton, argues that a church meeting in real time online is still a gathering of the church, as the spiritual unity of the church transcends distance (Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 3:16). His point is therefore that the prayer of the priest presiding at communion is effective at a distance and therefore bread and wine from the homes involved in a video conference of church can legitimately be used. The reason Peter argues for worship and communion via video conference is so that care and discipline is still exercised in worship, and sharing of the sacraments by a local congregation. 

In other words, the local worshipping congregation is still the hub around which an online community must gather. The on-ground determines the validity of the online – which is good theology and well represents our prayer books. My question concerning the idea is not how the theology works or whether God will honour video conferenced communion (God is the humble King who seeks the humble heart – Isaiah 66:1,2) but how the world of the internet works. In the end I think the medium will win and determine the theology and practice of communion for many in the years ahead.

The internet was once sold to us as an open community, a level playing field with few closed rooms and no hierarchies of discipline. If we argue that God is not limited by space, we know also that he is not limited by time and that should reasonably free us to use the pre-recorded communion services we find on YouTube – and that is the problem. I can celebrate communion isolated from and unaccountable to a gathered physical community of worshippers.

Fasting from communion

Rhys Bezzant, senior lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College,  in his paper against online communion, foresees problems occurring that will be difficult for us to wind back. Some of these problems I imagine will be:

  • As pandemic restrictions wax and wane over the coming years, people will be used to the convenience of worshipping online and many will not want to return to on-ground church. They will create a market demand for virtual worship increasingly detached from the physical congregation.
  • Worship in isolation avoids the frictions and conflicts of on-ground church as well as its disciplines. This will be attractive to many in our individualist culture.

Rhys argues that it is essential for communion, and indeed the church, that Christians physically meet together; that we are risking an impaired communion and church if virtual church with sacraments becomes the norm. He states that a temporary sacrifice of communion is necessary because too much is at stake.

Brian Douglas, lecturer in theology from St. Mark’s Theological Centre, is more explicit, referring to Anglican liturgy and rubrics that require the minister to pray over ‘this’ bread and wine and distribute it with their own hands to the people s/he has a pastoral relationship with. Brian argues that we must celebrate communion in the manner in which Jesus taught us or we are running into the same problems represented by ‘reserved sacrament’, that the receiving of the elements becomes divorced (spatially and/or temporally) from the prayers and presence of the people.

Both Rhys and Brian recommend a period of abstaining from communion, a fast if you will, until the separation caused by the current pandemic is lifted.

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During lockdown, the church where I served adopted the idea of fasting from communion for our local expression of Jesus’ church, while placing more emphasis on other traditional Christian disciplines such as meditating on God’s word and learning again how to pray. In these ways we can practise the presence of God in this exile of isolated lives while waiting to return to our common home in worship together.

As we read the gospels we learn that there are many ways Jesus promises to be with us apart from communion; so in Matthew 18:20 as Jesus talks about the experience of prayer in the church he says: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” In his last instructions to the eleven he talks about the mission of the church and he promises “… [teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In Mark 4:34 he astonishes the crowds when he describes the experience of godly obedience: ‘Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my mother, my sister, my brother.” In John 15:4 he warns against hypocrisy by encouraging the spiritual integrity of his followers: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” In John 17:20f he prays for the love and witness of the church who believe the disciples’ message about him: “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me… I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” 

The sacraments are part of the promises Jesus makes to be with us. They are not the whole.

It is part of God’s humility to use ordinary means to sustain us in our walk with him. Ordinary bread and wine administered by ordinary ministers, praying ordinary prayers bring us the words and means of God’s presence in our lives. This is the entrance to glory because it is our actual lives; not our internet personae, that require ordinary analogue means: Ordinary disciples walking in ordinary obedience with the extraordinary Christ.

I suspect this is why I am not embarrassed by pre-recorded online services. Yes, they are a bit ‘local’ – perhaps not as suitable for a wider audience on the internet because they are not as polished as a professional production would be. That is the point. We are enfleshed. We are not ideals or stars or influencers in an artificial world, that extension of our dreams and nightmares we call the internet. We do not come to church to be entertained by professionals but to worship together as the people of God. We are analogue creatures who need analogue experiences – we need the resurrection of the dead, the power of the Spirit at work in this tired body and weary heart. We need each other, the laying on of hands, the smiles, the quiet prayers together, the casserole meals, the singing, calls, cards and visits. We need to share this bread and this wine together – and we will.