Communion and Community in a Digital Age

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John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark's CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.

The advent of the coronavirus and the consequent closure of churches has posed profound questions of ecclesiology – of what constitutes church – for many Christians. This is especially true for those whose tradition is built around Christians coming together not just for fellowship, teaching or worship (in a broad sense) but also for receiving the sacrament of the eucharist.

This article comes explicitly from within this tradition within the Church of England, so it may not connect at once with the lived experience of people whose church polity is not founded on the historic threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon, or whose understanding of the sacraments is more symbolic than those of us who, without wanting (or even in faith needing) to explain the mechanisms, nevertheless understand that the presence of God, of Christ, in the eucharistic sacrament is indeed in the Body of Christ receiving the Body of Christ to become the Body of Christ.

Digital Church

The challenge of these times incites us to explore a different, exciting and for many unsettling way forward. For me, this exploration has come about as a result of continuing to think about what we are doing when we are taking part in a home Eucharist through the medium of Zoom. A not even very thorough search of the internet demonstrates that I am not alone in this exploration. It does, however, demand that we extend our thinking about ecclesiology.

An eBook has appeared in the last few days entitled The Distanced Church – Reflections on Doing Church Online. 1. It is a collection of essays from contributors around the world struggling with and responding to the coronavirus pandemic, but with a special focus on the church’s presence in and use of the digital world. Three contributions, in particular, direct us towards the need to re-think our ecclesiology, to ask ‘What is the church and where is it to be found?’

To be incarnational we need to meet people, where they are, and that, for many, is online. 2.

God is found, not just in the physical expression of church, mosque, temple, synagogue, but in the very experience of searching for God online. God inhabits the digital. 3.

The closing of church buildings requires new thinking in the theology of place and presence. 4.

One of the most exciting contributions to The Distanced Church comes from a Brazilian writer:

In the past century, Christian churches in Latin America offered the world one of the main fruits of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the base ecclesial communities (BECs). They were “another way of being Church, based on the axis of the Word and the lay person” (Boff, 1977, p. 10, author’s translation). Today, following this trail, we could say that we are facing the emergence of digital ecclesial communities (or DECs), which often go beyond spatiotemporal or cultural-ethnic configurations of local religious structures (groups, parishes, dioceses, etc.). 5.

There is, indeed, much that is changing fast in our understanding of what the church is and how God is present in it and to us, God’s people.

Ministry and the (digital) church

I believe this expansion of our ecclesiology is of a piece with what for me is one of the key theological principles about the eucharist, the eucharistic community and the role of the ordained within it. And that is that the whole community celebrates the eucharist, and the priest presides at/over/within the celebration. As a friend with whom I have discussed this says:

If we are virtually connected with others, and have a designated, credentialed community convener, all pray together, and share bread and wine together, the efficacy of the sacrament is maintained in what amounts to a virtual (but also veritable) extension of the interplay of word, gesture, touch and taste. 6.

This is a significant development in the understanding of what ministry is about and how it functions in relation to Christian community, focused on, but not confined to sacramental ministry. A Church of England document on Eucharistic Presidency published in1997 argues that that ordained ministry is best understood as a gift of God to the Church to promote, release and clarify all other ministries in such a way that they can exemplify and sustain the four marks of the Church: oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. An understanding of ministry as presiding is gradually being used as a facilitative understanding of all authorised ministry, especially, but not solely, of ordained ministry.

There’s always a bit of the chicken and egg in tracing these developments. However, a liturgical reform which seemed like a novelty when it was first introduced in the Church of England with the arrival of Alternative Services Series 3 in the early 1970s is clearly very significant. This was a contemporary language rite which used the term President for the chief minister at the Eucharist for the first time. It was perhaps unfortunate that its introduction coincided with the contempt for presidents generally occasioned by the Watergate affair. And though it is common currency in liturgical texts and theological discourse now, it has not much changed the perception or language of many churchgoers, who – if they ask at all – are more likely to enquire ‘Who is celebrating today?’ than ‘Who is presiding today’, even after forty years of a different terminology.

Nevertheless, the paradigm of presiding is surely here to stay.

Eucharist and the digital church

Different individual churches and dioceses in the Anglican Communion are responding very differently to ‘what is going on out there’ and to what they think is possible or responsible. My personal response centres on the possibility that everyone who is taking part in, for instance, a Zoom act of eucharistic worship should bring their own bread and wine to the feast. By doing this we would recognise that through the powerful medium of the internet the virtual community is actually more than just a virtual community. Indeed, as the thrust of this article suggests, I think we need to pass beyond the language of virtual community into the more substantive concept of the digital community. Virtual has too much of a sound of unreality and transitoriness to be the right word to use of the church community as it moves into a different reality.

Robin Greenwood’s book Transforming Priesthood (1994) remains a seminal work in moving us forward in our understanding of a presiding ministry. He suggests that

The priest presides at the Eucharist by virtue of presiding in the Church’s life, rather than by virtue of being a priest per se. 7.

Expressed within the eucharistic gathering, this understanding of both the church and the eucharist is about the president/priest holding the worshipping community together and allowing and enabling other ministries to flourish and contributing her/himself. That is, it is about sharing, focusing and distributing. There is little doubt in my mind that this is exactly what is happening in Zoom eucharists I have attended. These are very different in tone and form from the livestreaming of a service from an empty church.

Applying this understanding faithfully but rigorously to the totally different circumstances in which we live, we can without difficulty recognise that if the dispersed community, meeting through a social media or conferencing platform for eucharistic worship, is intentionally doing the same as the presider, with the same physical objects (elements) then both the extended understanding of ministry and ecclesiology in an internet age, and the sacramental principle itself, lead us to recognise that under these conditions we would all be receiving the sacrament in our joined up dispersed mode just as much as when physically in the same place. I do stress the word intentionally here; I don’t think this is simply a straight forward extension of any ex opere operato concept.

This is a most exciting theological development. We already believe in the Communion of Saints, and that’s not just about those who have gone before or will come after us, but it’s with those who are currently present in the world along with us, whether or not they are worshiping in the same space or in same time zone or the same digital medium.

I do not believe that we have yet reached the point of fully accepting the reality of the digital Body of Christ. That is to say, the extension of ecclesiological and sacramental understanding that I am suggesting and arguing for here has not yet followed, at least in public. I suspect too that there will be a deal of institutional resistance to this, as it is not how things have usually been done or understood.

Presence and the digital church

One of the problematic issues centres on the challenge raised by one of the contributors to The Distanced Church for ‘new thinking in the theology of place and presence’. How are we to engage with this both in relation to the varied responses of mainstream ecclesial communities at having to ‘go online’ and to the potential emergence of Digital Ecclesial Communities?

To look at presence in this ecclesiological and sacramental context, we need to examine incarnation. Too often, we regard the incarnation as something that happened in the past. But Mary Beth Ingham reminds us: ‘the incarnation is God’s presence in our world – not an event of the past.' 8. The incarnation is still going on in our lives. Additionally, both the church and the sacraments are widely understood as extensions of the Incarnation – the sacraments embody Christ for the Church, the Church embodies Christ for the world.9.

But all-encompassing thought this seems, it fails to do full justice to God’s presence in God’s world. God consistently breaks the limits of sacramentalism by virtue of the sheer, ebullient gift of Godself within and, (however we understand it) beyond creation, as the aphorism ‘Bidden or not, God is present’ (attributed in this form to Erasmus), reminds us.

We need also to consider the work of the Holy Spirit. One aspect of the Spirit’s work is to ‘lead us into all truth’ 10.; therefore we must remain open to what the Spirit is prompting. But the Spirit also has a role as agent of continuation. We are no longer dependent on the physical presence of the Incarnate One because the Spirit is among us, giving substance to the promise that ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ 11.. Our inclination is to understand this concretely: where you and I and another are in the same physical place. But as we come to understand that the digital is a form of ‘the same space’, we can also recognise that God is as present and potent in that space as in any other, bringing community and koinonia into being. And surely God is greater than the limitations we want to put on God (often to satisfy our own need for control). God the Spirit disrupts as well as soothes.

Mission in the digital church

Other questions, of course, arise due because of the applications available to us in the digital world. An English parish priest, writing in the eBook notes

Casual observers of our church activities on Facebook have begun to attend livestreamed services and have commented on them. People are dipping their toes into worship because of our ready availability in their pocket or on the laptop in front of them. 12.

So there is a clear missional opportunity here. But how do those who use Zoom for Sunday worship, where attendees have to be ‘admitted’ make their gatherings accessible beyond Zoom to a wider, possibly curious/searching, audience. The questions go beyond structural ecclesiological and the choice of platform, and lead us to ask what sort of church do we want to be, to portray ourselves as? As representatives of a church which has – on the whole – preferred permeable to hard boundaries, what is the impact of the choices we make on the imperative to spread the gospel? Have we gone online merely to conserve or preserve the congregation? Or are we embracing the digital as a God-given opportunity to think and act in new ways in the service of the Kingdom?

Of course, whether this is an expansion of our understanding of church that will be valid for all time, or an expedient during the pandemic, is a question to which much attention will now be given. However, I suspect that the church has not infrequently adopted a temporary expedient which has become custom and practice and accepted theology over time. Perhaps this will be another such moment.

3. Peter Philips in The Distanced Church

4. Tim Hutchings in The Distanced Church

5. Moisés Sbardelotto in The Distanced Church

6. Dr David Schlafer, homiletician, in an email correspondence with the author.

7. Robin Greenwood, Transforming Priesthood, SPCK, London, 1994, p145

8. Mary Beth Ingham, University of San Diego, quoted by Richard Rohr in a Daily Meditation March 2018 Matthew 18. 20

9. See Robert W Jenson’s chapter The Church and the Sacraments in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 1997, Cambridge, CUP

10. John 16.13

11. Matthew 18.20

12. Bryony Taylor in The Distanced Church



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