In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic there has been a boom in online services as thousands of churches around the world are turning to digital solutions in order to continue their regular worship. I suspect that most of us have been inundated with invitations on our social media feeds to join livestreamed services these last weeks.
While the Internet offers fantastic alternatives in times such as these, digital technologies are not merely neutral tools that can be utilised to different ends. They are value-laden artefacts that direct our behaviour in certain ways. They open up new possibilities and close others. That said there is still user agency. Heidi Campbell has argued that there is a Social Religious Shaping of Technology — in other words, religious communities can and do negotiate whether to adopt, adapt or reject the use of specific technologies in the light of their own tradition and doctrine. For these reasons, online streaming of worship services raises a number of questions that demand careful theological consideration. I will only here be able to offer a brief sketch to illustrate some of the issues at stake.
ARE ONLINE COMMUNITIES AUTHENTIC?
Rooted in the Biblical imagery of the People of God and the body of Christ, the dominant theme in contemporary ecclesiology is that the Church is first and foremost the community of believers. Bearing this emphasis in mind, it is no wonder that a central ecclesial question when it comes to considering digital worship services is the quality and nature of the community of those gathered online.
A major theological concern is that the supposed disembodied nature of digital communication suggests a Gnosticism that undermines the affirmation of the body implied in the incarnation. Does the body of Christ, for this reason, require us to meet face-to-face? Theologians such as Deanna Thompson have responded to this objection by pointing to examples in the early church. She and others note that Paul was more physically absent than present from the churches that he ministered to. Yet, he maintained an intimate bond with these churches through correspondence. This suggests that the church has always had a virtual aspect and that technology has played a role in maintaining ecclesial relationships from the very beginning.
Jason Byassee has suggested that the letters were in some cases poor substitutes to physical presence, but in other ways they brought benefits. Paul himself saw the letters as a less preferable option to being physically present (e.g. Phil 1:8). But then again, the letters from Paul could be read aloud in the community and consequently discussed and poured over, permitting a more communal and democratic process of interpretation. This virtual fellowship via letter also became important in sustaining the church universal.
We have to ask ourselves similar questions when it comes to digital tools: what does the technology bring and what does it foreclose? A common objection to online services is that they do not facilitate authentic community in a way that face-to-face gatherings of believers do. Indeed, we tend to ascribe greater intimacy to offline encounters than to online communication. Nevertheless, just because people meet face-to-face does not automatically mean that they form stronger bonds than those who engage virtually.
Conversely, in the context of a service, digital technology affords new possibilities of engaging. A good example of this is the comment fields provided by most livestreaming platforms. The possibility of posting questions and comments about the sermon, or words of prayer and praise, does afford a greater participation — even than most local gatherings — and thus builds community.
Another implication of online services is that they are non-geographical and can be broadcast globally. On the one hand this can strengthen the church universal, but on the other hand it might undermine commitments to the local church.
Read Pete Phillips’ blog for ideas on online community building
In the context of our discussion, it is also important to examine online liturgy. Liturgy is mediated worship and prayer that draws our attention towards God. It assumes that since we are embodied beings, form — whether body, voice, text, image, acoustics or space — matters when we come to worship. Teresa Berger rightly points out that worship has always been mediated through various forms and therefore digitally mediated worship merely marks another development in liturgical history.
Theories in media studies suggest that both the message and the behaviour of the communicator and receiver are conditioned by the medium. Approaching live-streamed services from a liturgical lens then invites us to reflect on how forms of digitally mediated worship shape the worship itself and the experience of the worshipper. To date, the majority of live-streamed services have merely consisted of churches projecting their offline services on digital platforms. In such practices most of the sensory experiences of liturgy are lost, resulting in passive consumption rather than participation. Such streaming is a poor replication that does not utilise the liturgical potential of digital media and culture.
For example, just as cathedral worship is a multimedia experience, with its stained-glass windows, prayer book recitations, sermons, choral praise, incense and vibrations created by the deep tones of the organ, so can online worship make the most of the possibilities that digital technology offers. It is true that not all of the sensory media of offline worship can be recreated in an online environment, but there are plenty of alternatives. It might be difficult to simulate the sense of awe one feels when walking into a cathedral through images on a screen, but it is possible to create sensory experiences, such as the intimacy of a chapel through close up shots, for example. Can the symbolism and imagery representations of shared memes iconically point us towards the Triune God and the mystery of faith? Like the biblical motives in stained-glass windows are projected onto our physical bodies in a sun-filled chapel, can immersive creations of biblical narratives experienced through VR goggles allow us to feel part of these stories? Can the kinetic responses often used in gaming enable us to be moved by divine presence?
Liturgical practices, however mediated, have within traditional churches taken centuries to develop, while online forms of worship have only existed at best for a few decades. No doubt liturgy in online environments will see further development in the coming months and years.
Given the centrality of the Eucharist in the services of many churches, online sacraments also demand consideration. This is one of the more contentious issues in digitally mediated Christianity and has already received plenty of attention both amongst scholars and churches. As Campbell’s approach highlights, one’s response to questions of the validity of using technology in worship is preconditioned by one’s doctrinal positions. Moreover, there are different practices related to online communion, which might lead to different conclusions.
For the Catholic Church, which adheres to transubstantiation, celebrations of the Eucharist in VR environments are understandably problematic. Indeed, a document titled ‘The Church and Internet’ from 2002 states that, ‘Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet’. Bishop Christopher Hill, who had oversight of the virtual Anglican Cathedral on Second Life, takes a similar stance. The reason why sacraments are not permitted in this VR environment was the deemed ‘necessity for a real, personal, as opposed to virtual relationship in sacraments.’
Again, latent in these arguments is the fear of gnostic disembodiment. However, against the notion that the virtual is disembodied, one could point to the fact that we still require our senses — seeing, hearing, touching — in order to engage. We do so through physical objects such as keyboards or screens or voice recognition technology. Baptist minister and theologian Paul Fiddes takes a phenomenological approach to this issue. He argues that if a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace, then why can’t God be present through the silicate chip and the photons beaming through a pixeled screen engaging individuals aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually? Virtual communion in VR environments through avatars is different from offline celebrations of the Eucharist, he argues, but they can both mediate God’s presence.
Coming from a low-church evangelical tradition, Andy Byers’ reticence is perhaps more surprising. In his TheoMedia he takes a different approach, arguing that some of the sensory experiences of the ‘ancient media practices,’ such as the ‘crunching of the unleavened bread, the taste of consecrated wine’ might be lost in the use of contemporary media technology.
Such a position would presumably still permit ‘remote communion’; a more common form of online communion in which each participant supplies their own physical Eucharistic elements whilst watching a celebrant carry out the proceedings on a live-stream. For the Catholic Church, this form is still rejected on the grounds that the consecration of the elements demands the physical laying of hands by a priest. The Methodist Conference in 2015 reached a similar conclusion, but on symbolic grounds. Online communion ‘would compromise the integrity of the sacrament.’ The conference report alludes to the symbolism of unity implied in the breaking of bread. Such physical breaking of the same loaf of bread in a local gathering would be lost in ‘remote communion’.
Arguments such as this could be pitted against the sense of unity experienced by those who have celebrated communion online. My example here is anecdotal: during the current lockdown, some churches in Hong Kong have come together to offer joint online worship services. One of our students on the MA in Digital Theology witnessed to the moving unity felt in one such ecumenical service, as viewers celebrated communion, each with their own physical elements in their home, while filling the virtual comment field with their prayers.
For a fuller overview of theological views on online communion see John Dyer’s post
Some fifteen to twenty years ago commentators predicted the death of traditional religious communities in the wake of mass migration to unaffiliated online or virtual churches. While such communities do exist and flourish online, a more significant trend is that traditional religious communities have increasingly started to develop their own online presence. Operating in an online/offline hybridity, the digital is becoming an extension or a supplement to the ministry of local church rather than something that is in competition with them.
I suggest that we need to move beyond the language of the virtual being unreal or inauthentic to that of it being supplementary or different. This still demands careful reflection. By discussing some of the theological issues at stake I have sought to illustrate how a well-informed theology can offer churches guidance as they negotiate their own Social Religious Shaping of Technology.
As the apostles were forced out of Jerusalem into the world by persecution, so a reticent contemporary church is being forced onto the World Wide Web by Coronavirus. There is no turning back.