THE Revd Tim Ross, the Methodist minister who announced last month that he was going to run a holy communion service on Twitter, the social-networking website, is not the first person to attempt communion on the net (News, 20 August).
LifeChurch.tv, a multiple-campus church in the United States which broadcasts streamed video in real time, includes communion for those sitting at their computers. The instructions posted online say: “You’ll want to have these elements on hand: 1) Bread — small piece of bread, cracker, etc. 2) Small glass of something to drink — grape juice, wine, Kool-Aid, etc.”
This upfront approach is light-years away from the deference originally accorded to religious worship by older media such as radio and television. One famous story has it that when the BBC first proposed broadcasting worship on the wireless, the Dean of St Paul’s objected because the services might be heard by “men in pubs wearing hats”.
By the 1980s, however, something that looked rather like communion was being delivered every Sunday morning on This is the Day on BBC1. The programme was broadcast live from ordinary homes, and the set included flowers, a candle, a Bible, and a bread roll — but no wine. Those in the “viewing congregation” were invited to bring their own bread, and to eat it as an act of fellowship. There was no prayer of consecration.
Geoffrey Marshall Taylor, who worked on the programme, says the producers were “at pains to be clear that this was a non-eucharistic service. However, central to it was linking a virtual community of viewers, whom we saw as participants, not voyeurs.” Vital to this experience was the live transmission, which meant that the bread was shared in real time.
It was precisely this detail — sharing in real time — that gave Mr Ross the idea for his Twitter communion. Here, however, the theological caution of the TV age was replaced by theological adventure, facilitated by the open channel of Twitter.
Mr Ross writes: “What I love about Twitter is the instantaneous contact it gives you with your followers. It gave me the idea that we could do a live communion service for believers around the world, sharing together the bread and wine as the one Body of Christ.”
THIS enthusiasm is not shared by the UK’s main online churches, which for several years have been wary of embracing any form of e-eucharist.
The Revd Pam Smith is Priest-in-Charge of i-church, an online community launched by the diocese of Oxford in 2004. She notes that the church would need specific permission from its Bishop to introduce a new format for the sacraments. She says, however: “I think it’s an issue that will keep coming back. Some people who find it hard to get to an offline church have found Christ present in their online Christian community, and naturally want to express that through communion.”
The Anglican Cathedral in the online world of Second Life is also subject to a this-worldly church in the form of the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill. He speculated in 2008 that an online sacrament could possibly be seen as “spiritual communion”, the non-sacramental service followed by people, such as servicemen and women, when they are not able to receive full communion (Comment, 25 July 2008). Yet this promising idea has not been taken up so far, and no sacraments are celebrated in the virtual cathedral.
Over in St Pixels, an ecumenical community with no external hierarchy to satisfy, there is little demand from the grass-roots members for BYOB&W services alongside their other chatroom-based worship. Mark Howe, a member of the management team, says: “Doing anything still looks too divisive to happen as a mainstream event.”
SO, AMONG the sensible caution, risk-aversion, and the postponement of Twitter communion, is it possible to receive the eucharist online from any church in the UK?
The answer lies with Luss Parish Church, Loch Lomond. This Church of Scotland community holds 150 weddings each year, because of the picturesque and patriotic location, and has been streaming marriage services on the web for the past six years, so that family and friends abroad can “be there”, too.
When the church added its regular services to the stream on its website, up to 10,000 people at a time joined it online. The Minister, the Revd Dane Sherrard, says: “Quite a number of people who join us every week for our service were, off their own bat, gathering together their own elements of bread and wine, and sharing with us at communion time. What we are really doing is sharing our service with those who are unable to get to a traditional church to worship.”
Theological support for the idea came last year from the Baptist systematic theologian Paul Fiddes. He argued that avatars (characters appearing onscreen in computer worlds) could receive the bread and wine of the eucharist within their world, and this might be seen as an indirect means of grace for the person controlling the avatar.
The Revd Dr Michael Moynagh, a missioner for Fresh Expressions, is also positive. While conceding that different eucharistic theologies will produce widely different responses to the idea of virtual communion, he asks: “If the presence of the Spirit makes the sacrament effective, is there a need for worshippers to be physically in the same place? Can the Spirit not be powerfully at work through communion even though the community is scattered?”
While there is no pressure from virtual churches in the UK to push the boundaries, maverick projects such as Twitter communion will probably keep raising the questions. Watch this virtual space.
Simon Jenkins is editor of Ship of Fools (www.shipoffools.com), and was project leader of the Church of Fools.