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Can online communion be real?

25 August 2010

There is still great wariness about virtual eucharists in web churches, says Simon Jenkins

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.

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