We live in interesting times. We’ve all, suddenly, become familiar with new concepts like ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’, and, apparently, ‘hand washing’; we’re even beginning to know what ‘lockdown’ means. We’ve had to re-shape our social interactions, we’ve had to think of new ways to shop, learn, work, and, now, even to worship. Churches (and other faith institutions) have suspended public, corporate worship, have closed their doors, and clergy are scrabbling around trying to find ways to connect with their people, maintain sacramental life, and continue their pastoral role.
I know we have to do this: not even holy people are exempt from viruses (there is not much, ironically, which is more inclusive than a virus knowing nothing of economic status, geographical boundaries, race, religion, gender, age, or ability). We isolate for the sake of others, we keep our distance for the sake of others, we even wash our hands for the sake of others. We have to do this not because we are Christians, but because we are humans, physical beings, a part of the natural world, subject to the laws and ways of nature without exemption.
It is precisely that last point which interests me at the moment. Theologically, Christians are people defined by their understanding that in Christ God comes among us as a human, as a physical being, a part of the natural world, subject to the laws and ways of nature. Ours is a material faith, embodied in bread and wine, embodied in communities of love and worship and service, embodied in people who become a ‘body’. We believe that in Christ the spiritual comes in bodily form; that the physical is not only capable of revealing the spiritual, but defines the spiritual, gives it shape and meaning and depth. Ours is a faith where the Word is made flesh.
This makes it hard for me to conceive of a ‘virtual’ church. I realise that elements of community life can be carried on: the telephone has always been an essential pastoral tool, as now is FaceTime, WhatsApp, Zoom, FaceBook, YouTube, and Skype. We can still connect, support, help, perhaps even inspire one another. Acts of loving service can still take place without contact. Solitary prayer has always been real. But a priest does not make bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ: it is the people of God gathered in Christ’s name that makes it real for us. It is not clear to me that there can be virtual eucharistic communities in any real sense (and I use the word ‘real’ advisedly). Having said that, I can also see no harm (and some positives) in doing ‘virtual Eucharists’: anything that helps keep communities together for the duration of this lockdown, that helps people for whom isolation is not a treat but a trial, that enables communities to care for each other is a positive good. But let’s not pretend that the future for church is virtual/digital.
‘Virtual church’ makes some (sometimes, considerable) demands on those who lead them, but requires little more than sitting in your pyjamas and watching a screen for others. Yes, Christians, like many other people, are helping their neighbours in any way they can, and that is as much an expression of discipleship and embodied community as anything else. It may be akin to St Paul sitting in prison and writing his letters, but his letters were about how Christian communities live with each other and embody Christ to the world. Ours is not a dis-embodied faith or purely spiritual; ours is not a dis-embodied Christ whose presence is purely spiritual; ours cannot be dis-embodied communities which are purely spiritual. Virtual Christian communities make no lasting sense, though I also realise that for some ‘virtual’ may be the only way they can participate, and I do not mean to denigrate that and for the sake of inclusion would encourage it. But purely or even mainly ‘virtual’ communities are, in the long term, are only bits and bytes, like smoke dissipating in the wind.
So, there is a real and powerful sense in which this time of lockdown is tearing the heart out of our understanding of our faith. It becomes dis-embodied, and unless our faith is embodied – yes, in prayer and acts of loving service, of course – it is not much of a faith. Acting in common cause with everyone else in a time of crisis could be seen as one of the things that makes us human, though not particularly Christian (unless, and there could be a good argument for this, the point of the Christian faith is to make us as fully human as we can be). Self-sacrifice, loving service (without contact), remote pastoral care – all of these things are being done by others who are not Christians (or of any faith at all) simply because it is the right human thing to do. If we want to recover the heart of our faith we should be planning now for the ways in which we re-build our physical communities when the lockdown is over.
We are, in the end, the body of Christ, the embodiment of Christ in the world, the physical manifestation of God’s love to the world. Of course the church is present wherever people embody God’s love in Christ to each other, and we must work and prepare for the time when we can do that in the fullest ways possible: the virtual can only ever be supplementary to the physical. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
General Secretary, Modern Church