Monday, July 06, 2009

Sacraments in Cyber-Space

I meant to post on this last week, but moderating comments from the post I put up last Monday took up a lot of time!

A very popular liturgy blogger in New Zealand joined in the conversation about if and how sacraments can be done in a virtual environment, specifically Second Life.

Apparently there are churches in Second Life where one's avatar can go and participate in worship, including Holy Communion. This is problematic for Rev. Bosco Peters, who maintains the Liturgy blog, because he is an Anglican, thus his theology of Communion is very high (as in "High Church").

Note to my theologian colleagues out there: please forgive the gross oversimplifications that follow. I'm trying to make this accessible to everyone.

High church traditions (Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian) are very restrictive in terms of who can preside over the sacraments, because it understands God's grace to be tangibly present in them. Thus, only an ordained person can preside at the sacraments so as to ensure that they are administered properly and those who receive them are getting the full benefit.

Low church traditions (Baptist, Disciples of Christ, etc.), on the other hand have a much more relaxed view of the sacraments, viewing them as symbols of God's grace that will not be negated if they're not done "correctly" (however one defines it) or by the "right" person. These traditions believe the effectiveness of God's grace has much more to do with the sincerity of the receiver, not the clergy person presiding.  Thus, low church traditions have been very eager to make use of the internet, as evidenced by the plethora of evangelical sites that walk one step-by-step through the process of "accepting Christ" and being saved.

So we can see how the practice of administering and receiving sacraments in a virtual environment is problematic for those with a high sacramental theology. Can the invocation of the Holy Spirit (the epiclesis) really be effective from the real world to the virtual world? Can the virtual bread and wine effectively mediate the presence of Christ? Can the grace of taking the sacrament in the virtual world be fully transmitted to the receiver in the real world?

Being a Methodist, I'm somewhere between these two theological extremes. We were born in the Church of England, which is decidedly high church, yet Methodism grew and prospered as a frontier revival movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in America, where the lack of ordained clergy necessitated some decidedly low church practices. So the joke that Methodists are half Episcopalian and half Baptist is actually pretty accurate.

In our tradition we talk about sacraments as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace", meaning that while we don't believe the bread and wine of communion or the water of baptism are transformed in any way as to become exclusive mediators of God's grace, we do believe in the real presence of God in these elements. It doesn't depend on the character or correct performance of the presider (which is of great relief to me as a pastor), nor is it dependent on the sincerity or knowledge of the receiver (which is of great relief to me as a highly imperfect person), but on God's promise to be with us always. We trust in the mysterious power of God that has been revealed to us in part, and we look forward to when we will  know it fully, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13.

So ultimately, I think it is fine to participate in church and even to take communion in Second Life or any other online environment, but I would also encourage someone not to stop there. God's grace is no less real in the virtual realm, but there is no substitute for having a community where one can grow in their discipleship. Such communities can happen online, but actual human interaction can never be fully recreated, no matter how good the technology.


Steven Manskar said...

I suggest you do some closer study of "This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion." You will find there reasons why "virtual" sacraments is an oxymoron. You will also find that United Methodists historically ascribe to what you have labled "high church traditions." Also, the so-called "Low church traditions" you highlight do not celebrate or observe sacraments. For them the Lord's Supper and Baptism are ordinances, not sacraments.

Sacraments can never be offered online (cyberspace) because they are means of grace celebrated in the midst of the body of Christ, the living, breathing, touching, hearing, tasting, and smelling human, incarnate, community. People must be able to feel and hear the water; We need to smell, touch, and taste the bread and wine. We must also be able to see and touch one another. None of this can happen in a virtual environment. Christianity is an incarntional faith. Sacraments are signs and symbols of God's action in, with, and for the world through and in the Church that is composed of living, breathing, touching, smelling, and tasting human beings. They require physical elements and real bodies of flesh and blood, not virtual elements and avatars.

I'll leave it to others to address the issue of who is authorized to preside at the table.

For United Methodists "virtual sacraments" should be anathema.

I suspect that sounds harsh. My concern is that we need to do a much better job of teaching and practicing the sacraments. They are gifts from God and means of grace that ought not be trifled with.

The internet is a valuable and powerful tool for ministry. But, like any tool, it can also be abused. It is not, and never will be, an appropriate venue for administration of the sacraments.

Anonymous said...

I have a tough time with the concept that it would be better to never have communion than to do it virtually.

God exists in cyberspace just as he does in the physical world, and though we may try, we cannot place bounds on the ways and means of His grace.

I recall the last day of my daughter's Methodist camp last year, where about 500 people lined up and filed by two people handing out the elements. The 5 seconds of ritual and the assembly line atmosphere were anything but communal and incarnate.

We were in a crowd, but we were alone -- in total opposition to what I've experienced on the internet at times, when I've been physically alone but emotionally and mentally fully present with a community of believers.