Thoughts and reflections that didn’t get used at PremDAC18
Introduction and overview
Imagine my friends, there exists a country where it is said that only evil prevails; where abuse of people because of their gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, income and ethnicity abound daily; where violence is threatened; and fraud is a daily risk of doing business there. It is also a country where the Church has been reluctant to go. A country where the deep spiritual yearnings of many of that country’s inhabitants are unmet because all denominations of the Church are scared to do more than simply put up a poster telling you the times where they meet elsewhere. It is a Spiritual no-go area and definitely one where so far, the Church (in all its diversity, wonder, glory and frailty) have decided that Christ should not, and indeed cannot be properly proclaimed. It is a land where, up to now, the Church has decided that the Sacraments don’t work.
Wouldn’t that be a terrible place, my friends? Where Christ was thought to be absent? Where baptism and eucharist was denied to those to seek it? Would we not want to castigate the Church for being afraid to send missionaries into that field? Would we not want to fervently evangelise its people with the Good News and bring them the Sacraments of Salvation?
But that is where the Church, the Body of Christ, currently stands at the present on the Digital Space, the land of the Cyber, the new frontier where because it is currently viewed like a map [xkcd map of the internet] where “here be dragons” is written, the Church and the Academy are unwilling to engage in this mission field and deny its indigent people the living water.
My name is Fr Simon Rundell, and I am a Church of England Parish Priest in the South West; my background and spirituality is grounded in the sacramental life of the church and that would make me, if labels were a necessity, an Anglocatholic, a “high church” person where sign and ritual and above all the incarnational reality of Christ present in the sacraments of the church are both the tools of mission and the signs of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the world today.
My key interests are in using the sacraments as the tools of mission: engaging people into a deeper relationship with God through these powerful ancient signs and expressing them in ways which are both rooted in that history and contextualised for the current age. This means moving liturgy, ritual and image into the digital space and using multimedia, highly visual imagery in the support of the sacraments. This has been honed for many years through alt.worship and emergent communities such as Blessed, Holy Ground and at events such as Greenbelt (when it was still possible to plug things into the mains), the National Youth Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Sanctum Conference for Sacramental Fresh Expressions.
My Twitter Biography describes me as (quite accurately, I believe) a pusher of pixels and sacraments (twitter bio). In equal measure.
So in this session, I want to explore how the digital environment enhances existing sacramental mission and then look forward to where it might lead us so that this rich digital ocean may bring forth a shoal of soals.
What do we understand as Sacraments?
Depending on where you sit in the massive marquee that we call the Church, there are a huge variety of understandings, interpretations, emphases on (or avoidance of) the significance, meaning, effect and of course, number of sacraments used in the Church. Ask five Anglicans about the sacraments and you’ll get about nine different answers, and the understanding in the pews does not always match that which is promulgated from the pulpit, the Doctrine Commission or the Magesterium.
Perhaps drawing upon the excellent catechetical teaching many of you would have received in Sunday School, one of the classic descriptions of the Sacraments is that they are:
“outward physical signs of inward, spiritual grace”
Which again can mean whatever you really want. Things that speak of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christ left the Spirit within the Church from the Day of Pentecost, so that she might not only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable but be the sign and assurance of God’s presence on earth.
The list of two or seven sacraments is therefore inadequate for the protean manifestation of the Spirit on earth, and must begin at a more fundamental level, and begin, with the primary, primordial sacrament himself: Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Both fully human and fully divine (thank you, the Council of Chalcedon), the Belgian theologian and one of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, Edvard Schillebeecx, spoke of Christ as the Sacrament from whom all Sacraments flow. This echoes the writing of Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Boenhoeffer in recognising that Christ is at the centre of all: the Word which moves over the waters from the Beginning, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Anywhere that God is not present can only be described as Hell, and even Christ descended there to preach (pic: Apostles Creed), and so there is NOWHERE that Christ cannot be present.
From Christ himself springs the other Primordial Sacrament: the partner with the Holy Spirit in the creation of Scripture and the ongoing manifestation of the Body of Christ: the Church. The Lord declared that whereever two or three are gathered, then the Body of Christ is manifest. As people of faith gather together in Digital Space, in discussion forums, in seeking prayer on Twitter and Facebook, in long pointless arguments on Reddit, or the Ship of Fools, how can we deny that their association, in the presence of the Christ who is in all, is not some part of the gathering of the Body of Christ?
It was the Church who pondered, identified and ordered the other sacraments of the Church: recalling those directly instituted by the Lord and recorded in Scripture (Baptism and the Eucharist, making four already) and those inferred by his actions, teaching and the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit: Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation and Healing (making nine). Indeed, if the fingerprints of God may be spotted on all of creation, what can be said to be beyond sacramental grace? Scripture, for example, clearly contains an outward physicality in words (said, inscribed on clay tablets, copied on manuscripts or printed) and an inner reality of the Word. Is all life sacramental?
My work as a priest is to be a conduit of the sacraments: to enable these manifestations of God’s grace to be present. It is not be their guardian or custodian and to keep them from the people but to enable them. We must be clear that the Priest is only God’s avatar, and the work of the Holy Spirit is what brings about these sacraments. In each of these Holy Sacraments, the Holy Spirit is invoked and there is a point of Epiclesis – the meeting of heaven and earth in the power of the Spirit. It has been to the detriment of many in the Catholic Tradition that the work of the Spirit in this sacramental life has been diminished and the detriment of the Charismatic Tradition that the manifestation of the Spirit in the sacraments has been diminished.
Digitally Communicated Sacraments: Digital Mediation
Almost instinctively, the Church ™ has shrunk back from the idea of digitally mediated sacraments, but we should ask ourselves perhaps, what actually is digital mediation? If I require a hearing aid, which is a digital device, have I heard the words of the priest, or have I heard a digitally enhanced, mediated version of it? If I see it pictured on a screen, because the Mass is taking place at the other end of a massive basilica, a megachurch or a field at Greenbelt and is too tiny to see otherwise, have I been present, even though I was unable to see it with any clarity without the Jumbotron screen? If I am prayed for over a Skype session, perhaps for my healing, is that any less that being prayed for in a prayer meeting, or even being prayed for when I am not even present? Dare we place any limit on the power of God, or the efficacy of prayer in any circumstance? The moment we start to place limits is the moment that we try and limit the power of God, which as we all know, cannot be contained. (? Story of the Boy and the Sugarbowl)
In many Churches, digital screens are commonplace, moving beyond projectors (not the best idea for a bright sunny Sunday morning) and with flat screen TVs available for £350, you can even put one in the pulpit of a traditional church without the need for a faculty
In my work as a Parish Priest, as one who gives Spiritual Direction and acts as a Confessor, most encounters still take place face-to-face; and yet there are some which do not. Many of the younger people who see me for Spiritual Direction live in disparate places across the country, and so find Skype and Facebook Messenger to be the ideal medium for such support. Often this Spiritual Direction turns into the Sacrament of Reconciliation, an it does not for a single moment feel any less authentic than a face to face sacrament. Reconciliation with God is sought, advice is given and Absolution assured. For both the penitent and myself we are both confident that God’s grace has been given and so the Sacrament is complete. Given the incomplete nature of the technology as it exists at present, this is one of the sacraments which feels possible now, alongside Christ and the Church and as technology continues to develop, the others will come online (literally and metaphorically) as well.
I have worked on other experiments in this area, particularly in the sacrament of reconciliation, with an Online Confessional based upon one described by Teresa Berger in her excellent book @Worship, and we should recognise that there is a huge need for an act of reconciliation in not only Christian terms, but in a wider sense. The Social Media network Whisper allows the anonymous posting of text and image and for the majority age group serves as both a humorous and poignant confessional. On paper, you should be aware of the PostSecret Project, which we turned into a digitally mediated reflection in itself for Holy Ground in Exeter Cathedral, as it is posted weekly in a blog (PostSecret Video)
When we look to the future, it is impossible to guess where technology will lead us next, for after all, in the 1950s IBM only imagined a market for five or six computers in the world. In a future when the only restraint might be our imagination and creativity, I would suggest that Science Fiction is where hints about future technology and our relationships with it may lie. In the 19th Century Jules Verne wrote fancifully about a Journey to the Moon, and by the latter half of the 20th Century we had achieved that.
When a new medium is first invented, the initial intention of it is seldom envisaged. Do you remember when 3G phone technology was invented, they touted Voice Calling and Messaging, because they had not envisaged the possibilities of the mobile internet. In a previous life, I was a health information guru in the NHS, and we spoke in the 90s of the excitement of bridging the final mile from the workstation to the bedside. And now? The mobile internet has more that bridged that, and is starting to exceed data traffic of traditional PC usage. Similarly, the Internet was primarily a communications network: a vast infrastructure to connect machines and transfer plain text files between Unix systems. As technology and most importantly bandwidth has improved, so the methods of communication have improved and full motion video communications (Skype), picture-based social media (Instagram) and Cat Videos (YouTube) have become the staple methods of communication not just for the children of the digital age, but for their grandparents also.
In the 2018 Spielberg film Ready Player One, the near-apocalyptic real world is largely supplanted by a huge digital one known as the Oasis, a fully immersive environment where one can not only be entertained, but work, learn and effectively live. Its immersion is possible because of the development of haptics which provide feedback to the player. At present this is limited to a shaking gaming seat or a steering wheel but when extrapolated into a complete suit, the separation of person from digital environment is removed and the Platonian shadows on the wall of the cave become inseparable from reality. There is nothing virtual about something that can be physically encountered, which is why Sacraments exist.
In the Oasis, all of human existence is possible, and so that cannot preclude the presence of God and his manifestation into that world. Of course at present, we are only at the beginning of this journey and through a series of thought experiments and sandbox trials we can but hint at the Oasis that is to come. In its present form, the sacramental life beyond the Primordial Sacraments cannot be realised, but there are hints, as we gaze through the letterbox of a monitor at a 3D rendered environment and try to imagine where this will lead us. Ready Player One looks at a world where digital is not merely the means of communication, but is the landscape itself. This is the world that digital evangelists need to be prepared for; where digital liturgy needs to speak, and where all the sacraments of God may find expression.
I have started to experiment with environments such as Gary’s Mod which extends the Valve Engine which created Half Life, Portal and Counterstrike into creating an environment for active Christians and seekers of faith may gather and engage with each other; be fed by God’s Word and enriched in study, prayer and reflection. It is a tantalising foretaste, but highly limited in immersion. The major difference in modifying what started out as a First Person Shooter and the early experiments with faith in Second Life begins with a matter of perspective. At all times in Second Life, the avatar was visible and the disconnect obvious, with with a first person perspective, we are there, even if we don’t understand yet where there might actually be. In the future, further immersion will engender deeper engagement.
Digital Worlds offer unforeseen opportunities, and wherever there are opportunities, God steps in. The digital environment has seen innovative disruption of many traditional businesses and social structures, from Uber to the Cloud-based Office; in the same way as Bitcoin disrupted, undermined and transformed the banking transaction, so perhaps we see glimpses of a… bitSacrament which finds a new way of transacting grace in a digital space.
God is not absent. Christ, the alpha and omega, is in all and over all. The body of Christ in ecclesial form gathers and networks into community. Let us see where God leads us and imagine.
Funeral Reading: 1 Corinthians 15
A reading from the first letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, when he was asked questions about death and the resurrection of the body…
Someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”
How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead:
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;
What is sown in sorrow, it is raised in glory;
What is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
What is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, and when this happens, then the saying that is written will come true:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Yes, thanks be to God! He gives us the victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
Funeral Sermon: Rebekah
Text: 1 Corinthians 15
There is, indeed, a great deal of sadness in this Church today, as we gather together to lay to rest the earthly body of Rebekah – Bex to many of you – and to commend her soul to Almighty God. As we gather to comfort and support one another, to share stories – and pictures of Beck’s huge range of facial expressions, thanks to Matt, we should be reminded of that special person and the special place she had in the lives of all, whether she was to you a daughter, a sister, a beloved grandchild, relative, friend, a fellow service user or as one who received care from you.
As we have heard from Joe, Rebekah was a unique and strong individual: clearly “a tough cookie”, strong willed and resilient. As Joe mentioned, it turns out she was a bit of a Metal fan! With a beautiful smile and bright engaging eyes, as we see in all these wonderful images on her casket, I know she had a special place in the hearts of you all.
Lovingly cared for at home for many years, she then benefitted greatly from the care at Dame Hannah, and I know enjoyed many of the varied activities that service users participated in; from having her own space to trips to the theatre – I understand the Dreamboys were quite popular – the circus and the cinema, pamper nights and being in a supportive environment that enabled her to be a part of a peer group, something important to any young person.
S. Paul spoke to the people of the city of Corinth about all kinds of things, including the significance of life and the relevance of death. Although in this age we do not speak readily of death, we must recognise that death is a part of life. No matter how many years we have on this earth, we all face it; and naturally the Corinthians sought answers to their concerns about what next?
He speaks of this earthly life, and especially this earthly body as a seed: planted in the earth and ready to be transformed, to be conformed into the resurrection body of Christ. This resurrected body of Christ still bore the marks of the nails on his wrists, side and feet, but was utterly changed by the power of God and the victory of the resurrection.
I’m not going to promise you my friends that in Heaven Bex is fully restored to something she wasn’t on this earth, that disability in whatever form is ended, because that would demean the Bex you all encountered, knew and loved. Disability is not a failure in life, but a different journey through it. It carries with it numerous frustrations, tears and challenges, but Bex does not deserve to be written off as something less, but rather valued for who she was. No less a daughter, no less a sister, but (as we all are) a valued individual and a child of God. God values and loves all of us in this world and in the next, and as God gathers her to himself, she is showered in the heavenly love that was shown to her through family, friends and all those who cared for her on this earth.
Although Death is a physical loss to all of us here, and there will be a Bex-shaped hole in your lives from now on, we need to recognise that her death is not the end. Your relationship with Bex is not ended, but it is changed, also transformed, but she still remains with us: in our memories, in our love and in our prayers.
The victory of Christ over sin and death in the triumph of the resurrection points us to an everlasting hope that is available to us all, whether we actively proclaim our Christian faith or whether faith is a private matter, something kept to oneself. Surrounded by the love of God and the company of all heaven, Bex’s life and legacy will stay with you: you will each carry a little piece of Bex with you until the end of your own lives; until we are once again all together in the presence of God, where I am quite sure, the Metallica will be turned up to Eleven.
A sermon by Saint Bernard, abbot, taken from the Office of Readings for All Saints Day
Let us make haste to our brethren who are awaiting us
Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honours when their heavenly Father honours them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.
Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.
Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.
When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honour. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendour with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.
Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession. Amen