St John’s College
dissertation is the product of my own work, and the work of others has been
properly acknowledged throughout.
I would like to acknowledge the support and supervision of
Dr Karen O’Donnell which has been invaluable; for the inspiration of the Rev.
Dr Peter Phillips and for the forbearance of my wife, Lou and my Parish, both
of whom I came close to neglecting during the researching and writing of this
Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet.
That would appear to be that. Three major denominations of
the Church have published positions about the relationship of ‘sacraments’ and ‘the
internet’: products of their time and most significantly a commentary on the
nature of sacramental expression at the current stage of technological
development. Two of these are official documents from the Methodist Faith and
and the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Social Communications,
whereas the Church of England have a paper written by a Bishop as advice to the
Anglican Community of the Second Life virtual environment.
The conclusions of each were cautious and essentially prohibitive.
Each of these documents are attempting to engage with what
forms the research question of this paper: Can the sacraments be properly
revealed in digital space? The question is echoed in all three documents,
and therefore must be a common concern with any Church that seeks to “proclaim
the Gospel afresh in each generation” and
in the light of new technology, new forms of communication and relationship and
a continuously developing sense of theological enquiry. In order to
satisfactorily answer this question, three objections arise from these
documents which must each be considered before coming to any conclusion as to
whether the sacraments may be properly revealed in digital space. These were
articulated most clearly in the opening quotation taken from the Roman Catholic
Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet.
Firstly, there is a question as to whether the presence of
Christ can be located within digital space; then the question of whether the
body of Christ as the Church can be formed within digital space; and lastly the
question of the relationship between ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’ and whether digital
space is merely a substandard substitute for physical ‘analogue’ reality.
Theological reflection, according to Elaine Graham et al
“arises from and informs the three-fold task of nurturing Christian identity,
forming the body of Christ and communicating the Gospel to the wider world.” 
Each of the three areas of objection outlined above can be mapped into Graham’s
framework for reflection: for ‘Christian Identity’ explores the presence of
Christ within digital space; ‘the body of Christ’ is the gathering of the
Church in a digital context and the ‘proclamation of the Gospel’ is how the
incarnate Word of God is revealed in ‘real’, ‘virtual’ or even ‘augmented’
spheres of existence. For this project, therefore, a reflective process enables
a practical outcome in the lived experience of Christians in the modern age by
the consideration of these profoundly theological questions.
Any theological reflection in a new sphere of experience,
such as digital space, cannot simply approach the topic through a lens that had
no conception of the context under study. Traditional methodologies are
therefore inadequate. For this reason, a Constructive Theological methodology
has been adopted.
Constructive Theology is a postmodern theological model
which seeks to develop a comprehensive theological system without the hubris
associated with a full-blown Systematic Theology. The latter seeks to encompass
the mystery of God within a fully deductive metaphysical framework from philosophical
processes. Constructive theology, in contrast, works from a different approach:
from that which is known, from that which can be studied, from a variety of
disciplines and voices from across the globe and across contexts and therefore
builds towards an understanding of God from the ground up.
This enables one to visualise an encompassing theology of a
wide variety of situational theological specialities: the need for a Liberation
Theology, a Black
a Queer Theology
or a Feminist Theology that
does not exist in its own heterodox corner but which is a valid component of
the theological encounter with God in their own right. Jason Wyman notes that Constructive
Theology has been critiqued as merely postmodern relativism, because of the
incorporation of multiple voices and contexts, rather than the voice of
Euro-Atlantic Centrism which has dominated theology since the Renaissance. He rather
insists in response that:
to claim that theology can penetrate to what God actually is, in God’s fullness and essence, in fact relativizes God because it makes God subject to human perception and description. To ignore the constructed nature of the concept of God in all theology subjects God to being made an object that, when scrutinized, is actually a formation of human thought and not Godself. It doesn’t deny, necessarily, the possibility of revelation—as it has been critiqued—but instead denies that even such revelation allows for speech about God that is not essentially a construction of a concept. 
All understanding of God is limited by revelation and human
fallibility, but rather than disregard this frailty in human thinking and
perception, Constructive Theology seeks to embrace it. Wyman further says:
fallibilism is not the same thing as relativism. The fallibilist nature of constructive theology holds that all conceptions of God could be, indeed are, in some way not fully true, and yet we might nonetheless be justified in holding those views. Fallibilism also requires continued engagement and inquiry to test whether what we say about God stands up to the purposes for which our conceptions are developed. If a conception of God cannot speak to the contemporary world, speak to the church, or hold its own in intellectual interrogation, it cannot finally be true speech about God, at least in an eternal sense.
When attempting to consider theologically in a new context,
such as that of digital space, a priori deductive methodologies appear
inadequate, for most were theorized long before the advent of modern
technology. Although many insights can be garnered from antiquity, new
theological responses have to be drawn constructed by the implications of new
technology and the possibilities of digital space.
Theology, when constructed, is a synthesis of experience and
context. It is appropriate therefore to identify the autoethnographic
influences which have underpinned the constructive theological methodology
employed in this project. Steven Pace describes autoethnography as:
gaining momentum as a research method…partly because of the opportunity it provides for writers and others to reflect critically upon their personal and professional experiences.
This is not to suggest that self-reflection is the end
result of a methodology, but that it is another strand of construction that
ensures that the author’s own experience and practice is reflected in the
methodology that is employed, and which cannot be separated from the data
Leon Anderson suggests than an ‘analytic autoethnography’
overcomes any misgivings over the insertion of context into a constructive
theological methodology. He notes that
The purpose of analytic ethnography is not simply to document personal experience, to provide an “insider’s perspective,” or to evoke emotional resonance with the reader. Rather, the defining characteristic of analytic social science is to use empirical data to gain insight into some broader set of social phenomena than those provided by the data themselves. 
My own context has significance in this analysis and has
been the source of some reflection as to how my own internal ecclesiological,
sacramental, technological and theological biases affect my reflective process.
I am an experienced ordained minister within the Church of England and an
Anglocatholic: a Priest who prioritises a sacramental approach to ministry with
significant experience in creative worship, youth work and mission. I am
particularly interested in engaging with technology to support sacramental
ministry and using digital media in the exercise of my Priestly calling.
Embedded within this is my gender, age and culture which has impact on my
relationship to digital culture as an early adopter of Information Technology
in the 1980s, a very early accessor of what would become the Internet through
the 1990s and an experienced programmer which has enabled me to remain in the
vanguard of digital developments. But this brings with it limitations of
experience and practice outside of an affluent, technologically-literate,
white, European, Latin and high-Anglican influenced theology, so wider reading
and consideration is necessary from outside this sphere to ensure a more
comprehensive reading of the texts and the opportunities or challenges that the
emerging digital technologies might have on the sacramental life. By drawing on
a wide cultural and ecumenical range of insights, this methodology offers an
opportunity to address the subject with integrity; and develop a constructive
sacramental theology for digital space, instead of resorting to the
interpretation of the work of many churches through a specifically Anglican
In an emerging field, nomenclature changes quickly.
Significantly, technology has transformed our understanding of culture and the
relationship of both to religion
and so it is important to establish a nomenclature for this moment in time,
recognising that it will quickly become passé. Rather than speak of ‘the Internet’
or ‘cyberspace’, it is more appropriate to term it digital space: a
comprehensive construct which seeks to make sense of all kinds of digital
multimedia stored in places of gathering and information-sharing, rather than
concentrating upon the mechanism through which they are delivered.
Initial interaction with digital space was two-dimensional
and viewed through a screen.
It has progressed from the Information Processing Department, to the office
desktop, to the home and then into the pockets of individuals through
The mechanism which delivered this, the Internet, was primarily a media of communication
– a more sophisticated digital telephone conversation between two decidedly
undigitized individuals. Digital space, however, is developing into an
environment where visualisation, interaction and presence can be defined as a media
of existence, a place where users have a sense of ontological being. This
can be termed an Immersive Digital Environment (IDE) where an engagement
in digital space with another (or a digital simulation of another) is perceived
as a real encounter.
Words abound around digital space such as virtual
which carry with them the supposition that in all circumstances it is not real.
This project will demonstrate that this is not necessarily the understanding
that many participants now have of digital space, and as access to digital
space is no longer a binary act of being ‘online’ or ‘offline’, I will
differentiate between the digital and the analogue. Modern-day
consumers of vinyl records will attest to the authenticity of analogue
recording media whilst not expressing a presupposition of superiority of one
perception of reality over another.
Similarly, theological language can also be confusing and
therefore needs some clarification. Across denominations, there exists a
variety of understandings of sacraments. All sacraments mark the same
key characteristics: a sense of the proximity of God brought about by “an
outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.” In
some Churches there are secondary categories of sacraments, which are often
termed sacramentals which contain some elements of the grace of God but
which are seen as less significant. Both sacraments and sacramentals can
be placed under a further umbrella term which speaks of a mode of Christian
existence which takes great account of them, which I will refer to as the sacramental
This project is a work in progress towards a greater destination
and cannot but explore a small part of theological reflection in this new
sphere of theological discourse. Louis-Marie Chauvet expresses the humility
necessary in critiquing the work of earlier, greater theologians and Churches:
we are not more perspicacious or more intelligent than the theologians of past generations. It is due simply to the fact that we are situated in another cultural age and that we possess instruments of investigation not available in the past. We are not better than our ancestors: we are different. To each culture its theological discourse.
I would hope this project would make a small contribution to
the theological reflection on the presence of sacramentality within digital
space. However, the greatest caveat of all must be that all theology, all
sacraments and all technology are incapable of fully exploring the nature of
that which is God. Denise Carmody sums
God answers only to God. God remains God regardless of how we twist or turn. The audacity of Christian faith is the faith, hope and love it draws from the sacramental life of Jesus the Christ to trust that God’s answer to God, God’s unmoveable sovereignty, is good, blessed, for us human beings. Christian theology draws from this audacity, which it grounds in its acceptance of the resurrection of full meaning and hope in the raising of Jesus from the grave.
We seek answers to the limit of our human understanding. Ben
Quash and Michael Ward suggest that heretical thought develops not because
humans think too expansively of God, but that they fail to recognise that God
is beyond human thinking and try to encapsulate the divine in too small a way. If
orthodox theology is primarily the activity of noticing the presence of God,
then this project is an attempt to notice God’s continuing action within
another part of creation, hitherto unmapped: the digital space.
Chapter Two of this project outlines the history and
development of the sacraments as a manifestation of God, drawing upon classical
and contemporary sacramental theology to set a foundation of tradition upon
which this theological reflection may be constructed. Chapter Three considers
the presence of Christ within digital space, the first of the three objections
to the proper revelation of sacraments in digital space. It samples material
from each of the three document’s objections and reflects upon them in the
light of the narrative of Chapter Two and my autoethnographic experiences. Chapter
Four explores the manifestation of the Church, the body of Christ within
digital space using the same hermeneutic lens employed in Chapter Three.
Chapter Five meets with the most vociferous objection of the
three documents: the representation of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ in
digitality and considers whether the two are on all fours within this
constructed sacramental theology. Chapter Six analyses the future of this
technology and through the hermeneutic of contemporary science fiction seeks to
overcome the objections of the documents under consideration. It concludes that,
in the near future and in the context of
developing technology, there may be a way of properly revealing the sacraments
in digital space by returning to the devotional practice of spiritual
One of the concerns frequently expressed about the presence
of the sacraments in digital space is that it might ‘cheapen’ the sacraments or
in some way make light of them by their representation within a new conceptual
framework. It must be made clear that this project in no way seeks to undermine
the sacraments, but rather recognise them as the central theme of Christian
life, springing from the Incarnation and manifest within the witness of the
At a recent conference, I spoke of the as-yet-unexplored
mission field that is digital space:
Imagine 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? 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 on digital space, the land of the Cyber, the new frontier where because it is currently viewed like a map 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.
This project therefore seeks to be a theological tool for
that mission through a reflection on the three position documents of parts of
the Church and seeks to explore whether the sacraments can be properly
revealed in digital space?
This chapter, in the form of a reflective literature review
seeks to lay out an understanding of the relationship between the sacred, the
profane and the sacramental which contribute to the consideration of sacraments
in digital space. Although the scope of this project encompasses all sacraments
and sacramentals, as defined in Chapter 1, most of the theological work in
history has been in the consideration of the Eucharist: easily the most widely
practised and universally recognised sacrament across denominations.
As the sacrament at the heart of Christian life, according to the Lima Document
the Eucharist represents a model for all sacraments, and so what has been
written and thought about the Eucharist since its institution by Christ should
apply to all expressions of the sacramental life. However, Paul Fiddes at the
2018 CODEC Symposium in Durham, suggested that if one sacrament should the
model for all, it should be Baptism, for it is the foundational sacrament of initiation
which enables access to all the other sacraments and sacramental signs of
The diversity of opinion on the importance and significance
of the sacramental life characterises the breadth of the church on earth.
Andrew Davidson noted that for some Christians, Sacraments form the bedrock of
the spiritual life; and yet for others they are further from the centre.
Yet almost all Christian communities identify some form of sacramental theology.
Even those denominations which explicitly reject a sacramental theology, such
as the Salvation Army,
recognise its importance: even in choosing to reject it.
Patrick Maxwell writes:
When I told someone a while ago that I was reading about a new and controversial ﬁeld known as ‘virtual religion’, he said, ‘But isn’t most religion virtual in its orientation and emphasis?’ By virtual he presumably meant something like ‘trans-empirical’, having to do with souls and spirits and gods and supernatural realms.
Humans have always sought to make sense of the world and in
doing so have concluded in the need for the Other – for the sacred, for
the divine, for the virtual encounter with this ‘Other’. Mircea Eliade asserts
that the trans-empirical sacred only becomes apparent when it is revealed: a hierophany.
Although humankind seeks God, it is only through God’s revelation or hierophany
that God allows himself to be sought. 
Christian doctrine asserts the idea of the incarnation of
God in human form is the ultimate form of this revelation:
the hitherto elusive God chooses to cross the threshold of reality in order to
engage directly with his creation. Kenosis
is an action by God of complete self-giving love for his creation, for Hans Urs
von Balthazar writes “in the Incarnation the triune God has … disclosed
himself in what is most deeply his own.” 
Through kenotic Incarnation, von Balthazar argues we see God’s:
act of making himself known in Jesus Christ: what seems to us to be ‘the accidental truth of history’ is the revelation of his absolute freedom, as this is in God himself, the freedom of eternal self-giving out of unfathomable love.
The connection between God and creation is borne out of this
divine action of graceful giving, a giving which is manifest through the
Incarnation and which continues beyond into the sacraments of the Church.
A transcendent, omnipresent God in human form, argues John
of Damascus, has the capacity for supernatural action because God cannot be
contained in hypostatic union with humanity without such effects, nor can the
whole Trinity not be affected or influenced by the incorporation of Christ’s
The selfless act of the Incarnation is a unique point of meeting between God
and humanity, and brings the two closer through immanence: the presence
of God in the material world as an ongoing process, which is at the centre of
the Christian doctrine of the resurrection and ascension of Christ and the
presence of the Holy Spirit in the world after Pentecost. The ongoing immanence
of God enables humanity to recognise that there are also thin points of time
and place where the sense of the sacred through this immanence may become
heightened. These are liminal places of space which are felt to be
significantly sacred. Joseph Martos
describes sacred space as ‘meaningful space’, but recognises that it is
independent of physical location, for meaning can be made wherever meaning is
The nomad in
search of a new home thrusts his stake into the ground and declares “This is
the centre of the world!” he is not speaking of physical space but of
meaningful space. The next place he performs this ritual will be in a
physically different place, but it will again become the centre of his
meaningful living space. 
People gather at set times of the year, when seasons change
or in memorial of a past event and often at identifiably sacred places in order
to conduct their rituals. These ritual actions themselves also have the
possibility to create liminality, and in performing them, the presence of God
may be keenly felt. The concept of liminality is important in this discussion
because the sacraments themselves and the ritual that surrounds them are
liminal points: where the presence of God may also be keenly felt. The sacramental
life is where specific examples of God’s action spill over into the created
world, and these form points of encounter with God in the sacred: where God’s
acts of healing, reconciliation, presence, unity and grace are made known.
These definitions which combine the sacred and the profane
in a liminal connection between the action of God and the subject or recipient
of them is important because it removes the insistence that physicality is
essential for the revelation of God in the sacramental life. Sacraments
therefore become not a metaphysical extension of a physical reality but a
phenomenological sign of the immanence of God. Maquarrie suggests that:
God is not only a transcendent reality beyond the world he has made, but an immanent reality who dwells within his world and is active in it. I believe that if we are to arrive at an adequate understanding of sacramentality, we need to have a strong sense of the divine immanence.
Divine immanence moves the action of God within the created
world beyond the point of Incarnation, through the activity of the Holy Spirit.
This was repeatedly sounded in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Wisdom
Paul emphasized the immanence of God to the Athenians in the meeting of the
Areopagus. God “is not far from each one
of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.”
Martos claims that sacraments are a feature of virtually all
religious traditions both inside and outside of Christianity and function as doors
to the sacred, as invitations to religious experiences.
However, it must be recognised that sacred ritual, in Christian understanding,
is not a form of summoning the sacred, nor exercising power over it. The
invitation to a sacred encounter always comes from God and is not as a result
of the ritual action of the priest or community. John Maquarrie says on this
we can never
manipulate God or have him at our disposal. It is unfortunately the case
that sometimes the sacraments have been misunderstood as a kind
of magic. We can indeed wait upon God at set times or in particular
places or in such practices as prayer and eucharistic worship. But it is
not our faith or our expectation or our activity, still less is it the
power of the priest, that produces the encounter with God. He
has always got there before us. Sacraments are not human inventions
to summon God at our convenience. 
This is especially important to bear in mind when a Church,
or a theologian especially, tries to limit sacramental action, because all
these supposed limitations come from the recipient of the sacrament, not its
initiator. Maquarrie further says that “sacraments can never be a way of
controlling God, a magical way of conjuring up his presence.”
If God wills to be active within digital space, then God certainly has the
power to do so.
The dominant theological model of the sacramental life in
the Church has been the metaphysical: a
preoccupation with the cause and effect, substance and being inherited from
Aristotle from his book of Physics through the thinking of Thomas
However, metaphysics focuses attention upon the sacramental elements themselves
and is bound up with the physicality of sacramental signs: bread, wine, oil and
water, even when many sacramental signs cannot be specifically physically
located. A good example would be laying on of hands or marriage. Martin
Heidegger established a critique of metaphysics which rejects the scholastic
tendency to ever-smaller introspection and instead embraces a wider
consideration of all objects in terms of what they are, ontologically.
Edward Schillebeeckx extended the Heidiggerian focus of
being and considered the sacramental life not through the lens of metaphysics,
but by using phenomenology: the
study of things as they seem, of experience and consciousness from a
first-person perspective. In
Christ the Sacrament of the encounter with God Schillebeeckx begins his
exploration of the sacramental life from reappraising what the nature of the
sacramental sign is: a relational encounter with God and asserting that most
‘primordial’ sacramental sign is that of Christ himself: 
an action of God in Trinity, manifest in physical form as the word made flesh
and of God because of his divinity. Christ makes visible, Schillebeeckx argues,
the relationship between God and humanity.
From this sacramental action through the Incarnation, the
second primordial sacrament is established: the Church, with outward physical
form in the individual members of the Body of Christ and with inward grace
derived from the working action of the Holy Spirit, descended at Pentecost
and manifest in the missio dei.
Christ begets the Church, and the Church, through the medium
of Scripture and the locus of the Word, repeats the sacramental cycle in which
the sacraments are revealed.
From this sacramental model, one can find the same sacramental fingerprints in
most areas of creation, for the Word and the Church define the canon of
Scripture for example, which outwardly signifies the stories of God and
inwardly reveals the “God-breathed” inspiration
of the Holy Spirit. Scripture can therefore be sacramental, most especially as
it conforms to a revelation of God: a notion that is manifest in early
sacramental theology and subsequently lost somewhere along the way.
Schillebeeckx suggests that a sacrament is, fundamentally, a
bidirectional encounter between God and humanity in which God bestows grace and
in which humanity responds with love and worship.
This enables a seamless incorporation of the sacramental character of the
Church and the Incarnation “which includes the bestowal of the Word on the
humanity of Jesus and Jesus’ human response of ecstatic love and praise”
into a coherent sacramental theology. The result enables, according to
Schillebeeckx, the Incarnation and the Church to mediate the ontological gap
between humanity and God,
with the sacraments becoming instruments of that mediation. Any instrument of
creation, therefore, can become a mediation between God and humanity and in
effect become a sacramental sign.
Louis-Marie Chauvet develops the phenomenological framework,
also beginning from Martin Heidegger, within a postmodern environment and
the fact that Christian identity cannot be separated from the sacraments (in particular those of initiation) means that faith cannot be lived in any other way, including what is most spiritual in it, than in the mediation of the body, the body of a society, of a desire, of a tradition, of a history, of an institution, and so on. What is most spiritual always takes place in the most corporeal. 
Chauvet recognised the significance of hierophany as central
to the human-God relationship when he noted that “God has need of humans to
become God, just as humans have need of God to realize themselves.”
At the heart of the sacramental life is a ‘Gift-Exchange’ between God and creation.
This is entirely dependent upon the Incarnation of the Son, which incorporates
humanity into the Trinity itself: a radical and generous act which is not
achievable by human effort but only by grace, freely given and manifest in the
generosity of God to allow such kenosis into that perichoretic relationship.
O’Connor writes of Chauvet:
What is not in dispute is the need for an appreciation of the severe limitation of theological language; all discourse relating to the divine must have this feature. But, for Chauvet, in the case of scholastic theology this does not go far enough. This is because the framework itself is contaminated by a thinking which tries to fit the theology into human categories, beginning with those categories and not with the divine subject at hand, the divine mystery and the cultic intersubjectivity, the interaction of God and man, at the heart of the sacramental life.
Chauvet recognises the significance and importance of
language as a symbolic pointer to God’s sacramental action: “humans conduct
themselves as if they were masters of language, while in fact it is language
that governs them.” 
He returns to the importance of ritual language within the rite itself as “not
informative, but performative, not descriptive but evocative” 
and therefore rediscovers in phenomenological terms that which is most
significant for this project: that it is the ritual which is the focus of the
sacrament rather than the end result of that ritual.
It has been necessary to provide a sacramental landscape on
which the question of the revelation of sacraments in digital space may be
considered. Because of the disembodied nature of digital space, a metaphysical
interpretation of sacraments immediately falls because of the lack of
physicality. yet by taking a phenomenological approach, the perception of
sacramental signs becomes supremely important: any sacrament which acts as a
“sign of a sacred thing” as Augustine described
and can be perceived by a participant as acting as such, becomes valid.
Perception is multisensory and not limited to the imagination, although all
sensory perceptions have a nature of being and a nature of mediation. This
therefore lays a groundwork in which the sacred may be made manifest in digital
space and the immanence of God may become apparent in hierophanous revelation.
This chapter addresses the first of the three problems that
the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Church of England position statements cite as
being a barrier to the representation of sacraments in digital space: can Jesus
be said to be present in digital space? In Chapter 2, it was identified that
all sacraments emanate from Christ, the primordial sacrament, so His presence
in digital space is a necessary foundation for the construct of this
sacramental theology. This chapter will explore the scriptural basis for an
argument that Christ is indeed present in all creation and the work of recent
digital theologians in this sphere.
The Psalmist writes:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
in acknowledgement of the presence of God in all creation.
There are no geographical limits in that the Psalmist cannot consider the
presence of God, even in Sheol, which was described as a specifically
geographical location even though it referred to a temporal afterlife. However, God’s presence is not limited in scripture or
liturgy to space, but also time. In the Vigil Mass of Easter, whilst
marking the Paschal Candle as a symbol of the resurrected light of Christ,
speaks of Him as:
Christ yesterday and today;
the Beginning and the End;
the Alpha and the Omega.
All time belongs to him;
and all the ages.
To him be glory and power;
through every age and for ever. Amen.
As these words are spoken, the cross, the alpha and omega
letters and the date are inscribed on the candle. These words are an allusion
to the book of Revelation
and places Christ within a framework overreaching time. This liturgy highlights
the presence of Christ throughout all time. To speak of God is always to speak
implicitly of Christ. The Word, which “was in the beginning
in the incarnated form of Jesus Christ, is both a product of the material world
and its progenitor; the divine presence suffused through all creation. Bringing
time and space together in this way implies that Christ is the power which
brings about this union in the manifestation of the Church, the Pauline author
writes to the people of the city of Colossae:
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The fingerprints of God are on all creation. Christ seeks to
reconcile the world once more to God through the proclamation of his message.
As a result, salvation becomes entirely conditional on a response to the
message of Jesus Christ. For example, Paul writes to Timothy: “For there is one
God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus,
himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
That tiny group of people, Gerald O’Collins notes, who constituted the Church
of the first century were utterly convinced that Jesus Christ was universally
and absolutely significant for the redemption of all human beings. If
we hold onto this absolute declaration on the relationship with Christ as being
necessary for salvation, there is both a theological and a missional need to
recognise that both the peoples of the past and the peoples of the world as yet
undiscovered, can also have access to the grace of God through Christ.
So a missionary arriving into a new town might well persuade
an individual that Christ is indeed their saviour, and yet the individual might
be concerned about the eternal safety of his forebears who had died before this
missionary arrived; alternatively, the notion that a remote island would be
damned simply because Christians had not yet discovered that place might also
be problematic, for these indigenous people had not been given the opportunity
to hear the missionary message.
In answer to these concerns, O’Collins documents the
Church’s pastoral response to these issues. The Apostle’s Creed asserts that
Jesus “descended to the dead”,
a time where Jesus evangelised and converted the dead in the harrowing of
hell. Addressing those of other traditions and
locations, O’Collins paraphrases John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptor Hominisin
which he identifies that:
St. Justin, Clement of Alexandria and others saw in the non-Christian religions and cultures various ‘semina Verbi’ (seeds of the Word), reflections of Christ’s mysterious presence… even if he was never consciously known, he was (and is) actively present to bring all people to the fullness of life.
An assertion, like Cyprian of Carthage’s, that there is “no
salvation outside of the Church”
can only be truly valid when the concrete church encompasses all time and
geography, which it clearly does not, and this requires a loophole. It is
therefore not possible to manifestly declare that Christ cannot be
present in digital space because the above argument always allows for the
possibility. If the seeds of the Word can be identified in digital
space, then the fingerprints of Christ may be identified on that sphere of
Daniella Zuspan-Jerome notes that
Sacramental theology has long reflected on the concept of mediated presence, especially when exploring how we encounter Christ in the Eucharist. By maintaining the Eucharist as a standard of communication becoming full communion, the concept of mediated presence yields multiple layers of meaning, including Christ’s real presence in the eucharistic elements, his presence as Word proclaimed, his presence in the presider, and his presence in the assembly gathered in his name.
Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a mediated presence
itself. Andrew Byers suggests that because the Incarnation rips a hole between
heaven and earth which were hitherto irreconcilable without the action of God,
the heavens are no further from digital space than the analogue world is. 
Furthermore, Theresa Berger suggests that God’s
self-communication has always been mediated in manifold ways and that divine
self-disclosure, in other words, God himself is a ‘media event,’ and often a
multi-mediated one, for that matter, in the form of hierophany. She cites
Philipp Stoellger, noting that God communicates in and through “media
practices,” and at the heart of God’s ‘Medienpraxis’ is a decisive change of
medium as God’s Word becomes flesh.
Byers similarly describes God as revealing Godself in and through TheoMedia,
a multimediated expression ranging from creation and divine speech to the
ultimate TheoMedium: Jesus Christ.
Zsupan-Jerome states that:
in the modern and postmodern era, theological reflection on Christ’s eucharistic presence began to shift to consider an increasingly phenomenological approach: the contextual, relational reality of Christ being there, not only objectively, but subjectively a being there for us…Presence is therefore a relational category. 
Paul emphasised that Christian relationship is expressed by
being “in Christ.” Participants
within digital space, therefore, seeking that relationship, can only do so if
Christ is present within the digital context. Tim Hutchings’ studies of participants
in online churches report that significant numbers report a sense of divine
presence in their activity. 
Where the relationship exists, Christ must be present.
None of the documents from the Roman, Methodist or Anglican
Churches explicitly deny that Christ is present within digital space, but
neither do they make any attempt to encourage the idea. Most clarion is the
statement in the Roman document that “virtual reality is no substitute
for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist” 
but the argument of this project is that digital space is not a separate
reality but a transformed reality and so if Christ is held to be present in the
analogue world, so he must be present in digital also: it is not an option of
either/or. If Christ is to be present, then he is present everywhere.
Sacraments are the liminal mechanism where that presence is most keenly
This chapter speaks to another essential question which
needs to be addressed before sacraments can be represented in digital space:
whether the Church itself exists in such an environment. The three position statements from the Roman
Catholic, Methodist and Anglican Churches each wrestle with a number of issues
about the relationship between themselves and digital space. In this section,
the nature of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ will be contrasted with
the reality of people, their varying spiritualities and fallenness and their
institutions which form the earthly church; then the nature of community will
be examined, and the extent to which digital space affords the opportunity for
the development of any community, let alone a community of faith. All sense of
Christian community begins with God, and the Trinity: a perfect model of living
in mutual love and equality. The human struggle has been to try to emulate
Nicholas Healey described the Church as manifest in two
distinct forms: the concrete church
which is the representation of the Church on earth, its fallible people, its
buildings, its denominations and their various doctrines; this is very
different to what he described as the blueprint
church which is the model Bride of Christ, the heavenly model upon which
the concrete church is modelled. Both the blueprint and concrete church only
exist in relationship to the person of Jesus Christ. All concrete manifestations
of Church are modelled upon the blueprint church, even though they frequently
fall short of that aspiration. This project therefore argues that any gathering
of people of faith which is modelled upon the blueprint becomes a concrete
church, regardless of its actual existence in physical space. As the Church is
always the body of Christ, it does not require a cathedral of brick, and pixels
would equally suffice.
The Roman Catholic position document speaks of the need “to
lead people from cyberspace to true community,”
ignoring the features of true community that are reflected in a community
gathered in digital space, and given as examples in this chapter.
Community is formed from many different networks. Although
geography was one of the first ways in which networked communities existed,
formed around the people you lived with. Now identity and community are a much
more complex construct. Individuals may feel connected by more than proximity:
language, faith, culture and even preferences for football teams, music and TV
shows are part of the multiple networks with which someone might choose to
identify. This multiplicity of bonds existed before the information age, but
since its explosion has found full expression, and in many significant ways,
accelerated the fragmentation of traditional groupings into a myriad of
subcultures and tribes, many of which overlap. Rachel Wagner stresses that “a
network dos not necessarily entail a community. It simply creates the
conditions under which these might occur.”
When networks, which are purely practical groupings, recognise their own
existence and through that gain self-identity, they become community as they
fulfil the criteria established by David McMillan and David Chavis:
- membership: a feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense
of personal relatedness,
- influence: mattering, making a
difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members,
- reinforcement: the integration
and fulfillment of needs,
- a shared emotional connection.
This is a necessarily fluid definition, but equally applies
to both concrete church communities and those which gather in the digital
space. Rheingold further identifies that:
virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net
when enough people carry on public discussion long enough, with sufficient
human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.
The McMillan and Chavis definition emphasises the emotional
importance of a community, which is particularly resonant for a Church
community that is entirely focused upon interrelation as the Body of Christ and
a developing relationship with Jesus Christ, all of which is significantly
personal and emotional in emphasis.
Gatherings of Christians in Reddit discussion threads, the Ship-of-Fools boards and
Virtual Churches created in Minecraft,
Roblox or Second Life
all confirm to these descriptions of the formation of an actual community.
Harwig et al described the usage of Mijn Kirk, a Dutch online church by
participant and recorded that many saw it as an adjunctive community,
an online expression of something they already do in the analogue world, but
also found for some it is the only form of Christian community they can access.
The group ‘Disability and Jesus’
are strong advocates of the reality of online gathering which is a lifeline to
physically and socially isolated individuals whose disabilities or mental
health issues prevent them from accessing community found in bricks and mortar.
Dave Lucas, one of the group’s founders, describe themselves as:
emerging as an online community of the dispersed and scattered, those that find themselves estranged from church. Those that the church may too easily dismiss as fallen away but that may describe themselves as having been pushed out, left behind or ignored. Those who are unable to access church not just physically but intellectually too. Over 2000 people a day now say the Ordinary Office. In Holy Week this year we held online services with an average participation of over 500 and with a Twitter following of over 13500. We describe the experience as alone together.
If participants think, therefore, that they belong to a
community, one needs to consider whether they behave like a community: Howard
Rheingold notably says “People in virtual communities do just about everything
people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind.” Not
only do participants undertake the normal activities of church interaction:
prayer, support and fellowship, but as Kevin Coe et al. record, participants in
real as well as online communities behave badly towards each other as well. Relational
activities do not necessarily require embodiment, as attested by the large
numbers of people who develop romantic relationships online,
and those who report relationship with Christ and with fellow participants in
The Methodist position document notes that
it is taken for granted that the use of electronic means of communication in Christian worship, education and mission will create ‘online’ or ‘virtual’ communities, though the precise nature and ecclesial status of such communities must await future treatment.
This is a prescient statement recognising that future
developments with faith in digital space may be possible but comes with an
underlying assumption that online equals virtual and that equates with a
pretend form of ekklesia.
The Roman Catholic position document goes further in stating
that “even the religious experiences possible there [in digital space] by the
grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other
persons of faith.” This
critique makes an assumption that the online individual is shouting into a
void; whereas in reality, their voice is heard, and responded to, by a myriad
of other human voices, spread throughout the digital space. Digital space may
indeed contain what a game might describe as Non-Player-Characters (NPCs)
but these are usually differentiated
from real-life Avatars by the system. Additionally, as the Turing Test
has not yet definitively been passed by an Artificial Intelligence, religious
interaction with NPCs would be easily identifiable.
Christopher Helland records the initial misgivings about
ascribing digital space as a place worthy of sacred encounter:
When the Internet was still a relatively new technological advancement, online ritual activity was limited to text-based interactions, either in real-time chat or by posting on bulletin boards and listserves. Despite what would seem to be a minimal form of engagement, ritual activities were adapted by religiously enthusiastic people so they could be performed online. When this began to happen, most academics ignored this new activity, believing it to be inauthentic, superficial, and more of a “game” than a real form of religious engagement. Some of the most frequent forms of online ritual were those associated with prayer and prayer requests on bulletin board systems. Although rarer in its early forms, due to technological constraints and the limited number of people experimenting and using IRC “chat” software, rites and liminal rituals were also conducted online.
Christ declared that “where two or three are gathered
together in my name, I am there among them”
and so this project needs to consider the significance as well as the means by
which the faithful may gather and thus form an environment when they may recognise
the presence of Christ. Heidi Campbell thus describes digital space “as a place
that can be set apart for ‘holy use’ enabling people to describe online
activities as part of their religious life.” Christian
Harwig et al. describe in ethnographic terms an online church in the
Netherlands: Mijn Kirk and record a variety of responses from
participants, none of which saw the gathering of people within a digital space
The Roman Catholic position document notes that the nature
of digital space is and will continue to be an influence on even
long-establishes ecclesial structures, particularly in the interaction between
Church and participant:
Already, the two-way interactivity of the Internet is blurring the old distinction between those who communicate and those who receive what is communicated, and creating a situation in which, potentially at least, everyone can do both. This is not the one-way, top-down communication of the past. As more and more people become familiar with this characteristic of the Internet in other areas of their lives, they can be expected also to look for it in regard to religion and the Church.
Margaret Wertheim writes “the ‘spiritual’ appeal of cyberspace lies precisely in this paradox: It is
a repackaging of the old idea of Heaven, but in a secular, technologically
Nancy Baym noted “the tendency is to think about new
technologies deterministically, asking what they do to us, and whether that is
good or bad.”
A sensationalist media will always highlight the negative possibilities of a
new technology whilst wholeheartedly utilising it. In the same way, the forming
of community in a digital space is heralded as a threat to other forms of
community, and a digital gathering of church is lamented as the death knell of
more traditional forms of Christian engagement. Yet, both still co-exist.
For some, church expressions in digital space will be the
Church people belong to because they do not have the access (perhaps through
geography, mental state or disability) to meet with others in a physical
location. For them, this is what they need. For others, it is an adjunct to a
regular Christian community: perhaps like visiting the Cathedral every-so-often
for a change of style, community and teaching. For them, this is what they
need. Although Churches have expressed concerns that the digital space as a
distraction from real world physical church,
it should perhaps be viewed more constructively as part of a mixed economy of
Paul Fiddes spoke of the “internal logic of a virtual world”
where regardless of the response to it by external sources of authority, a
gathering in digital space may choose to describe itself as a Church. If it
functions as a Church within the logic of digital space, then it must be so.
This logic of Fiddes goes on to explore how, again within the logic of the
system, this Church would need to construct some form of sacramental economy,
which for its participants can be as effective a means of grace as other
symbols within the real world.
Chapters 3 and 4 of this project outlined the arguments for
the presence of Christ and the Church within digital space, and having
established their legitimacy, the final barrier needs to be overcome: the
anxiety that the virtual reality of digital space is but a poor substitute for
the reality of the everyday. To answer this, it is necessary to examine the
nature of reality as perceived by humans, and as a mediatised construct in
digital space. Next, the project must consider the nature of the participant in
digital space, significantly the relationship between the Avatar and the
individual in theological and ontological terms; finally there needs to be a
discussion of the reality of the simulacrum, in Baudrillardian terms, as a form
of digital reality defined by the perception of its users.
The use of phrases like ‘Virtual Reality’ implies that all
things digital are simulations of real objects, representations or signs of
another reality and therefore have no unique nature or ontology. However, as
a representation of an object in another form becomes so accepted that it
becomes the form itself, a simulacrum of the original. The confusion especially
arises when we debate what is the outward form of a sacrament itself: are bread
and wine, oil and water merely simulacra of the sign which points to God’s
action in the world?
On a most empirical level, of course, the digital sphere
does not exist. It is a construction of electronic signals hosted within a
computerised system: the moment the electricity ceases to flow, the digital is
lost. However, just as all perceptions are mediatised
this ultimate form of mediatisation should not be so readily discarded as an
Richard Bartle clearly differentiates between the real –
that which is; the imaginary – that which isn’t; and the virtual
– that which isn’t but which has the form and effect of that which is.
Written in 2004, Bartle was only able to have an inkling of where technological
developments would take his definition of the virtual. We need therefore
to expand his definition to that which isn’t, but which enables a lived
existence in the form and effect of that which is which is indistinguishable
from the real. This recognises the huge developments in technology and the
refinement of our understanding of the ontological implications of inhabiting a
digital space potentially indistinguishable from an analogue one.
All human engagement is mediatised and contextual
and Pete Ward states further that all encounters with the Divine are mediatised
by God’s revelation. It is only a small step to further conclude
that the Incarnation itself is a mediatised revelation of God, the media being
flesh, blood and human consciousness. Mediatisation does not make the subject
less authentic, for as Baudrillard
identifies, when a thing mediatised or represented is indivisible from the
original, it becomes the original.
For many, the boundary between online and offline is no
longer distinct. Christopher Helland says:
As Internet technology has developed, people’s level of engagement with the online environment has changed significantly. Over the past 30 years there have been revolutionary changes in the way we go online and the things we can do with this new form of media. Many people using the Internet no longer distinguish between life-online and life-offline – rather, “being online” has become a part of their life and social existence.
Yet, Christopher Hill, in writing the Church of England
position document makes a clear separation of life online and life offline, and
the perception of Second Life is coloured by the insistence that the Second
Life avatar is a fictional construct rather than an extension to the
individual’s reality. He states that
it is clear that sacraments are ‘graceful’ inter-personal encounters between real people… At first instance the adoption of an avatar seems to add a barrier to direct personal encounter, almost like a mask. Such communication is not only electronic rather than face-to-face, it is also, at least in some circumstances, a disguising of the person. On the other hand all human communication, including direct face-to-face encounter involves a projection through facial and bodily gestures; posture; clothes; make-up; jewellery; regalia; uniforms; vesture.
So, whilst recognising that human interaction is mediatised,
Hill remains trapped in the conversation between the physical and the digital.
The Methodist position document was primarily focused upon
the request to use digital space as a means of communication rather than
a means of existence: a Methodist Presbyter in one location is not able
to celebrate and by use of a digital link consecrate bread and wine in another
location. This was described in that document as ‘remote communion’. This is
fundamentally different from sharing that sacrament within that digital
space. Paul Fiddes speaks of the internal logic of digital space which
speaks only to events and rituals which happen internal to the system, as a means
of existence, rather than as sophisticated telephony.
The construct used to signify the representation of the
participant within digital space is an Avatar. Classically, an Avatar is
a Hindu theological hierophany – the descent of the divine into the world.
According to Mirceau Eliade, all religion is based on the felt need to overcome
the primal separation between the sacred and the profane.
He argues that hierophany is the essential object of all religion, which is a
manifestation of the divine reality, or that which brings the sacred to life in
the ordinary human domain, whether the divine manifestation takes the form of
an object, a symbol, a natural phenomenon, a book, or a consecrated human
Within digital space, the Avatarbecomes the eyes and
ears, hands and feet
of the participant and it is through this Avatar that he or she experiences the
digital space and interacts with it. Initially, in games like the Sims
the perspective was in the third-person: you could see the Avatar and the
participant was external to it. However, many games such as Doom
or Borderlands have progressed to the first-person and the
participant looks through the eyes of the Avatar. Instead of puppetry by
strings, the user is inside the Avatar. The only portion of the Avatar visible
being the hands as they extend forward to interact with the digital
environment. This vastly changes the perception of participation and the Avatar
and participant become, within the economy of that digital space, ontologically
connected: The Avatar becomes a complete extension of the user, indivisible,
– theologically the same – with the user within that economy.
Restricted by the limitations of visual technology, up until
recently, the encounter with digital worlds has been much like an examination
of the outside world by peering through a letterbox. Recent developments,
particularly in the sphere of virtual headsets, the Immersive Digital
Environment offers to become a liminal space where other humans and the
sacred may be found. In additional to audio-visual stimuli, haptic suits and
olfactory units can greatly expand the multisensual environment that not merely
mimics the real world in a digital environment but becomes a digital version of incarnation: in-digitalisation
if you like.
In the Church of England position document, Hill does not
relate the Second Life Avatar to the hierophanical, seeing (at the time)
the screen and the third-person perspective as a separation of digital and
analogue, of online and offline. Sheth and Solomon certainly disagree with this
notion, and they
propose that in today’s digital world, the environment adapts to the self, as much, if not more, than the self adapts to the environment. By this, we mean that each individual increasingly lives in a one-off world of his or her own making
They suggest that profound technological and cultural shifts
have blurred the boundaries between the corporeal person and external stimuli,
citing developments which “include digital interfaces and material goods that
stretch and even dissolve the border between self/not self.”
Those immersed in digital culture (whether by choice or simply by being born
within the culture of information) do not make the distinction between being
online and offline because of the ready accessibility of network bandwidth and
the smartphone with which to engage with it.
An Avatar normally has no separate agency or free will. A Second Life
Avatar has no consciousness, and yet is a separate entity to the user that
directs it by keyboard and mouse. Yet, whilst the Incarnation of Jesus Christ
is most clearly a hierophany, one must be careful before ascribing to Christ
the nature of a remote pilot for an earthly Avatar, for Sheth
in comparing Christian and Hindu concepts of Avatars and Incarnation identifies
that an Avatar is a Docetic construction: a belief that the Avatar is merely an
outward form of human appearance. Docetism conflicts with the orthodoxy defined
at the Council of Chalcedon (451CE) concerning the hypostatic union of God and
Incarnation contains the powers and awareness of an imminent God: an
interference in the world, made because of humanity’s free will.
The Incarnation of Christ is a deeper engagement of God in the created world
than a mere action of Docetic puppetry. Thus God, in incarnated human form, is
not an Avatar but a true Baudrillardian simulacra of that person of the
Trinity. Fiddes concludes in his paper on Sacraments in a Virtual World
that although digital Avatars operate and function within a digital world, as
an ontological extension of the individual, their experiences are shared by the
participant for whom they act, furthermore:
Avatars do not, however, worship merely an avatar-God because there is only one God, for whom person and persona are identical and in whom ‘all things live and move and have their being’, including the beings of virtual worlds.
The Methodist position document expresses misgivings about
the disembodied nature of digital space:
in the sphere of electronic communication, the idea of ‘presence’ is essentially cognitive and disembodied; though it may be clearly visible in one sense, such visibility is intangible. The term ‘social media’, often used to describe certain forms of electronic communication, is somewhat ironic since the ability of such means to establish what might concisely be termed ‘social presence’ is inherently limited. The capacity to assume a false identity is an extreme example of the way in which social media facilitate ‘social absence’ at least as much as ‘social presence’.
Theresa Berger, however, challenges the critique of the
virtual as “disembodied”. She notes that although many see digital space as
disembodied and thus deeply deficient, Christian worship’s foundational
materiality is bound up with the bodies of worshippers. In her response, she
suggests that no digital world can be entered, no website accessed, and no app
installed without a body. Digitally mediated practices too are bodily practices
and digital space is simply not possible as a wholly disembodied,
This unplugging from the physical is central to the
representation of sacraments in digital space. Physicality is a purely
metaphysical state of being: Thomas Aquinas requires that physicality
(‘sensible things’) are required for the sacraments, and suggests that word
(the disembodied) and water (the physical) together are the signs of Baptism. However, even at present, a sacrament in
digital space is at least partially ‘sensible’ – and can be seen and heard, if
not felt or smelt. Future immersive technologies may be possible with haptic
suits and olfactory systems which become simulacra of sensible matter. Pastorally,
the Church does not exclude people with disabilities or head injuries, whose
smell, taste, vision or hearing are impaired from sacramental engagement
because they are not entirely sensate. It would be deeply troubling and
pastorally insensitive to deny the sacramental effectiveness of the
administration of healing at the end of someone’s life (‘the last rites’) to an
unconscious dying person, even when we have no idea whether that individual is
aware of the sacramental act being administered. To push this thought
experiment further, an individual in an isolation tank, given a host on the
tongue has still received the sacrament even if the only sense involved was
that of taste. So, partial sensibility, as already available within digital
space would be adequate signs of physicality on a phenomenological level to
overcome the concerns of the disembodiment of digital space.
The Methodist concern about ‘false identity’ is echoed by
the Roman Catholic position document
but from different perspectives. The Methodist document is concerned that
digital space can be used to ‘hide’ or ‘insulate’ a participant from community
as their true self whereas the Roman document worries that sites which purport
to speak authentically as the Church do so with legitimacy and authority. Both
concerns are legitimate concerns, but bring us back to the nature of self, of
being and of presentation. In the non-digital world, I can choose to appear as
an itinerant or a person of wealth or refinement, an educated individual in the
lecture room and a jovial, earthy individual in the local pub: to each
environment I am curating myself in order to either fit in or to stand out: I
choose what to disclose and what to sublimate. In the same way, a participant
within digital space has the same opportunities to disclose or to sublimate but
as Nancy Byers notes, the canvas is
blanker and wider than ever before in digital space.
Patrick Maxwell recognised that optimists regard digital
space as fully capable of enhancing the human condition and improving mutual
understanding and human well-being, even whilst pessimists regard digital space
as dangerous because it leads to shallowness, escapism, individualism, elitism,
addiction and capitalistic commodiﬁcation.
These responses are likely to cloud the individual’s response to the
presentation of a sacrament within digital space. The participant does not
leave themselves, their emotional baggage or concerns at the door of either the
digital or the sacred space but integrates them into their worship. This
chapter has demonstrated that digital space is a legitimate plane of existence
and an adjunct to analogue life without being a hindrance to it. As life, being
and relationships may be increasingly expressed within the context of digital
space, so it is legitimate that the recognition of its validity, and therefore
the validity of all kinds of expressions of the church within digital space
will become acceptable: another sacred space amongst many.
Chapter 6: Just
over the horizon
In 1968 the Sword of Damocles was created by Ivan
Sutherland and Robert Sproull
in order to prove the concept of controlling visual perspective by a
headmounted display, and thus create in simple terms and at very low resolution
an artificial reality. As technology has developed the quality and texture of
what is seen has developed hugely, and the means of accessing it has become, at
present, a little more affordable. Microsoft Corporation’s vision statement of
the 1980s and 1990s was “a computer on every desktop” 
and that has now been hugely exceeded with a smart computer in the pocket.
Smartphone penetration has reached a significant proportion of the world’s
It is therefore not inconceivable that a cost-effective means of access to a
fully immersive IDE may become available to much of the world within a
short period of time.
Many of the shortcomings of the three position documents are
hampered by their consideration of the present (as it was) nature of the
technologies and not an envisioning of what might be. For a glimpse of what
might be possible, both technically and philosophically, this project turns not
just to the academic papers of Computer Science but also to science fiction,
for the scientist seeks only to document the present and describe what is,
whereas the poet looks beyond the horizon to what may be.
was, in 1984, the first novel to describe the totally immersive digital space
which William Gibson termed cyberspace. It posited that Information
Technology would present a digital reality which was indistinguishable from
analogue reality. Access to the cyberspace was via a neurobiological link,
reminiscent of that seen in the 1999 film, The Matrix.
In this classic work of science fiction film, humans are permanently
harnessed into a virtual reality in order to be a power source for their
Artificially Intelligent robot overlords, and most are oblivious to it. The
Matrix is filled with religious and philosophical questions and posits a
religious worldview influenced by both Buddhism and Christianity.
Parallels between the protagonist Neo and Christ are numerous, even featuring a
resurrection at the intervention of a character called Trinity and a
Buddhist-like transcendence achieved through understanding which gives Neo
Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline looks to the dystopian near future of 2044 where all
activity has become focused upon the Internet’s successor: the OASIS – a
complete Immersive Digital Environment accessible by almost everyone. The
principle character, Wade, says in the film version:
people come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be: tall, beautiful, scary, a different sex, a different species, live action, cartoon, It’s all your call…Except for eating, sleeping, and bathroom breaks, whatever people want to do, they do it in the OASIS. And since everyone is here, this is where we meet each other. It’s where we make friends.
To date, Ready Player One describes the most
immersive digital experiences that is blended with the analogue in fiction. All
human (and quite a lot of quasi-human activity as well) is encountered there,
and faith is also practiced there:
Mrs. Gilmore was a total sweetheart. She let me crash on her couch when I needed to, although it was hard for me to sleep there because of all her cats. Mrs. G was super-religious and spent most of her time in the OASIS, sitting in the congregation of one of those big online megachurches, singing hymns, listening to sermons, and taking virtual tours of the Holy Land.
This appears to be a natural extension of the real online
church communities described by Tim Hutchings.
When reality catches up with the technology envisaged by
science fiction writers, in the very near future, authentic and multisensory
immersive digital environments will be entirely possible. The opportunities of Ready
Player One but hopefully not the challenges of Neuromancer and the Matrix
may be closer than we might imagine, but in the same way that early science
fiction predicted trips to the moon and genetic modification, fiction shows
that humankind finds a way to seek God even in these technologically advanced
societies and environments.
How should we
therefore consider sacraments received within digital space as operating in the
analogue world? Is the sacramental grace conferred by a digital sacrament only
efficacious within that environment, or does the consubstantial
Avatar/Participant not share in that sacramental gift?
One way to interpret this is to consider the effect of Spiritual
Communion in a sacrament. Most obviously, this usually refers to the
Eucharist but it serves as a model for the reception of all sacramental signs
in practice. According to Aquinas, spiritual communion consists of “an ardent
desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we
had already received Him”
and although its practice is more fully documented within the Roman Church, it
is held by many of the faithful to be an equivalent to receiving the sacrament
in bodily form. Bishop Wood documents a form of Spiritual Communion to be used
in his Anglican Diocese of Melanesia, where remote communities will not have
had regular access to an Anglican Priest in 1916.
A prayer of Spiritual Communion expresses the desire and
intent of Spiritual Communion:
I believe that You
are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things,
and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
Spiritual Communion is commended by Hill in the Anglican
Theology has always recognized that this has equal value (at least in cases of necessity) to sacramental communion when this simply cannot be had due to the absence of a priest, or due to imprisonment or complete isolation. Believers who cannot physically receive the sacrament are to be assured that they are partakers by faith of the body and blood of Christ and of the benefits he conveys to us by them. Such an explicitly spiritual communion during an actual celebration of the Holy Communion would have to be explained on a regular basis, probably as part of the service. Whether or not the persons behind the avatar actually take bread and wine is not that determinative, for the reality of spiritual communion is by definition a reality without actual reception of the physical sacrament. A ‘spiritual communion’ can be made with nothing, or with an ‘agape’ style token of bread and wine. The risk of confusion would be less if nothing is used and thus would be more in keeping with the inner ‘logic’ of the virtual world. 
However, Hill is writing specifically on the significance of
a ‘remote communion’, and in the immersive context, the ‘tokens’ of which he
speaks become unnecessary because all action and focus are within the
digital space, and spiritual communion is the entire focus of the pixilated
It could be argued that all acts of communion operate on a
spiritual level, whether mediated by bread and wine, or by flickering pixels.
If the conscious desire to receive the sacrament is sufficient to make
spiritual communion, and all sacraments are mediated by that conscious desire,
then all professions of desire within digital space must equate to this.
Although normally applied only to the sacrament of the Eucharist, Francis Costa
argues all sacraments can be accessed this way
and this leaves the door open for digital mediation of all sacramental
For the success of this project, it was necessary to address
three crucial requirements which the three Church’s position documents found
problematic: the presence of Christ in digital space, the manifestation of the
church and the relationship between the real and the virtual.
Through Scripture and the real presence of Christ as the
first sacrament, this project demonstrated in Chapter 3 that there is nowhere
where Christ cannot be proclaimed as Lord.
The Word of God caused light, which
is what powers all digital space, thus marking digital space as a creation of
God and therefore subject to Him. Christ is therefore able to be present in
The gathering of the people of God within digital space to
create community and therefore ekklesia was explored in Chapter 4. Many online
communities serve as an adjunct to an analogue expression of church whilst for
others, it has been recognised as either their entry into a relationship with
others in Christ or as their sole expression of Church. The Church can
therefore meet legitimately within digital space.
The blending of the digital and analogue in Chapter 5 showed
that through changes in perspective, the Avatar moves from puppet to embodiment
of the individual: an extension of ontological self into the digital space.
This enables a phenomenological understanding of the sacraments to overcome the
metaphysical objections which place undue emphasis on the physical embodiment
of sacramental expression. The devotion of spiritual communion is an authentic
mode of understanding sacramental encounter both within digital space and as
observed from without. Rachel Wagner sums up the blurred reality between the
digital and analogue worlds which are, in effect, no longer firmly separated as
life and lived-experience continue to blur the boundaries when she says:
we are consumers and manufacturers of the sacred. It streams through us, becoming virtual and becoming real. It becomes impossible to tell the difference between real and virtual, sacred and profane and the various combinations of these.
As a result, the digital and the analogue become not
disparate sacramental realities but a single augmented locus of God’s
In responding to these objections, this project demonstrates
that the sense of the sacred found within digital space points to the possibility
of sacramental expression within that context. Its expression may be different
from that found in the analogue world, but in phenomenological terms, that is
immaterial. This project has demonstrated that participants within a digital
space may be able to use the senses made available to them within that
digital space to make sense of a digitally mediated sacrament. If they are able
to do this, within both a relationship with Christ and the context of a
digitally mediated ecclesial community, then that sacrament can be demonstrably
valid and efficacious.
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29th February 2016 Accessed 12th August 2019
 Harwig. Christian et al. (2018) Ibid.
 Appendix 3 lines 70-72
 Appendix 1, lines 224-225
 Bartle, Richard (2004) Designing Virtual
Worlds Indianapolis, IN: New Riders
 Roberts, Jacob (2016) Thinking Machines:
The Search for Artificial Intelligence 14th July 2016
Distillations https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/thinking-machines-the-search-for-artificial-intelligence Accessed 5th August 2019
 Campbell, Heidi (2005) Making Space for
Religion in Internet Studies The Information Society 21(4) pp309-15 DOI: 10.1080/01972240591007625 Accessed 13th May 2019
 Helland, Christopher (2005) Online
Religion as Lived Religion: Methodological Issues in the Study of Religious
Participation on the Internet Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on
the Internet 1(1) https://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/religions/article/view/380/355 Accessed 13th May 2019
 Helland, Christopher (2013) Ritual in Campbell, Heidi (Ed)
Digital Religion: understanding religious practices in new media worlds
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge p29
 Matthew 18:20
 Campbell, Heidi (2005) Spiritualising the
Internet. Uncovering Discourses and Narratives of Religious Internet Usage
Internet Online – Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet 1(1) https://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/religions/article/view/381/356
Accessed 15th May 2019
 Harwig. Christian. Roeland, Johan. & Stoffels Hijme. (2018) Click to Connect: Participation and Meaning
in an Online Church. Ecclesial Practices 5 pp22-38
 Appendix 1, lines 135-140
 Wertheim, Margaret (1999) The Pearly Gates
of Cyberspace: a History of Space from Dante to the Internet London: Virago. p21
 Baym, Nancy (2010) Personal Connections
in the Digital Age Cambridge: Polity Press p150
 See Appendix 1, lines 226-228; Appendix 2 line 184-5; Appendix 3
 Cray, Graham (Ed) (2004) Mission Shaped
Church London: Church House Publishing.
 Fiddes, Paul (2009) Sacraments in a
Virtual World, https://www.frsimon.uk/paul-fiddes-sacraments-in-a-virtual-world/
Accessed 5th August 2019
 Baudrillard J (1994) Simulacra and Simulation Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
 Krotz, Friedrich. (2007). The
meta-process of mediatization as a conceptual frame. Global Media and
Communication, 3(3), pp256–260.
 Bartle, Richard (2004) Designing Virtual Worlds Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing p1
 Krotz, Friedrich. (2007). Ibid pp256–260.
 Ward, Peter (2008) Participation and
Mediation London: SCM Press p113
 Baudrillard Jean (1994) Ibid. p95
 Helland, Christopher (2013) Ritual in Campbell,
Heidi (Ed) Digital Religion: understanding religious practices in new media
worlds Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge p25
 Hill, Christopher (2012) Ibid. lines 189-195
Paul (2009) Sacraments in a Virtual World, https://www.frsimon.uk/paul-fiddes-sacraments-in-a-virtual-world/
Accessed 5th August 2019
 Jones, Naamleela Free (2005) From Gods to
Gamers: the manifestation of the Avatar throughout religious history and
postmodern culture. Berkley Undergraduate
Journal 28(2) https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4mn5k202 Accessed 21st May
 Eliade, Mircea (1963) Myth and Reality. Harper & Row, New York. p6.
 Theresa of Avila https://liturgy.co.nz/i-have-no-hands-but-yours
Accessed 12th August 2019
 Electronic Arts & Maxis (2000). The Sims: The people
simulator from the creator of Sim City. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts.
 Id Software, Inc. (1994). Doom: Episode 1. Walnut Creek, CA:
Walnut Creek CDROM
 Gearbox Software. (2009). Borderlands Take-Two Software
 ὁμοούσιος – homoousios “of the same substance” “consubstantial” as defined by the Council of Nicea,
325CE http://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum01.htm Accessed 22nd May 2019
 Sheth JN & Solomon MR (2014) Extending
the Extended Self in a Digital World Journal of Marketing Theory and
Practice, 22(2) pp123-132
 Sheth JN & Solomon MR (2014) Ibid p124
 Linden Research Inc Second Life https://secondlife.com/ Accessed 3rd January 2019
 Electronic Arts (Firm), & Maxis (Firm). (2000). The Sims:
The people simulator from the creator of Sim City. Redwood City, CA: Electronic
 Sheth N (2002) Hindu Avatāra and Christian Incarnation: A Comparison Philosophy East and West 52(1) pp98-125
 McGrath, Alister (2009) Heresy London: SPCK p111-2
 Jayaram V (nd) The Concept of Avatar or
Incarnation in Hinduism https://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/concepts/avatar.asp
Accessed 21st May 2019
 Fiddes, Paul (2009) Ibid. Accessed 11th August 2019
 Appendix 3, lines 345-354
 Berger, Theresa (2018) @Worship Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge
 Aquinas ST 3.60.4
 Appendix 1, line 204
 Byers, Nancy (2010) Personal Connections in the Digital Age
Cambridge: Polity Press p119
 Maxwell, Patrick (2002) Virtual Religion in Context Religion
Ivan E and Sproull, Robert (1968). A head-mounted three dimensional display. Proceedings of AFIPS 68, pp757-764
 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/bill-gates/ Accessed 11th
 There are actually more smartphones in use than there are people in
the world (8.9Bn mobile connections vs 7.7Bn World population) and 5.1Bn unique
mobile subscribers, meanings that 66.53% of the world owns a cell phone.
Source: https://www.bankmycell.com/blog/how-many-phones-are-in-the-world Accessed 10th July 2019
 Gibson, Willian (1984) Neuromancer New York: Ace Books
 Internet Movie Database (IMDB) The Matrix (1999) Warner
Brothers https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/ Accessed 11th August 2019
 M, Raz (2018) Religious and Theological Themes in the Matrix
https://medium.com/theological-and-religious-archetypes/religious-and-theological-themes-in-the-matrix-703382df737d Accessed 11th August 2019
 Cline, Ernest (2011) Ready Player One New York: Crown
 Internet Movie Database (IMDB) Ready Player One (2018)
Warner Brothers https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1677720/ Accessed 11th August 2019
 Cline, Ernest (2011) Ibid p11
 Hutchings, Tim (2017) Creating Church Online: Ritual, Community
and New Media Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
 Aquinas ST III.80 a.1, obj.3
 Wood Cecil J (1916) A Form of Spiritual
Communion, compiled by the Bishop of Melanesia http://anglicanhistory.org/oceania/wood_communion1916.html Accessed 15th July 2019
 EWTN (website) An Act of Spiritual Communion https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/devotions/act-of-spiritual-communion-339 Accessed 8th August 2019
 Hill (2012) Ibid lines 424-437
 qv Hipps, Shane (2009) Flickering Pixels:
How Technology Shapes Your Faith Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
 Costa, Francis D. (2012). Nature and
effects of spiritual communion. Proceedings of the Catholic Theological
Society of America 13. https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2463
Accessed 15th July 2019
 Philippians 2:10-11
 Genesis 1:3
 Wagner, Rachel (2012) God-wired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual
Reality Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge p93
Appendix 1: Roman Catholic Position Statement
FOR SOCIAL COMMUNICATIONS
THE CHURCH AND
Church’s interest in the Internet is a particular expression of her
longstanding interest in the media of social communication. Seeing the media as
an outcome of the historical scientific process by which humankind “advances
further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in
the whole of creation”, the Church often
has declared her conviction that they are, in the words of the Second Vatican
Council, “marvellous technical inventions” 
that already do much to meet human needs and may yet do even more.
Church has taken a fundamentally positive approach to the media. Even when condemning serious abuses, documents of
this Pontifical Council for Social Communications have been at pains to make it
clear that “a merely censorious attitude on the part of the Church…is neither
sufficient nor appropriate”.
Pius XII’s 1957 encyclical letter Miranda Prorsus, the Pastoral
Instruction on the Means of Social Communication Communio et Progressio,
published in 1971, underlined that point: “The Church sees these media as ‘gifts
of God’ which, in accordance with his providential design, unite men in
brotherhood and so help them to cooperate with his plan for their salvation”. This remains our view, and it is the view we take
of the Internet.
2. As the
Church understands it, the history of human communication is something like a
long journey, bringing humanity “from the pride-driven project of Babel and the
collapse into confusion and mutual incomprehension to which it gave rise (cf. Gen
11:1-9), to Pentecost and the gift of tongues: a restoration of communication, centred
on Jesus, through the action of the Holy Spirit”.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, “communication among men found
its highest ideal and supreme example in God who had become man and brother”.
media of social communication are cultural factors that play a role in this
story. As the Second Vatican Council remarks, “although we must be careful to
distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ”,
nevertheless “such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar
as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society”. Considering the media of social communication in
this light, we see that they “contribute greatly to the enlargement and
enrichment of men’s minds and to the propagation and consolidation of the
kingdom of God”.
applies in a special way to the Internet, which is helping bring about
revolutionary changes in commerce, education, politics, journalism, the
relationship of nation to nation and culture to culture—changes not just in how
people communicate but in how they understand their lives. In a companion
document, Ethics in Internet, we discuss these matters in their ethical
dimension. Here we consider the
Internet’s implications for religion and especially for the Catholic Church.
Church has a two-fold aim in regard to the media. One aspect is to encourage
their right development and right use for the sake of human development, justice,
and peace—for the upbuilding of society at the local, national, and community
levels in light of the common good and in a spirit of solidarity. Considering
the great importance of social communications, the Church seeks “honest and
respectful dialogue with those responsible for the communications media”—a
dialogue that relates primarily to the shaping of media policy. “On the Church’s side this dialogue involves
efforts to understand the media—their purposes, procedures, forms and genres,
internal structures and modalities—and to offer support and encouragement to
those involved in media work. On the basis of this sympathetic understanding
and support, it becomes possible to offer meaningful proposals for removing
obstacles to human progress and the proclamation of the Gospel”.
Church’s concern also relates to communication in and by the Church herself.
Such communication is more than just an exercise in technique, for it “finds
its starting point in the communion of love among the divine Persons and their
communication with us”, and in the realization that Trinitarian communication
“reaches out to humankind: The Son is the Word, eternally ‘spoken’ by the
Father; and in and through Jesus Christ, Son and Word made flesh, God
communicates himself and his salvation to women and men”.
continues to communicate with humanity through the Church, the bearer and
custodian of his revelation, to whose living teaching office alone he has
entrusted the task of authentically interpreting his word. Moreover, the Church herself is a communio,
a communion of persons and eucharistic communities arising from and mirroring
the communion of the Trinity;
communication therefore is of the essence of the Church. This, more than any
other reason, is why “the Church’s practice of communication should be
exemplary, reflecting the highest standards of truthfulness, accountability,
sensitivity to human rights, and other relevant principles and norms”.
decades ago Communio et Progressio pointed out that “modern media offer
new ways of confronting people with the message of the Gospel”. Pope Paul VI said the Church “would feel guilty
before the Lord” if it failed to use the media for evangelization. Pope John Paul II has called the media “the
first Areopagus of the modern age”, and declared that “it is not enough to use
the media simply to spread the Christian message and the Church’s authentic
teaching. It is also necessary to integrate that message into the ‘new culture’
created by modern communications”. Doing
that is all the more important today, since not only do the media now strongly
influence what people think about life but also to a great extent “human
experience itself is an experience of media”.
applies to the Internet. And even though the world of social communications
“may at times seem at odds with the Christian message, it also offers unique
opportunities for proclaiming the saving truth of Christ to the whole human
family. Consider…the positive capacities of the Internet to carry religious
information and teaching beyond all barriers and frontiers. Such a wide
audience would have been beyond the wildest imaginings of those who preached
the Gospel before us…Catholics should not be afraid to throw open the doors
of social communications to Christ, so that his Good News may be heard from the
housetops of the world”.
“Communication in and by the Church is essentially communication of the Good
News of Jesus Christ. It is the proclamation of the Gospel as a prophetic,
liberating word to the men and women of our times; it is testimony, in the face
of radical secularization, to divine truth and to the transcendent destiny of
the human person; it is witness given in solidarity with all believers against
conflict and division, to justice and communion among peoples, nations, and
announcing the Good News to people formed by a media culture requires taking
carefully into account the special characteristics of the media themselves, the
Church now needs to understand the Internet. This is necessary in order to
communicate effectively with people—especially young people—who are steeped in
the experience of this new technology, and also in order to use it well.
offer important benefits and advantages from a religious perspective: “They
carry news and information about religious events, ideas, and personalities;
they serve as vehicles for evangelization and catechesis. Day in and day out,
they provide inspiration, encouragement, and opportunities for worship to
persons confined to their homes or to institutions”.
But over and above these, there also are benefits more or less peculiar to the
Internet. It offers people direct and immediate access to important religious
and spiritual resources—great libraries and museums and places of worship, the
teaching documents of the Magisterium, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors
of the Church and the religious wisdom of the ages. It has a remarkable
capacity to overcome distance and isolation, bringing people into contact with
like-minded persons of good will who join in virtual communities of faith to
encourage and support one another. The Church can perform an important service
to Catholics and non-Catholics alike by the selection and transmission of
useful data in this medium.
is relevant to many activities and programs of the Church— evangelization,
including both re-evangelization and new evangelization and the traditional
missionary work ad gentes, catechesis and other kinds of education, news
and information, apologetics, governance and administration, and some forms of
pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. Although the virtual reality of
cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the
incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and
direct proclamation of the gospel, it can complement them, attract people to a
fuller experience of the life of faith, and enrich the religious lives of users.
It also provides the Church with a means for communicating with particular
groups—young people and young adults, the elderly and home-bound, persons
living in remote areas, the members of other religious bodies—who otherwise may
be difficult to reach.
number of parishes, dioceses, religious congregations, and church-related
institutions, programs, and organizations of all kinds now make effective use
of the Internet for these and other purposes. Creative projects under Church
sponsorship exist in some places on the national and regional levels. The Holy
See has been active in this area for several years and is continuing to expand
and develop its Internet presence. Church-related groups that have not yet
taken steps to enter cyberspace are encouraged to look into the possibility of
doing so at an early date. We strongly recommend the exchange of ideas and
information about the Internet among those with experience in the field and
those who are newcomers.
Church also needs to understand and use the Internet as a tool of internal
communications. This requires keeping clearly in view its special character as
a direct, immediate, interactive, and participatory medium.
two-way interactivity of the Internet is blurring the old distinction between
those who communicate and those who receive what is communicated, and creating a situation in which, potentially
at least, everyone can do both. This is not the one-way, top-down communication
of the past. As more and more people become familiar with this characteristic
of the Internet in other areas of their lives, they can be expected also to
look for it in regard to religion and the Church.
technology is new, but the idea is not. Vatican Council II said members of the
Church should disclose to their pastors “their needs and desires with that
liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ”; in
fact, according to knowledge, competence, or position, the faithful are not
only able but sometimes obliged “to manifest their opinion on those things
which pertain to the good of the Church”.
Communio et Progressio remarked that as a “living body” the Church
“needs public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking among her
members”. Although truths of faith “do
not leave room for arbitrary interpretations”, the pastoral instruction noted
“an enormous area where members of the Church can express their views”.
ideas are expressed in the Code of Canon Law 
as well as in more recent documents of the Pontifical Council for Social
Communications. Aetatis Novae calls
two-way communication and public opinion “one of the ways of realizing in a
concrete manner the Church’s character as communio”. Ethics in Communications says: “A two-way
flow of information and views between pastors and faithful, freedom of
expression sensitive to the well being of the community and to the role of the
Magisterium in fostering it, and responsible public opinion all are important
expressions of ‘the fundamental right of dialogue and information within the
Church’”. The Internet provides an
effective technological means of realizing this vision.
is an instrument that can be put creatively to use for various aspects of
administration and governance. Along with opening up channels for the
expression of public opinion, we have in mind such things as consulting
experts, preparing meetings, and practicing collaboration in and among
particular churches and religious institutes on local, national, and
and training are another area of opportunity and need. “Today everybody needs
some form of continuing media education, whether by personal study or
participation in an organized program or both. More than just teaching about
techniques, media education helps people form standards of good taste and
truthful moral judgment, an aspect of conscience formation. Through her schools
and formation programs the Church should provide media education of this kind”.
and training regarding the Internet ought to be part of comprehensive programs
of media education available to members of the Church. As much as possible,
pastoral planning for social communications should make provision for this
training in the formation of seminarians, priests, religious, and lay pastoral
personnel as well as teachers, parents, and students.
in particular need to be taught “not only to be good Christians when they are
recipients but also to be active in using all the aids to communication that
lie within the media…So, young people will be true citizens of that age of
social communications which has already begun” —an
age in which media are seen to be “part of a still unfolding culture whose full
implications are as yet imperfectly understood”.
Teaching about the Internet and the new technology thus involves much more than
teaching techniques; young people need to learn how to function well in the
world of cyberspace, make discerning judgments according to sound moral
criteria about what they find there, and use the new technology for their
integral development and the benefit of others.
Internet also presents some special problems for the Church, over and above
those of a general nature discussed in Ethics in Internet, the document
accompanying this one. While emphasizing
what is positive about the Internet, it is important to be clear about what is
At a very
deep level, “the world of the media can sometimes seem indifferent and even
hostile to Christian faith and morality. This is partly because media culture
is so deeply imbued with a typically postmodern sense that the only absolute
truth is that there are no absolute truths or that, if there were, they would
be inaccessible to human reason and therefore irrelevant”.
specific problems presented by the Internet is the presence of hate sites
devoted to defaming and attacking religious and ethnic groups. Some of these
target the Catholic Church. Like pornography and violence in the media,
Internet hate sites are “reflections of the dark side of a human nature marred
by sin”. And while respect for free
expression may require tolerating even voices of hatred up to a point, industry
self-regulation—and, where required, intervention by public authority—should
establish and enforce reasonable limits to what can be said.
of web sites calling themselves Catholic creates a problem of a different sort.
As we have said, church-related groups should be creatively present on the
Internet; and well-motivated, well-informed individuals and unofficial groups
acting on their own initiative are entitled to be there as well. But it is
confusing, to say the least, not to distinguish eccentric doctrinal
interpretations, idiosyncratic devotional practices, and ideological advocacy
bearing a ‘Catholic’ label from the authentic positions of the Church. We
suggest an approach to this issue below.
other matters still require much reflection. Regarding these, we urge continued
research and study, including “the development of an anthropology and a
theology of communication” —now, with
specific reference to the Internet. Along with study and research, of course,
positive pastoral planning for the use of the Internet can and should go
One area for
research concerns the suggestion that the wide range of choices regarding
consumer products and services available on the Internet may have a spillover
effect in regard to religion and encourage a ‘consumer’ approach to matters of
faith. Data suggest that some visitors to religious web sites may be on a sort
of shopping spree, picking and choosing elements of customized religious
packages to suit their personal tastes. The “tendency on the part of some
Catholics to be selective in their adherence” to the Church’s teaching is a
recognized problem in other contexts; more
information is needed about whether and to what extent the problem is
exacerbated by the Internet.
as noted above, the virtual reality of cyberspace has some worrisome
implications for religion as well as for other areas of life. Virtual reality
is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the
sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a
flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and
even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are
insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.
Here is another aspect of the Internet that calls for study and reflection. At
the same time, pastoral planning should consider how to lead people from
cyberspace to true community and how, through teaching and catechesis, the
Internet might subsequently be used to sustain and enrich them in their
Religious people, as concerned members of the larger Internet audience who also
have legitimate particular interests of their own, wish to be part of the
process that guides the future development of this new medium. It goes without
saying that this will sometimes require them to adjust their own thinking and
important, too, that people at all levels of the Church use the Internet
creatively to meet their responsibilities and help fulfill the Church’s
mission. Hanging back timidly from fear of technology or for some other reason
is not acceptable, in view of the very many positive possibilities of the
Internet. “Methods of facilitating communication and dialogue among her own
members can strengthen the bonds of unity between them. Immediate access to
information makes it possible for [the Church] to deepen her dialogue with the
contemporary world…The Church can more readily inform the world of her
beliefs and explain the reasons for her stance on any given issue or event. She
can hear more clearly the voice of public opinion, and enter into a continuous
discussion with the world around her, thus involving herself more immediately
in the common search for solutions to humanity’s many pressing problems”.
concluding these reflections, therefore, we offer words of encouragement to
several groups in particular—Church leaders, pastoral personnel, educators,
parents, and especially young people.
leaders: People in leadership positions in all sectors of the Church need to
understand the media, apply this understanding in formulating pastoral plans
for social communications  together with
concrete policies and programs in this area, and make appropriate use of media.
Where necessary, they should receive media education themselves; in fact, “the
Church would be well served if more of those who hold offices and perform
functions in her name received communication training”.
to the Internet as well as to the older media. Church leaders are obliged to
use “the full potential of the ‘computer age’ to serve the human and
transcendent vocation of every person, and thus to give glory to the Father
from whom all good things come”. They
ought to employ this remarkable technology in many different aspects of the
Church’s mission, while also exploring opportunities for ecumenical and
interreligious cooperation in its use.
aspect of the Internet, as we have seen, concerns the sometimes confusing
proliferation of unofficial web sites labeled ‘Catholic’. A system of voluntary
certification at the local and national levels under the supervision of
representatives of the Magisterium might be helpful in regard to material of a
specifically doctrinal or catechetical nature. The idea is not to impose
censorship but to offer Internet users a reliable guide to what expresses the
authentic position of the Church.
personnel. Priests, deacons, religious, and lay pastoral workers should have
media education to increase their understanding of the impact of social communications
on individuals and society and help them acquire a manner of communicating that
speaks to the sensibilities and interests of people in a media culture. Today
this clearly includes training regarding the Internet, including how to use it
in their work. They can also profit from websites offering theological updating
and pastoral suggestions.
Church personnel directly involved in media, it hardly needs saying that they
must have professional training. But they also need doctrinal and spiritual
formation, since “in order to witness to Christ it is necessary to encounter
him oneself and foster a personal relationship with him through prayer, the
Eucharist and sacramental reconciliation, reading and reflection on God’s word,
the study of Christian doctrine, and service to others”.
and catechists. The Pastoral Instruction Communio et Progressio spoke of the
“urgent duty” of Catholic schools to train communicators and recipients of
social communications in relevant Christian principles.
The same message has been repeated many times. In the age of the Internet, with
its enormous outreach and impact, the need is more urgent than ever.
universities, colleges, schools, and educational programs at all levels should
provide courses for various groups—“seminarians, priests, religious brothers
and sisters, and lay leaders…teachers, parents, and students” —as well as more advanced training in
communications technology, management, ethics, and policy issues for
individuals preparing for professional media work or decision-making roles,
including those who work in social communications for the Church. Furthermore,
we commend the issues and questions mentioned above to the attention of
scholars and researchers in relevant disciplines in Catholic institutions of
To parents. For the sake
of their children, as well as for their own sakes, parents must “learn and
practice the skills of discerning viewers and listeners and readers, acting as
models of prudent use of media in the home”.
As far as the Internet is concerned, children and young people often are more
familiar with it than their parents are, but parents still are seriously
obliged to guide and supervise their children in its use. If this means learning more about the Internet
than they have up to now, that will be all to good.
supervision should include making sure that filtering technology is used in
computers available to children when that is financially and technically feasible,
in order to protect them as much as possible from pornography, sexual
predators, and other threats. Unsupervised exposure to the Internet should not
be allowed. Parents and children should dialogue together about what is seen
and experienced in cyberspace; sharing with other families who have the same
values and concerns will also be helpful. The fundamental parental duty here is
to help children become discriminating, responsible Internet users and not
addicts of the Internet, neglecting contact with their peers and with nature
and young people. The Internet is a door opening on a glamorous and exciting world with
a powerful formative influence; but not everything on the other side of the
door is safe and wholesome and true. “Children and young people should be open
to formation regarding media, resisting the easy path of uncritical passivity,
peer pressure, and commercial exploitation”.
The young owe it to themselves—and to their parents and families and friends,
their pastors and teachers, and ultimately to God—to use the Internet well.
places in the grasp of young people at an unusually early age an immense
capacity for doing good and doing harm, to themselves and others. It can enrich
their lives beyond the dreams of earlier generations and empower them to enrich
others’ lives in turn. It also can plunge them into consumerism, pornographic
and violent fantasy, and pathological isolation.
people, as has often been said, are the future of society and the Church. Good
use of the Internet can help prepare them for their responsibilities in both.
But this will not happen automatically. The Internet is not merely a medium of
entertainment and consumer gratification. It is a tool for accomplishing useful
work, and the young must learn to see it and use it as such. In cyberspace, at
least as much as anywhere else, they may be called on to go against the tide,
practice counter-culturalism, even suffer persecution for the sake of what is
true and good.
all persons of good will. Finally, then, we would suggest some virtues that
need to be cultivated by everyone who wants to make good use of the Internet;
their exercise should be based upon and guided by a realistic appraisal of its
necessary in order clearly to see the implications—the potential for good and
evil—in this new medium and to respond creatively to its challenges and
needed, especially justice in working to close the digital divide—the gap
between the information-rich and the information-poor in today’s world. This requires a commitment to the international
common good, no less than the “globalization of solidarity”.
courage, is necessary. This means standing up for truth in the face of
religious and moral relativism, for altruism and generosity in the face of
individualistic consumerism, for decency in the face of sensuality and sin.
temperance is needed—a self-disciplined approach to this remarkable
technological instrument, the Internet, so as to use it wisely and only for
on the Internet, as upon all the other media of social communications, we
recall that Christ is “the perfect communicator” —the
norm and model of the Church’s approach to communication, as well as the
content that the Church is obliged to communicate. “May Catholics involved in
the world of social communications preach the truth of Jesus ever more boldly
from the housetops, so that all men and women may hear about 0the love which is
the heart of God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and
today, and for ever”.
City, February 22, 2002, Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle.
John P. Foley
 John Paul II, encyclical letter Laborem Exercens, n.
25; cf. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern
World Gaudium et Spes, n. 34.
 Vatican Council II, Decree on the Means of Social
Communication Inter Mirifica, n. 1.
 For example, Inter Mirifica; the Messages of Pope
Paul VI and Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the World Communication Days;
Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Pastoral Instruction Communio
et Progressio, Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A
Pastoral Response, Pastoral Instruction Aetatis Novae, Ethics in
Advertising, Ethics in Communications.
 Pornography and Violence in the Communications
Media, n. 30.
 Communio et Progressio, n. 2.
 John Paul II, Message for the 34th World Communications
Day, June 4, 2000.
 Communio et Progressio, n. 10.
 Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in
the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 39.
 Inter Mirifica, 2.
 Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics
 Aetatis Novae, 8.
Ethics in Communications, n. 3.
( Cf. Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine
Revelation Dei Verbum, n. 10.
 Aetatis Novae, n. 10.
 Ethics in Communications, n. 26.
 Communio et Progressio, 128.
 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 45.
 Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, n. 37.
[20 ] Aetatis Novae, n. 2.
 John Paul II, Message for the 35th World Communications
Day, n. 3, May 27, 2001.
 Aetatis Novae, n. 9.
Ethics in Communications, n. 11.
 Cf. Communio et Progressio, n. 15.
 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium,
 Communio et Progressio, n. 116.
 Ibid., n. 117.
 Cf. Canon 212.2, 212.3.
 Cf. Aetatis Novae, n. 10; Ethics in
Communications, n. 26.
 Aetatis Novae, n. 10.
 Ethics in Communications, n. 26.
 Ethics in Communications, n. 25.
 Aetatis Novae, n. 28.
 Communio et Progressio, n. 107.
 John Paul II, Message for the 24th World Communications
 Cf. Ethics in Internet.
 John Paul II, Message for the 35th World Communications
Day, n. 3.
 Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media,
 Aetatis Novae, 8.
Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio
Ineunte, n. 39.
 Cf. John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the United
States, n. 5, Los Angeles, September 16, 1987.
 John Paul II, Message for the 24th World Communications
 Cf. Aetatis Novae, nn. 23-33.
 Ethics in Communications, n. 26.
 Message for the 24th World Communications Day, 1990.
 Message for the 34th World Communications Day, 2000.
 Communio et Progressio, n. 107.
 Aetatis Novae, n. 28.
 Ethics in Communications, n. 25.
 Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris
Consortio, n. 76.
 Ethics in Communications, n. 25.
 Cf. Ethics in Internet, nn. 10, 17.
 John Paul II, Address to the UN Secretary General and to
the Administrative Committee on Coordination of the United Nations, n. 2, April
 Communio et Progressio, n. 11.
 Message for the 35th World Communications Day, n. 4.
Appendix 2: Church of England Position Statement
Second Life and Sacraments: Anglican Observations and Guidelines.
The leadership of Anglicans in Second Life has been consistently
reticent to purport to minister virtual sacraments. Sacramental grace may be understood
to be a gracious, personal relationship with God conveyed between human persons
through the medium of given human signs considered to be of privileged divine ordinance
and resulting in a divine self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. In the language of the
1662 Prayer Book sacraments are a ‘means of grace’(1). A sacrament is said to be
an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace or a sign that effects
the sacred reality it signifies.
Behind this reticence lies what is considered to be the necessity
for a real, personal, as opposed to virtual relationship in sacraments. This has
been one of the fundamental reasons for not celebrating the sacraments in the virtual
sacred space of the Second Life Cathedral. This paper will attempt to articulate
good reason for this intuitive reticence, yet nevertheless point to some quasi-sacramental
ministries which can legitimately be performed by duly authorised (lay and ordained)
ministers in Second Life.
Traditional sacramental theology has sometimes drawn a distinction
between sacraments proper and other ministries and rites which have a sacramental
quality: such a distinction between ‘sacraments’ proper and ‘sacramentals’, will
be deployed in this paper.
2. Sacraments: the New Testament
The theological books written on sacraments are countless, Anglican,
Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic. Any brief summary is in grave danger of
inevitable partiality. However, there are some things that can be said. The New
Testament itself does not offer a worked out sacramental theology; neither does
the term ‘sacrament’ feature in the Bible. Nevertheless, the canonical Gospels and
Acts indicate at the least that the disciples received from Jesus a mandate to proclaim
the Kingdom through the preaching of repentance and the administration of baptism
(2). In addition the Gospels indicate that Jesus instituted fellowship meals with
his disciples and all his followers (eg the Feeding of the 4/5,000) and that this
practice culminated in the Last Supper. This religious meal had Paschal overtones
(whether or not it was a Passover Meal as described in the Synoptics, or otherwise
as in St John). At the Last Supper Jesus began the symbolic offering of himself
to his Father by speaking of his Body and Blood, in relation to Bread and Wine,
to be literally offered the next day on Calvary. This was Jesus’ explicit ‘memorial’
of himself to the Father and the disciples understood the Church to be mandated
to continue this sign, which it already did week by week in NT times, on the Christian
Sabbath, the Sunday commemoration of the resurrection. In Luke and Acts the Breaking
of the Bread is already becoming a technical term – most dramatically in the Emmaus
story. In the Epistles, St Paul in particular speaks of ‘giving thanks’ (making
eucharist) and of ‘communion’ in semi-technical language. In 1 Corinthians he lays
out the beginnings of his theology of both Baptism and the Eucharist in relation
to problems within the Corinthian Church. In Ephesians and Colossians the Church
itself is referred to in symbolic or ‘mystical’ terms; Eastern Orthodoxy was later
to use this language, ‘the mysteries’, for what the Western Latin Church came to
call ‘sacraments’. By the time of the writing of the Book of Revelation the worship
of heaven was already being described in terms influenced by the worshipping life
of the earliest Christians, eg the vision of John on Patmos on the Lord’s Day where
the heavenly worship described has distinct similarities with the emerging liturgies
of the earliest church, most notably the eucharistic church assembled together,
elders and people, singing the sanctus.
3. Sacraments: Tradition
Early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr described baptism
and the eucharist in such a way that the pagan intelligentsia would not believe
Christians were crude ‘flesh eaters’. Great teachers of the faith such as Ambrose,
Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem have left us detailed catechetical instructions
into the ‘Christian Mysteries’. They taught the catechumens (‘learner’ Christians)
and instructed them for Christian Initiation on the Eve of Easter (a practice possibly
already indicated in the First Epistle of Peter). Such paschal Initiation normatively
included confession of sins, profession of faith, water baptism, anointing/laying
on of hands signifying the Spirit by the bishop and finally first communion. (Much
later in the West this single, complete rite of Christian Initiation was broken
up and four parts of it became known as ‘separate’ sacraments: penitence (confession
and absolution); baptism; confirmation, the eucharist.) Augustine gave systematic
attention to sacramental theology because of the divisions in the North African
Church: how was a rite performed by break-away groups to be recognised as a Christian
Sacrament? Other teachers such as Cyprian offered other scenarios: no valid, real,
true sacraments outside the church catholic. But Augustine explored the meaning
of human signs as appropriated by Christ and the Church. He saw that for a sacrament
to be such both a Christian ‘word of interpretation’ and an ‘action’ authorised
by the Church was necessary. The Scholastic theologians of the early Middle Ages
also devoted considerable attention to sacramental theology (3). They discussed
the number of sacraments; East and West at this time did not have an ‘agreed list,
nor did individual theologians agree. Eventually, at least in the West, a consensus
emerged: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Penance and the
Anointing of the Sick especially ‘in extremis’. Most theologians recognised that
Baptism and the Eucharist were the major sacraments.
With the Reformation this Catholic list of seven was questioned.
Luther included confession and taught there were only three, Calvin only two. The
dispute was principally about words (4). Though the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion
speak somewhat disparagingly of five ‘commonly-called sacraments’, as opposed to
the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, the English Reformation did not end
in the 16th century and the Caroline Divines of the 17th century
had a more positive understanding of all the other rites, already begun by the teaching
of Richard Hooker and Bishop Jewell in the time of Elizabeth I. Indeed, the Puritan
Divine, Richard Baxter, thought there were many more than seven or if a narrower
definition were used, five.
Bishop Lancelot Andrewes of Winchester (from which my diocese
was taken in 1927) pronounced the debate sterile: if you define a sacrament as having
to have been instituted explicitly by Christ in the New Testament then there are
two or at the most three sacraments. But the NT does not define sacraments at all.
If you take a wider view of sacraments as either instituted explicitly by Christ
or implicitly by the Holy Spirit in the earliest times of the Church (approximately
inclusive of the New Testament period) then the ‘traditional’ seven can be included
because there are references in the New Testament to what became ordination; healing/anointing
of the sick; penitence and absolution; the laying on of hands/sign of the spirit;
and a distinct theology of Christian marriage (Paul). An Anglican/Roman Catholic
International Commission Agreed Statement (Ministry and Ordination, 1973) was accepted
by the Lambeth Conference of 1978 and on this dispute it said:
Anglican use of the word ‘sacrament’
with reference to ordination is limited by the distinction drawn in the Thirty-Nine
Articles (Article 25) between the two ‘sacraments of the Gospel’ and the ‘five commonly
called sacraments’. Article 25 does not deny these latter the name ‘sacrament’,
but differentiates between them and the ‘two sacraments ordained by Christ’ described
in the Catechism as ‘necessary to salvation’ for all men.
It is worth pointing out that Article 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles
also states that sacraments ‘be not only badges or tokens . . . but rather they
be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace . . .by which God doth work
invisibly in us’ and that ‘only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome
effect or operation; but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves
damnation . . .’
The Church of England Revised Catechism aptly described Baptism
and the Eucharist as Gospel Sacraments but also went on to describe the five others
as ‘sacramental ministries of grace’. I do not think this debate need distract Anglicans
in Second Life. In any case The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion do not have the
same status in all Anglican Provinces, and in some not at all. Notwithstanding this,
the development of sacramental theology through such Articles does help us to understand
something of what happens in the sacraments even if what might constitute a sacrament
is less well defined.
A Reformation dispute which we do need to pay attention to is
that of the relationship of personal faith to sacramental efficacy: can the sacraments
‘work’, that is to say bring us into a closer encounter with the risen Lord Jesus,
if the individual has no living faith? Had the earlier Scholastics stress on faith
(eg St Thomas Aquinas (5) ) been remembered there need have been no dispute. But
sacraments had come to be interpreted as if they were machines, automatically dispensing
grace understood in quantitative, almost physical terms. The Scholastics had insisted
that sacraments do not become effective simply by the faith of the individual –
Christians do not themselves ‘manufacture’ grace from within their own spiritual
resources. But to be effective sacraments need to be received with a living faith.
Elizabeth I tried to find an Anglican ‘middle-way’ on this question in relation
to the eucharist. Whereas the Edwardine (second and more Protestant) Prayer Book
of 1552 changed the words of the administration of the Bread at the Holy Communion
from ‘the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting
life’ to ‘take and eat this is remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on
him in thy heart by faith and with thanksgiving’, (with equivalent wording at the
delivery of the Wine), Elizabeth put the two together as a positive compromise stressing
the gift of Christ and the necessity of reception of the sacrament by faith. With
17th century Caroline Divines, there was always a characteristically
Anglican rejection of a purely subjective understanding of Christ’s gift of himself,
that is to say an understanding of Christ’s presence which depends solely on the
piety and disposition of the individual receiver. The Anglican Roman Catholic Statement
on the Eucharist, (Eucharistic Doctrine, 1971) also accepted by the 1978 Lambeth
Conference, summarises a proper ecumenical balance.
The sacramental body and blood of
the Saviour are present as an offering to the believer awaiting his welcome. When
this offering is met by faith, a lifegiving encounter results. Through faith Christ’s
presence – which does not depend on the individual’s faith in order to be the Lord’s
real gift of himself to his Church – becomes no longer just a presence for the believer,
but also a presence with him.
The importance of this latter debate for Anglicans in Second
Life is that the extreme Protestant view of the eucharist (exemplified perhaps in
the Swiss reformer Zwingli, who had some influence on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer)
reduced the action of the eucharist to the status of a visual aid or aide memoire.
Were that to be the Anglican view of the eucharist (6) then a virtual portrayal
of sacraments on the screen could be fully understood as sacraments precisely because
they would have been reduced to the status of visual aids. But this is not the case
and very different Anglican theologians of the last century – such as Herbert, Thornton,
Dix, Mascall, Quick, Lampe, Robinson – offer us a richer understanding of sacraments.
This understanding is also complemented ecumenically by Catholic and Protestant
theologians such as Bouyer, Congar, Schillebeecks, Oman and Baille.
All the above would understand sacraments as human actions and
encounters, human signs, which have been appropriated by Christ and the Church in
such a way as to heighten and enrich their human significance with a divine promise
of encounter with the living Christ. An important contemporary insight into the
sacraments is that the ‘anthropological’ significance of the sign is not accidental.
Such a sign is not a conventional sign, such as a signpost, but is a deeper anthropological
sign in part conveying between human beings what it signifies. Article XXV uses
the language of ‘effectual signs’ and the Catechism tells us ‘a sacrament is an
outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. The grace of a sacrament
correlates to the significance of the human action: physical feeding correlating
to spiritual feeding; physical washing to spiritual washing, or physical rising
from the waters to spiritual re- birth; physical coitus to spiritual union; physical
massaging/anointing to spiritual health. In the sacraments we do something personal,
human and physical in which through our direct, real and personal relationship with
others in the Church – the physical Body of Christ – the Holy Spirit of God gives
us the gift of himself. But for this ‘objective’ gift to ‘work’ – to be effective
as more than just a real offer – we on our part, however fragile our faith may be,
have our free part to play. We say yes to the promised, covenanted, divine encounter
we met in this human-divine transaction.
A contemporary ecclesiological question raised by the Fresh Expressions
movement is to what extent fresh expressions of ‘church’ can be considered to be
church in the absence of the Dominical Sacraments. The Salvation Army is described
as being a para church on the absence of these; does this distinction therefore
apply to an expression of church in Second Life, i.e. not church but virtual church?
Does potential desire for the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life to be considered
a church and seek validation entail embracing sacraments?
4. Avatars and Virtual Sacraments
Before exploring issues relating to virtual sacraments in Second
Life a final preliminary must be explored: avatars and persons. From the above it
is clear that sacraments are ‘graceful’ inter-personal encounters between real people
through the sacraments. At first instance the adoption of an avatar seems to add
a barrier to direct personal encounter, almost like a mask. Such communication is
not only electronic rather than face-to-face, it is also, at least in some circumstances,
a disguising of the person. On the other hand all human communication, including
direct face-to-face encounter involves a projection through facial and bodily gestures;
posture; clothes; make-up; jewellery; regalia; uniforms; vesture. Though face to
face communication and electronic are not the same there is an analogy through liturgical
‘performance’ which is often face to face but ‘at a distance’. The priest at the
altar (usually) wears priestly vesture, the bishop his (or her) mitre and carrying
a staff. The member of a religious community wears a habit and takes on another
(saintly) name. Dissimilitude cannot be wholly excluded, sincerity cannot be guaranteed,
even in priest, bishop, or religious, but ‘the unworthiness of the minister hindereth
not the effect of the sacrament’. In a ‘real’ Cathedral the personal identity of
each member of the congregation or clergy is not always known. The adoption of an
avatar does not therefore rule out some exploration of sacramental ministry, though
problems remain if an assumed avatar is of the opposite gender to the person or
an avatar of evil. What we represent is extremely important.
Professor Paul Fiddes speaks of sacraments in a virtual world
‘within the logic of the virtual world’. He argues that God can be present in a
virtual world in a way that is suitable to its inhabitants. Though this could be
misinterpreted (eg. as a Gnostic other world), this is a fascinating view from a
theologian of the Baptist tradition as it is surely analogous to the Scholastic
argument about grace always being appropriate and effective proportionately to the
nature of its context. So an infant receiving Holy Communion receives grace proportionately
to their infant nature. Fiddes expects that the grace received by an avatar will
be shared in some way by the person behind the avatar, because the person in our
everyday world has a complex relationship with their persona. This is precisely
my point about gesture, name and dress. Fiddes further argues, again in a manner
entirely coherent with traditional (Catholic and Anglican) sacramental theology
that grace can be mediated through the material world – including the silica chip
and light photons. The virtual world is also material and can thus be a means of
grace. Fiddes invites the development of a notion of ‘virtual sacraments’, within
the logic of a virtual world. If this invitation were to be pursued, respect would
need to be paid to Fiddes careful use of the term ‘virtual sacraments’, implying,
to my mind, a proper distinction between a virtual sacrament in the ‘real’, ie non-
virtual, world where physical, human presence is necessary. Moreover, for ‘the person’
to receive, albeit indirectly, a virtual sacrament through an avatar there has to
be a ‘sincere’ relationship between the person and their avatar. The avatar must
genuinely be an extension of the personality, or a genuine part of that personality.
My use of an extended traditional concept of ‘sacramentals’ is consistent with Fiddes’
conclusion that his suggestion about virtual sacraments falls into a spectrum between
sacraments proper ‘and other sacramental media in the world’. My positive proposals
for sacramental ministries (though not sacraments) in Second Life are congruent
with the traditional conviction that grace can be mediated through material entities
and that there is a real correspondence in at least some aspects of the person and
their avatar. I find Paul Fiddes’ similar ecumenical emphasis both fascinating and
5. Sacraments in Second Life
With all the above as a template I now want look at all the sacraments/sacramental
ministries of grace in turn, as each will shed light on the other in relation to
the question of virtual sacraments.
a) Baptism and Confirmation
Almost immediately we have some clarity by starting not with
the eucharist but with baptism. Could the baptism of an avatar in Second Life be
considered a valid (ie a real or canonical) baptism? Baptism theologically and canonically
means bathing, dipping, pouring or at least sprinkling with (real) water in the
name of the Trinity (or at least in the name of Jesus) after penitence and a profession
of faith. No Christian Church that I am aware of from Baptist to Roman Catholic
could countenance a virtual baptism as a real baptism. The issue here is not the
status of the minister, as under some emergency circumstances lay people can baptize.
The issue is the encounter (involving penitence and confession of faith by the person
being baptised or in the case of infants by the parents/godparents of the child)
with the death of Christ in the waters and in his resurrection. It is not just in
the saying but in the doing that the whole human person comes in baptism to the
death of Christ and to his resurrection. To be fair, to some extent the reality
of this total baptismal experience has been weakened by the ‘trivialisation’ of
baptism (eg mere sprinkling) and the cultural ‘socialisation’ of infant baptism.
A Baptist critique helps us! But however weak our understanding of baptism has become,
being baptised in person in and with water is essential to the sacrament of baptism.
Christ himself was physically baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan.
At Anglican baptism (other than in emergencies) the water is itself blessed as part
of the instrumentality of baptism. A personal covenant is stated in the actual formula
of baptism, in which the priest says ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ Value has to be given to both the ‘I’ and the
Having declared a fairly firm no to the initial question, what
more can be said? Actually something quite significant. The ‘liturgical’ churches,
not least those of the Anglican Communion, have long experience of the ‘Renewal
of Baptismal Promises’. At first provision was made for this at Easter. But now
more general provision is also provided. This is not understood to be the sacrament
of Baptism itself but it is a real renewal of that sacrament and for many people
has a profound significance. In real life such renewal takes the form of a person,
with others in a Church or Cathedral, repeating his or her baptismal decision and
profession of faith (Apostles Creed). Then (usually) the congregation is sprinkled
with (baptismal) water. If I happen to be behind a pillar and do not actually get
sprinkled, this does not ‘invalidate’ the renewal which does not depend, as a baptism
would, on a physical pouring of water.
If in Second Life an authorised minister (lay or ordained in
accordance with Anglican law) were to conduct such a service of Renewal of Baptismal
Vows in the Epiphany Cathedral, it is my view that providing the person ‘behind’
the avatar sincerely taking part in such a service had been really baptised, they
would be really renewing their baptismal vows: anonymity is not a bar to the renewal
of baptismal vows in a large Cathedral. It need not be so in Second Life, even through
the device of an avatar.
What of an avatar of a person who has not been baptised taking
part in such a virtual ceremony? In a large, ‘real’ cathedral there may also be
cases where an unbaptised person takes part in such a ceremony, they may be sincere
or otherwise. How does the Church judge such a person? I suggest that any pastor
would explain that their sincere participation points to their intent or desire
to be baptised and the pastor would then explain how to be really baptised, its
conditions and encourage them.
In considering the sacraments the doctrine of intention is very
important. A contrast with ‘magic’ is instructive. In a magic spell it is held that
the correct words and actions are absolutely necessary. Because sacraments are acts
of prayer and not magic our inner intentions (including that of the celebrant and
in the case of infant baptism, that if the parents and god-parents) are sufficient
even if there is some deficiency or mistake in the outward form, or even lack of
fervour or devotion. The church has always held that persons on the fringe of baptism,
on the way to being baptised, can be blessed by a ‘baptism of desire or intent’
which in the extreme event of death before baptism would nevertheless be accounted
by God as baptism into Christ. The pastor in Second Life would need to explain that
those not actually baptised should seek baptism in real life and perhaps assist
in making of any arrangements with a Christian church, should the person behind
the avatar agree to disclose their identity. A real baptism could later be celebrated
with a virtual service of thanksgiving in the Epiphany Cathedral which could incorporate
elements of the Renewal of Baptism Vows of those alongside the newly baptised.
I include confirmation here because it belongs with baptism and
only became a ‘separate’ sacramental ministry by becoming detached in the early
mediaeval period (in the west) from a formerly integral and holistic pattern of
Christian Initiation. This included catechesis; confession of sins; profession of
faith; water bathing or dipping in the name of the Trinity; a laying on of hands/anointing
as a sign of the Spirit; Holy Communion. This holistic sacramental process was understood
as ‘baptism’ in Patristic times and the word ‘baptism’ was usually understood (and
used) to include all the above elements, not simply the water dipping and formulae.
As far as a ‘detached’ confirmation is concerned, whether by laying on of hands
or by anointing or both, no Anglican church could dispense with an actual laying
on of hands. But renewal of baptismal and confirmation faith could be done on the
same principle as the renewal of baptism – with the same impetus towards actual
or personal confirmation if the person behind the avatar had not been confirmed.
Again a celebration of renewal of baptism- confirmation is conceivable
even within the anonymity of a cathedral or the virtual-avatar congregation of the
Epiphany Cathedral in Second Life.
Though logically consideration of the Eucharist should follow,
I defer this to the end so that we may benefit from consideration of other sacraments/sacramental
ministries of grace. Marriage has sometimes been called a natural sacrament or an
ordinance given by God in creation in the joining together of a man and a woman
as one flesh. Clearly it was not instituted ab initio by Christ or the Church, though
Paul’s comparison between marriage and the relationship between Christ and the Church
came to be seen as giving marriage a sacramental meaning. However it is described
theologically, it also has considerable social and legal implications. Marriage
is always between two individuals. Second Life Anglicans cannot ignore the legal/canonical
implications of a Church marriage. In Christian theology the marriage vows, the
holding of hands, the exchange of (a) ring(s) and the physical consummation of the
marriage between male and female partners have constituted the ‘outward and visible
sign of marriage’ and its legal constituents. None of these can be done virtually
and the true identity of the persons is also essential both theologically and legally.
Nothing in the Second Life Cathedral should ever purport to be a marriage according
to law. Even where people were married by proxy in the past (eg King Charles I to
Queen Henrietta Maria) there was never any doubt as to the true identity of the
spouses. In English law marriage by proxy is ruled out by the Marriage Act.
If, however, there were two avatars, who in real life were married
to each other, I could conceive the possibility of them having a thanksgiving for
or renewal of marriage vows , though only if the pastor had definite knowledge of
the actual marriage of the spouses and knew their real identity behind their avatars.
Though the real persons would presumably want to renew their vows personally, a
virtual renewal would enable others in Second Life to join with them.
No Anglican Church could recognise as a valid ordination those
who had not been prayed over by the Church and received the actual imposition of
hands by the bishop (with the collegial accompaniment of the presbyterate); nor
would any Protestant Church (setting aside the question of episcopal or presbyteral
ordination); nor the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. It has already been agreed
that those acting as pastors in Second Life need to be duly commissioned (such as
through ordination in an Anglican or other recognised Church). Those who have been
duly (ie personally) ordained (or commissioned as lay-ministries in appropriate
cases) could however have this corporately celebrated/renewed from time to time
in the Second Life Cathedral under their avatar personality by the presiding minister.
Such a presiding minister could even be one of the episcopal patrons of Second Life
but known (whatever their avatar pseudonym) as a ‘real’ bishop.
d) Confession and Absolution
Again this must be a personal, individual and confidential opening
up of the heart to another human person, authorised by the Church to deliver the
ministry of God’s Word in reconciliation and absolution (in the Anglican tradition
an ordained priest). Because of the question of identity, ‘telephone’ 11 confessions
have traditionally never been accepted as authentic . In the Roman Catholic tradition
there has been in fact a move away from the ‘anonymity’ of the confessional towards
a more personal ministry of absolution: eg. penitent and priest facing each other
(but still in absolute confidence) in a ‘reconciliation room’. This corresponds
in style and content to less formal ways of ministering absolution after informal
confession in the ‘vicar’s study’ in some traditions of Anglicanism, where even
in Church more ‘baroque’ confessional boxes are rare and priest and penitent customarily
sit or kneel in sight of each other. Though spiritual advice might be given through
Second Life, full sacramental absolution cannot be administered without a real personal
encounter between the penitent and a duly authorised minister of the Church i.e.
in the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions an ordained priest.
Nevertheless a general service of penitence, with corresponding
general confession and general absolution as found in Anglican liturgical rites
would be possible, the presiding minister being ordained. This could included some
mechanism for any who wanted to be given more specific guidance through the virtual
pastor as to how to obtain this personally from a ‘real’ local church. One interesting
way of experiencing a general, Lenten penitential service in Second Life is the
Ash Wednesday ashing service in the Cathedral. Such ceremonies as the imposition
of ashes and sprinkling with baptismal water have been described as ‘sacramentals’:
like an icon or a crucifix, that is to say not sacraments as such but nevertheless
using the God-created things of this world as signs of God’s love and grace. As
‘ashing’ has never been considered a sacrament there is less risk of confusion here
and individuals can be encouraged to impose ash on themselves as the Second Life
Cathedral service progresses, though the President ought again to be an authorised
minister in real life.
e) Laying on of Hands/anointing of the sick
Similarly to penitence – with which there is a relationship,
penitence and healing being twin aspects of God’s saving grace – a general service
of healing and intercession could be envisaged, following Anglican liturgical patterns.
At ‘healing ministries’ in more charismatic Anglican traditions, lay ministers (hopefully
balanced and wise members of the congregation) stretch out their hands towards a
person asking for healing. In Second Life though there can be no actual laying on
of hands or anointing an avatar could make a virtual gesture of healing by similarly
stretching out hands, under the guidance of an Epiphany Cathedral pastor.
f) Other sacramentals
There may be other forms of sacramental service which could be
employed without risking confusion with real sacraments which must always be personal.
Stations of the Cross or a Christian Labyrinth would give movement and can be enacted
personally at home. Similarly, forms of the Rosary – using beads to help prayer
– whether the western Marian version or the eastern Jesus Prayer Rosary can be done
at the same time as participation in such a service in the virtual Cathedral. Even
a litany or Palm Procession could be so adapted.
g) The Eucharist
These observations on other sacraments/sacramental ministries
of grace give us some clear principles and orientations for looking at the eucharist.
There are also some partial precedents worth examining. When TV became popular for
the first time in the mid-twentieth century there were regular Sunday/Festival broadcasts
of the Christian eucharist. Was it ‘real’ if (say) a house-bound couple ate bread
and drank wine accompanying a televised eucharist? No Church denied this was a good
thing. But no Church acknowledged that this was the same as participating personally
in the sacrament. Only recently the Methodist Church has expressed reserve about
a proposed Twitter service of Holy Communion(12). This stimulated an article by
Simon Jenkins on whether online communion can be real(13). There would be some differences
here between churches which give an objective value to the consecration of the elements
– as all Anglicans do, whatever their churchmanship and are thus required to either
reverently consume the consecrated remains, or reverently to reserve them for the
sick, or reverently take them immediately to the sick or housebound (extended communion).
Nor can fresh bread and wine be added to the Communion (by reason of the sacrament
having run out) without further explicit linkage to the consecrated elements. What
could be envisaged, if it is done clearly and explicitly, is for the persons behind
their avatars to make a ‘spiritual communion’. Theology has always recognised that
this has equal value (at least in cases of necessity) to sacramental communion when
this simply cannot be had due to the absence of a priest, or due to imprisonment
or complete isolation. Believers who cannot physically receive the sacrament are
to be assured that they are partakers by faith of the body and blood of Christ and
of the benefits he conveys to us by them. Such an explicitly spiritual communion
during an actual celebration of the Holy Communion would have to be explained on
a regular basis, probably as part of the service. Whether or not the persons behind
the avatar actually take bread and wine is not that determinative, for the reality
of spiritual communion is by definition a reality without actual reception of the
physical sacrament. A ‘spiritual communion’ can be made with nothing, or with an
‘agape’ style token of bread and wine. The risk of confusion would be less if nothing
is used and thus would be more in keeping with the inner ‘logic’ of the virtual
This presupposes however a ‘real’ sacramental eucharist ‘at the
other end’. This I did at Willow Grange, avatars from different parts of the world
making a genuine spiritual communion as those physically present made their physical
communion with me. If the eucharistic president in the Epiphany Cathedral is an
ordained Anglican priest (or one recognised to be in communion), then he or she
should be celebrating a real eucharist in the actual world, with which Second Life
Anglicans, through (or without) their avatars could be associated in a true act
of spiritual communion. Anglicans have traditionally avoided ‘solo’ celebrations
so it would be necessary for the president to have some congregation with whom to
share the real sacrament as well as the virtual congregation who would receive spiritually.
Bishop of Guildford
1 See Prayer of General Thanksgiving and The Catechism
2 The extent to which this may have been be based upon the earlier
Baptism of John and indeed the Essene community is fascinating but for our purposes
3 Had the later mediaeval Church been true to the best of
scholastic sacramental teaching the Reformers would have not had such a
herculean task of reforming distorted and frankly sub-Christian sacramental
4 St John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, ‘ghosted’ Henry
VIII’s response in defence of the seven sacraments against Luther, for which
Henry was given the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope which English
monarchs have enjoyed ever since. Fisher later rejected Henry’s claim to be
Supreme Head of the Church of England and paid for his dissent by his
5 In St Thomas’ hymn for Corpus Christi, Pange lingua he
speaks of the necessity of faith twice.
6 Not a view at all compatible with other Reformers such as
Luther or Calvin. Behind these Reformation debates lies the question: does the
sign cause the grace, or is the sign merely an accompaniment. Radical
Protestants favoured an ‘ordinance’ understanding rather than a sacramental
one. In the case of baptism, an ‘ordinance’ view would be that baptism is a
sign of something that has already happened, it is backwards looking, whereas a
‘sacramental’ view is more future orientated. One is a declaratory sign, the
other a prophetic sign
7 Article XXVI
8 Paper by Paul S. Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology,
University of Oxford, Sacraments in a Virtual World, http://brownblog.info/?p=886
9 He quotes R. S. Thomas effectively on sand and light being
10 Common Worship in the Church of England includes a service
of prayer and dedication following civil marriage as well as material for the renewal
of marriage vows.
11 The arrival of Skype and Video conferencing raises an interesting
question theologically as identity would be known, though there remains the serious
question of such forms of communication being far from secure and thus confidential.
12 See Church Times 20 August 2010
13 See Church Times 27 August 2010
Appendix 3: Methodist Position Statement
37. Holy Communion Mediated Through Social Media
Status of Paper Final
The Conference receives the report
as an interim report and directed that the further work be undertaken (including
the involvement of those set out in the original response to the M13 (2011),
young people involved with 3Generate, CODEC and others with broad, in- depth
expertise in this fast developing area) and that a fuller report be presented
to the Conference no later than 2018.
Summary of Content and Impact
Aims To reflect on the issues
regarding the suggested practice of celebrating Holy Communion with dispersed
communities via live, interactive media such as the internet or videoconferencing.
- The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the Church,
celebrated corporately by the people of God with an authorised president, and
the physical gathering of Christians (normally around the Lord’s table) is an
essential feature of its corporate celebration.
- Presiding at the Lord’s Supper is a distinctive
role that involves, among other things, specific sign-actions. When one or more
of these sign-actions is performed separately at a location physically remote
from the gathering of the people of God then the integrity of presiding at the
Lord’s Supper, and hence the integrity of the sacrament, is compromised.
- The communion bread and wine symbolically
represent the body and blood of Christ, and also symbolically represent the
unity and integrity of the body and blood of Christ. This symbolic representation
fails in the case of separate quantities of bread and wine, as when groups or
individuals at a location physically remote from the celebration of the Lord’s
Supper use their own elements.
- It is not possible theologically to recognise
‘remote communion’ (as described in the Memorial) as being truly the sacrament
of the Lord’s Supper as this has been received in the Methodist Church. For the
Conference to permit such practice by Methodist presbyters and other persons
authorised to preside at the Lord’s Supper would compromise the integrity of
Background Context and Relevant Documents (with function)
Memorial 13 (2011) (see Appendix)
The Deed of Union (1932)
The Methodist Worship Book (1999)
Called to Love and Praise (1999) – Conference Statement
His Presence Makes the Feast (2003) – Conference report
37. Holy Communion Mediated through Social Media
This report of the Faith and Order Committee offers a formal response to
Memorial 13 to the 2011 Conference from the South-East District Synod
requesting the Conference “to instruct the Faith and Order Committee to form a
policy regarding the practice of celebrating Holy Communion with dispersed
communities via live, interactive media such as the Internet or video-conferencing”.
The Memorial envisaged a “form of remote communion” in which “a minister in one
location would be permitted to preside over a celebration of Holy Communion with
a gathered group of fellowshipping believers consisting of groups or
individuals residing in disparate locations who provide their own elements to
be blessed by the person presiding”. The Memorial asked whether such a form of
Holy Communion would be “acceptable” within Methodist discipline and practice.
(See the Appendix for the text of the Memorial together with the reply of the
This report does not assess the merits of using electronic means of
communication, such as the internet or videoconferencing, for the general
purposes of Christian worship, education and mission. It is taken for granted
that electronic means of communication provide an effective way of
participating to varying degrees in all of these activities. Likewise, it is
taken for granted that the use of electronic means of communication in
Christian worship, education and mission will create ‘online’ or ‘virtual’
communities, though the precise nature and ecclesial status of such communities
must await future treatment. The question addressed in this report is whether
the Methodist Church might recognise the kind of ‘remote communion’ envisaged
in the Memorial to be truly the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper since this will
determine whether or not it is ‘acceptable’ within Methodist discipline and
As in all matters relating to the faith and order of the Methodist Church, the
primary authoritative source for addressing this question is Scripture as
interpreted by tradition in the light of applied reason and affirmed by
Christian experience. Therefore the theological method followed in this report
starts with Scripture and the received tradition in order to discern the essential
features of the Lord’s Supper. Only then will it be possible to determine
theologically whether ‘remote communion’ is compatible with the sacrament of
the Lord’s Supper as this is understood and celebrated in the Methodist Church.
Constraints of space preclude an exhaustive study of all relevant aspects. In
particular, it is not possible here to articulate a theology of information and
communications technology or even to consider what is now technically possible
in relation to the use of such in Christian worship, education and mission –
fascinating as this would be. It is taken for granted that technological developments
have always influenced forms of Christian worship, education and mission, and doubtless
will continue to do so. Nevertheless, the paragraphs that follow make the key
points on which the Faith and Order Committee bases its recommendations to the
Conference concerning the use of electronic means of communication in relation
to participation in the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.
Whereas the historic and foundational documents of British Methodism
classically refer to the ‘Lord’s Supper’, the Methodist Worship Book (1999)
refers to services of ‘Holy Communion’ in which the Lord’s Supper forms a
particular part. In ecumenical texts, the term ‘Eucharist’ is generally
employed. Following the example of the Deed of Union (1932) and the annual Constitutional
Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, this present report adopts the
term ‘Lord’s Supper’ in order to emphasise that there is a received tradition
within British Methodism concerning the sacraments of the Church.
The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament
The earliest references in the New Testament to the Lord’s Supper are found in
St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, written several years before the
Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. Two short passages, in particular, are
useful in understanding the nature of the Lord’s Supper:
For I received from the Lord what I also
handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a
loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body
that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup
also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this,
as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this
bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it
not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a
sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are
one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
The Gospel accounts of the Last Supper before Jesus was arrested, tried and
crucified, similarly associate Jesus’ actions with the paschal mystery of his
death and resurrection. For example,
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf
of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and
said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks
he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of
the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell
you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I
drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ (Matthew 26:26-29; cf Mark
14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20)
These and parallel passages of Scripture provide an early and remarkably
consistent witness to the words and sign-actions of Jesus, which constitute the
essential features of the Lord’s Supper. (The term ‘sign-action’ is used
throughout this report to denote the fact that Jesus’ actions at the Last
Supper signify the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.) The setting
and context of Jesus’ words and sign-actions (in relation to the Passover meal,
the gathering of the Twelve, table fellowship, etc) are also significant in
understanding the Lord’s Supper, though only a few aspects will be discussed
Jesus’ commandment, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians
11:24) is a constant reminder that the Church celebrates the Lord’s Supper in
accordance with the divine will. In this regard, St Paul’s account of the
Lord’s Supper is instructive – not merely as a description of a common practice
in the churches of the New Testament but as a formal tradition (paradosis)
which he had received (ie had been taught) and was bringing to the attention of
the church in Corinth once again because of their failure to ‘discern the
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or
drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the
body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and
drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat
and drink judgement against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
These and related Scripture passages provide the primary source for theological
reflection on the Lord’s Supper. For the purposes of this present report,
however, it is necessary only to note the key implications of the narrative and
sign-actions that together constitute the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is
not simply about eating bread and drinking wine as some kind of memorial of
Jesus: it is about ‘sharing’ in ‘one bread’ and ‘the cup of blessing’ in a
certain way, according to Christ’s own example at the Last Supper.
Participation in the Lord’s Supper today equally requires discernment of ‘the
Jesus’ sign-actions in relation to the bread at the Last Supper correspondingly
give rise to a fourfold action at the Lord’s Supper: when at table with the
Twelve, Jesus took bread, gave thanks or a blessing, broke it, and gave it to
each of them with accompanying words that declare the significance of the
action. Likewise, Jesus’ sign-actions in relation to the wine at the Last Supper
correspondingly give rise to a threefold action at the Lord’s Supper:
afterwards, Jesus took a cup of wine, gave thanks and gave it to each of them
with accompanying words that declare the significance of the action.
The Lord’s Supper as a Sacrament of the Church
The Methodist Church has received the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper from the
apostolic tradition as transmitted in the particular circumstances created by
its historical, theological and liturgical origins in the Church of England
during the eighteenth century. The doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church,
though reticent about endorsing any particular theology of the sacrament, seek
to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Supper as it has been received.
“The Methodist Church [in Britain] recognises two sacraments namely baptism and
the Lord’s Supper as of divine appointment and perpetual obligation of which it
is the privilege and duty of members of the Methodist Church to avail
themselves” (Deed of Union, §4). In claiming and cherishing its place in the
Holy Catholic Church, the Methodist Church in Britain has a responsibility to
ensure that the Lord’s Supper is ‘duly administered’ (to use the classical Protestant
expression) according to what the Deed of Union calls “the inheritance of the apostolic
faith” as interpreted by the “fundamental principles of the historic creeds and
the Protestant Reformation” (§4). For this reason, the celebration of the
Lord’s Supper in the Methodist Church is regulated by the Conference insofar as
its essential features are concerned (see below). Local custom concerning the
manner of receiving the elements has its proper place in the Lord’s Supper,
provided that the resulting diversity does not compromise the integrity of the
Since the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the universal Church, the Methodist
Church does not claim the right to alter its essential features. On the rare
occasions when it has introduced significant changes (such as the admission of
children), the Conference has sought to remain faithful to its received
tradition. Historically, the Lord’s Supper has been a focus for disunity among
Christians as a result of theological disagreement about the nature of the
Church, its ministry and sacraments. Yet theological dialogue in recent years,
notably in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order Commission, has
established a significant degree of ecumenical convergence in understanding the
Lord’s Supper. Since the Conference is committed to the pursuit of visible
unity among Christians, innovation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in
the Methodist Church at the present juncture should only be considered for the gravest
of reasons and in consultation with ecumenical partners. In particular, having
entered into an Anglican-Methodist Covenant, the Methodist Church is bound not
to introduce sacramental practices that would create a further obstacle to
As a sacrament of the Church, the Lord’s Supper is essentially a corporate act
of the Church, locally and universally. As a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9),
the entire assembly actively participates in celebrating the Lord’s Supper with
an authorised president. Whilst participating in the Lord’s Supper is a deeply
meaningful personal event, the corporate nature of the sacrament means that the
spiritual experience is not solely between the individual and God (still less
is it simply between the individual and the person presiding) but involves the
entire assembly. The term ‘Holy Communion’ aptly expresses the relational
aspect of the Lord’s Supper. The corporate celebration of the Lord’s Supper by
the people of God leads to a deepening experience of ‘communion’ (koinonia in
the Greek New Testament) with God and with one another. As a means of grace,
the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper leads to the corporate and personal
transformation of the gathered people through growth in grace.
The Church, as the body of Christ, is most fully and visibly itself in the
corporate celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which signifies communion with God
and among all the members of the body. As Called to Love and Praise: the Nature
of the Christian Church in Methodist Experience and Practice (1999) explains,
“In this typical act of Christian worship the Eucharist strengthens, and, in a
sense, makes the Church” (§2.4.8).
The Lord’s Supper in Methodist Tradition and Experience
A Catechism for the Use of the People called Methodists (2000) neatly outlines
the Methodist understanding of the Lord’s Supper without attempting to
articulate a detailed theology:
In the Lord’s Supper Jesus Christ is
present with his worshipping people and gives himself to them as their Lord and
Saviour. As they eat the bread and drink the wine, through the power of the
Holy Spirit they receive him by faith and with thanksgiving. They give thanks
with the whole Church for Christ’s sacrifice of himself once and for all on the
cross. The Lord’s Supper recalls Christ’s Last Supper with the disciples. It
proclaims Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, unites the participants
with him so that they are a living sacrifice in him, and gives them a foretaste
of his heavenly banquet (§49).
In 2003, the Conference received His Presence Makes the Feast, which was a
significant Faith and Order report on “Holy Communion in the Methodist Church”.
His Presence Makes the Feast articulates nine key themes that must feature in a
comprehensive theology of Holy Communion. Briefly, these themes draw attention
to the Lord’s Supper as: an act of thanksgiving; an act of fellowship and
unity; an act of remembrance, making present the saving power of Christ’s
death; a pleading of Christ’s completed and eternal sacrifice, in which the
participants offer themselves anew to the Father through the Son; a
participation in the mystery of Christ’s dynamic presence; an invocation of the
Holy Spirit, who alone can make the benefits of the sacrament effective; a foretaste
of the heavenly banquet; an invitation to a eucharistic lifestyle involving
mission and justice; and a place of nourishment for the pilgrim, who receives
the bread of life for the Christian journey (§§147-194).
His Presence Makes the Feast observed that Methodist doctrine concerning the
Lord’s Supper “has received little official formulation and remains an
undefined (or under-defined) tradition” (§6). Instead, “the theology is
implicit in the liturgies, hymns, and the practical arrangements for Holy
Communion” (§6). Certainly, the received Methodist tradition concerning the
Lord’s Supper is under-defined, though Methodist doctrine on the subject is not
wholly lacking in definition since, as noted above, the Deed of Union says some
quite important things about sacraments. Nevertheless, it remains true to say
that the authorised liturgies and hymnody, as well as the “practical
arrangements for Holy Communion”, are an important source for understanding the
Lord’s Supper in Methodism.
These “practical arrangements” are particularly useful for the purposes of the
present report. To ensure that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is ‘duly
administered’ in the Methodist Church, the Conference regulates its celebration
in important ways. Most obviously, presidency at the Lord’s Supper is exercised
by ordained presbyters and other named persons authorised by the Conference.
The Conference provides authorised liturgies in the Methodist Worship Book
(MWB) (1999), as well as “Guidance for Ordering a Service of Holy Communion”
(MWB, p. 221f). The Introduction to the “Orders of Service for Holy Communion”
(MWB, p. 114f) and the Guidance are intended to safeguard the integrity of the
The Introduction explains that “The shape of the Lord’s Supper follows the
record in scripture of Jesus’ characteristic sharing with his disciples,
especially after the final meal on the night before the crucifixion.” A service
of Holy Communion comprises three elements: “The Gathering of the People of
God”; “The Ministry of the Word”; and “The Lord’s Supper”. Significantly, the Guidance
envisages this same structure in every service of Holy Communion.
According to the explanatory Notes (MWB, p. 115f), “The presiding minister [a
presbyter or other authorised person] should begin and end the service.”
Moreover, “She/he should also greet the people at the Peace and preside over
the fourfold Eucharistic action by taking the bread and wine, leading the Great
Prayer of Thanksgiving, breaking the bread, and presiding over the sharing of
the bread and wine.”
The Notes also regulate the use of bread and wine: “The juice of the grape
shall be used.” Unless bread and wine are to be “set apart” for the purpose of
“Extended Communion” (MWB, pp. 229- 34), “What remains of the elements should
be reverently consumed, or otherwise reverently disposed of, at the end of the
service.” Additionally, Standing Order 922(2) specifies that “In the sacrament
of the Lord’s Supper the wine used shall be non-alcoholic.”
Safeguarding the Integrity of the Lord’s Supper
This brief survey of the Lord’s Supper in Scripture and in Methodist tradition
and experience reveals certain essential features that safeguard its integrity
as a sacrament of the Church. For convenience, these can be grouped into three
categories: the gathering of the people of God; presiding at the Lord’s Supper;
and the body and blood of Christ. These three categories provide appropriate
headings under which to consider whether ‘remote communion’ fulfils the
criteria to be recognised as a true celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It should be acknowledged that the way in which Methodists and others
ordinarily celebrate the Lord’s Supper may not always or even consistently
manifest its essential features as conspicuously and unambiguously as ideally
would be desired. The use of communion wafers instead of bread, unfermented
wine instead of fermented wine, and individual communion cups instead of the
common cup can each be said to constitute an impaired representation of what it
is supposed to signify. However, the integrity of the Lord’s Supper is not
necessarily compromised by a degree of impairment in some of its essential
features, and Methodists have resisted being overly prescriptive in such
matters. Similarly, while it is fitting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper wherever
possible using a communion table for the bread and wine, the absence of such
(for example in a home or hospital) does not of itself compromise the integrity
of the sacrament.
There is, however, a qualitative difference (and not just a difference in
degree) between an impaired representation and that which entirely fails to
represent what it is supposed to signify. For example, the integrity of the
Lord’s Supper would be compromised by the gratuitous use of pizza and Coca-Cola
instead of bread and wine. Such an occurrence would not be the sacrament of the
Lord’s Supper in accordance with the Lord’s will. Bearing in mind this
qualitative difference in symbolic representation, it is necessary now to
assess theologically the possibility of ‘remote communion’ in relation to the
essential features of the Lord’s Supper.
The Gathering of the People of God
As a sacrament of the Church, the Lord’s Supper not only points towards but
also participates in the reality that it signifies. Among the various aspects
of this reality is ‘communion’ (koinonia) with God and with one another in the
body of Christ. From its origins, the Lord’s Supper has involved what the
Methodist Worship Book refers to as “the gathering of the people of God”. This
gathering or assembly (the Greek word is ekklesia) itself visibly expresses the
unity and communion signified by the Lord’s Supper and is therefore an
essential feature of the sacrament.
Granted that technological change has always contributed to the development of
worship, the question arises: does the gathering of the people of God require a
physical presence or would it be possible for some or all to ‘gather’ by
electronic means of communication? Much has been written on the nature of
‘presence’ in the sphere of electronic communications, when people in locations
physically remote from one another may nevertheless be ‘present’ to one
another, but the idea of a ‘sacrament’ requires a physical, embodied presence,
which is therefore visible and tangible.
In the sphere of electronic communication, the idea of ‘presence’ is
essentially cognitive and disembodied; though it may be clearly visible in one sense,
such visibility is intangible. The term ‘social media’, often used to describe
certain forms of electronic communication, is somewhat ironic since the ability
of such means to establish what might concisely be termed ‘social presence’ is
inherently limited. The capacity to assume a false identity is an extreme
example of the way in which social media facilitate ‘social absence’ at least
as much as ‘social presence’. This is not to deny the usefulness of social
media for maintaining networks that link people for numerous purposes of a
genuinely social nature. However, social presence is only fully possible in a
physical, embodied encounter in which people establish a relationship in
numerous ways through verbal and non-verbal communication.
So far as the Church is concerned, social presence is most fully evident when
people physically gather to worship in the name of Christ, confess their sins
before God and before one another, exchange a physical sign of the Peace and
share together in “one bread” and “the cup of blessing” before being sent into
the world to live and work to God’s praise and glory. Social presence of this
kind does not exist when groups or individuals, physically remote from one another,
gather by electronic means. The corporate celebration of the Lord’s Supper is
visibly represented by the physical gathering of the people of God. Whatever
value there is in gathering the people of God by electronic means – and again
it is taken for granted that there is value in this – it does not signify the
visible unity and communion of the people of God.
The theological significance of physical embodiment and presence still holds
even in an age of advanced electronic communication where physical location no
longer constrains participation in numerous activities. Physical embodiment and
presence is central to God’s mission in the world. At the Incarnation, “the
Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus was fully human and
fully divine, physically embodied, visibly present in the world and tangible.
As the risen Lord, the embodied Jesus invites the disciples: ‘”Look at my hands
and feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see” (Luke 24:39). He continues
to eat with them (Luke 24:42-43) and invites the absent Thomas: “Put your
finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (John
The Church, as the body of Christ, is a mysterious union of the human and the
divine since Christ is really present among his people. As such, it must also
be physically embodied and visibly present in the world. The Church is most
fully and visibly itself when the people of God physically gather in order to
celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In contrast, the use of electronic means of communication
to participate in the Lord’s Supper does not constitute a representation of the
unity and communion of the people of God.
The physical exchange of a sign of the Peace, normally by shaking hands,
demonstrates and reinforces the unity and communion that is signified in the
sharing of “one bread” and “the cup of blessing” in the Lord’s Supper. It is a
liturgical expression of the New Testament injunction to “greet one another
with a holy kiss” (eg Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 1 Peter 5:14). Exchanging
the Peace is an ancient feature of the Lord’s Supper, even though its recovery
in Methodism results from the Liturgical Movement of the 1960s and 70s and is
still not universally observed. Exchanging the Peace was always more than a
mere formality as it signified the reconciliation of Christians within the body
of Christ and thus the resolution of disputes among members of the community.
The use of electronic means of communication to participate in the Lord’s
Supper excludes the possibility of a meaningful exchange of the Peace as a sign
A further consideration is the link between the gathering of the community to
celebrate the Lord’s Supper and holy living. “Those who gather round the table
of the Lord are empowered for mission: apostles sent out in the power of the
Spirit, to live and work to God’s praise and glory” (MWB, p. 114). The
community gathered at the Lord’s Supper is called to holy living in the Church
and in the world. Such holiness is never a solitary pursuit, and Methodists
have always emphasised the corporate nature of holy living. The physical
gathering of the people of God and their dismissal at the conclusion of the
Lord’s Supper manifests and strengthens the corporate nature of holy living in
which, in the words of Charles Wesley, Methodists “kindly help each other on”
(Singing the Faith 620). In contrast, the absence of a physical gathering of
the people of God at the Lord’s Supper would suggest that its benefits are
primarily individual, thereby compromising the essentially corporate nature of
What of those who are unable to be physically present at the celebration of the
Lord’s Supper? In the Methodist Church, anyone prevented from attending the
Lord’s Supper in a Local Church as a result of infirmity or some other good
reason may appropriately participate in the sacrament by current provision for
“Holy Communion in a Home or Hospital” (MWB, pp. 223-8) or else “Extended
Communion” (MWB pp. 229-34). A few exceptional cases of deprivation by reason
of isolation hardly make a case for departing from the received tradition of
the Methodist Church in Britain, where it is the policy of the Conference to
ensure a sufficient number of presbyters and other authorised persons so that
none need be deprived of receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
Presiding at the Lord’s Supper
The role of the ‘presiding minister’ (ie a presbyter or other authorised
person) is essential to the corporate celebration of the Lord’s Supper
according to Methodist tradition and experience. In the sign-action of the
Lord’s Supper, the presiding minister represents the person of Christ as head
of his body, the Church. The presiding minister gathers the people of God for
the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, leads them in the confession of sin and
pronounces a general absolution. He or she takes and prepares the bread and
wine for use, gives thanks over the bread and wine by offering what the
Methodist Worship Book calls “the great prayer of thanksgiving”, leads the
distribution of the bread and wine, and at the conclusion of the service dismisses
the people with a blessing. Together, and inseparably, these sign-actions
constitute ‘presidency’ at the Lord’s Supper – inseparable because they
symbolically represent Christ’s own actions at the Last Supper.
Whether and how a ‘blessing’ can be conferred by electronic means (and this is
an open question in the Methodist Church), it is incorrect to conceive the
celebration of the Lord’s Supper in terms of the consumption of bread and wine
upon which a presbyter or other authorised person has conferred a ‘blessing’.
To envisage ‘remote communion’ via electronic means of communication would
result in the disintegration of the role of the presiding minister as the
fourfold action of presidency would be undertaken by different people.
Specifically, those in physically remote locations would perform three of the
four acts of presidency for themselves – taking (their own) bread and wine and
preparing them for use, breaking the bread, and distributing it. To regard this
as unsatisfactory is to show concern not for the ecclesiastical status of the
presiding minister but for the integrity of the sign-actions of the Lord’s
Supper. These sign- actions are not about participants serving or helping
themselves to the bread and wine but about them being given and receiving the
bread and wine from the Lord’s table as if from the Lord himself.
The question of who may preside at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not addressed
here since it has been explored before on numerous occasions and is not
immediately relevant to the issue presently under consideration. Only
presbyters and others specifically authorised by the Conference may preside at
the Lord’s Supper. What is relevant to note, however, is that Methodist
tradition and experience requires that presidency at the Lord’s Supper is
properly exercised by one person enacting the sign-actions of Jesus at the Last
Supper. It would not be appropriate for these sign-actions to be shared among
several people, whether physically present at the Lord’s table or else remotely
using a separate supply of bread and wine.
The Body and Blood of Christ
As noted above, the Lord’s Supper does not simply involve the eating of bread
and the drinking of wine in memory of Christ, which practice might conceivably
be ritualised in any number of ways according to changing historical, cultural
or technological circumstances. Besides the gathering of the people of God and
the distinctive role of the presiding minister, among the essential features of
the Lord’s Supper are those sign-actions that relate to the consumption of the
bread and wine, which, in a sense that Methodists have not sought to define
theologically, symbolically represent the body and blood of Christ, and thus
his real presence.
Personal experience of participation in the Lord’s Supper is often so deep that
familiar forms become indistinguishable from the essential features, and
unfamiliar practices can be disturbing. Fortunately, it is unnecessary here to
attempt to evaluate or influence the variety of sacramental practice in
Methodism, which tends to reflect cherished custom and experience. Sensitive to
the variety of such practice among Methodists, this present report need only
consider whether the integrity of the Lord’s Supper is compromised when groups
or individuals, in a location physically remote from its celebration but
participating by electronic means of communication, consume a separate supply
of bread and wine, apparently as part of the distribution of the elements.
The body and blood of Christ are appropriately signified at the Lord’s Supper
by the use of a single loaf and a common cup. A single loaf, broken and
distributed following the great prayer of thanksgiving, signifies the unity and
integrity of Christ’s body, which is given for his people. The common cup,
shared by those present following the great prayer of thanksgiving, signifies
the unity and integrity of Christ’s blood, which is shed for his people. The
Joint Implementation Commission under the Covenant between the Methodist Church
in Britain and the Church of England in its interim report In the Spirit of the
Covenant (2005) commended the use of a single loaf (rather than individual communion
wafers) and a common communion cup (rather than individual communion cups)
For practical reasons, however, it may not always be possible or desirable to
use a single loaf and a common cup at the Lord’s Supper. Separate provision may
be needed for those who have a particular allergy. The presence of a large
number of participants may indicate the desirability of using individual wafers
or else breaking some of the bread prior to the service in order to facilitate
its smooth distribution. Similarly, it may be desirable to have more than one
common cup. In any case, among Methodists, it is normal to use individual
communion cups for the distribution of the communion wine, though the presiding
minister might also make use of a common cup during the prayer of thanksgiving.
In such circumstances, the unity and integrity of Christ’s body and blood are
signified by the bread and wine being taken and prepared together on the Lord’s
table prior to the prayer of thanksgiving being said over them and their
The unity and integrity of Christ’s body is further represented symbolically in
the distribution and shared consumption of the communion bread: “Though we are
many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread” (MWB, pp. 182, 194;
cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). St Paul deliberately uses these words in his
account of the Lord’s Supper not merely to describe a typical practice but to
interpret the sign-action of sharing in “one bread” and thus to explain why it
is an essential feature of the Lord’s Supper. Sharing in “one bread” signifies
unity in the body of Christ.
Likewise, the unity and integrity of Christ’s blood is further represented
symbolically in the distribution and shared consumption of the communion wine:
“The cup of blessing for which we give thanks is a sharing in the blood of
Christ” (MWB, p. 208; cf 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). St Paul deliberately uses
these words in his account of the Lord’s Supper not merely to describe a
typical practice but to interpret the sign-action of sharing in “the cup of
blessing”, and thus to explain why it is an essential feature of the Lord’s
Supper. Sharing in “the cup of blessing” (whether using a common cup or
individual communion cups) signifies unity in the blood of Christ.
The Reformers insisted on the importance of receiving both the bread and the
wine at the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the unity and
integrity of the body and blood of Christ has important pastoral implications
for the administration of communion to those with medical conditions. As the
“Notes” to “Holy Communion in a Home or Hospital” explain: “For pastoral
reasons, it may sometimes be desirable to give communion by dipping the bread
lightly in the wine or to give only the bread or the wine” (MWB, p. 223). A
person who receives only the bread is not thereby deprived of receiving the
blood of Christ. A person who receives only the wine is not thereby deprived of
receiving the body of Christ.
For many Methodists, the experience of gathering around the Lord’s table with
others to receive the communion bread and wine is deeply meaningful. In
contrast to methods of continuous administration, distributing the bread and
wine to successive ‘tables’ of communicants gives visible expression to the
corporate nature of the Lord’s Supper. In some churches, the usual practice is
for such ‘tables’, or even the whole congregation, to eat the communion bread
at the same time and drink the communion wine at the same time. This similarly
demonstrates the corporate nature of the Lord’s Supper. While particular
methods of distributing the bread and wine are not essential features of the
Lord’s Supper, nevertheless they often demonstrate and reinforce the corporate
nature of the sacrament.
What, then, is signified when groups or individuals, in a location physically
remote from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper but participating by
electronic means of communication, consume a separate supply of bread and wine,
apparently as part of the distribution of the communion elements? Manifestly,
the physical remoteness of this separate supply from the bread and wine on the
Lord’s table during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper contradicts the unity
and integrity of the body and blood of Christ. The failure to share together in
eating “this bread” contradicts the essential unity and integrity of the body
of Christ. The failure to share together in drinking “the cup of blessing”
contradicts the essential unity and integrity of the blood of Christ.
Altogether, it compromises the integrity of the Lord’s Supper.
In the case of “Extended Communion”, those who were not present at the
celebration of the Lord’s Supper receive bread and wine from that service,
which is now ‘extended’ to include additional recipients, as the opening
I bring these holy gifts that you may share
in the communion of [the Lord’s] body and blood. The bread and wine which we
share in this service come from a celebration of the Lord’s Supper at N …
Church on (date). We who are many are one body, because we all share in one
bread (MWB, p. 230).
communion in this way is an ancient practice in the Church, preceding any
particular theology of the way in which the body and blood of Christ are (and
continue to be) present under the particular signs of bread and wine. Extended
Communion safeguards the integrity of the Lord’s Supper, whilst extending its
benefits to those who have been unable to attend. Its restoration in the
Methodist Church in Britain has been in response to a pastoral need.
The following summary conclusions proceed from the foregoing sections and form
the basis of the Faith and Order Committee’s specific recommendations in the
final section of this report. It is possible to be unequivocal in stating these
Scripture and tradition (Methodist and ecumenical), affirmed by the experience
of Methodists over many generations, provide clear norms as to how the
Methodist Church may continue to be faithful to the Lord’s commandment in
relation to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Although the Methodist Church has not endorsed any particular sacramental
theology, its doctrine concerning the Lord’s Supper, as expressed in the
doctrinal standards and authorised hymnody and liturgy, combined with its
regulation of sacramental practice, reveals an intention to ensure that
Methodism remains faithful to the Lord’s will.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the Church. It is celebrated corporately by
the people of God with an authorised president. The physical gathering of
Christians (normally around the Lord’s table) is an essential feature of the
corporate celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Such a gathering embodies and makes
visible the communion with God and with one another that is signified in the
Lord’s Supper. Exchanging a physical sign of the Peace further demonstrates and
reinforces visible unity and communion among the gathered people of God. An
electronic means of communication, by its very nature, does not physically
gather Christians together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and so fails to
represent symbolically what the sacrament signifies.
Presiding at the Lord’s Supper does not simply involve being a leader of
worship or even saying certain words. Presiding at the Lord’s Supper is a
distinctive role that involves, among other things, the fourfold sign-action of
taking bread, giving thanks, breaking and giving the bread (and the threefold
sign-action of taking the cup of blessing, giving thanks, and then giving the
wine) to the gathered people of God. The integrity of presiding at the Lord’s
Supper, and hence the integrity of the sacrament, is compromised when one or
more of these sign-actions is performed separately at a location physically
remote from the gathering of the people of God.
The communion bread and wine symbolically represent the body and blood of
Christ. For this reason, they also symbolically represent the unity and
integrity of the body and blood of Christ. This symbolic representation fails
in the case of separate quantities of bread and wine, as when groups or
individuals at a location physically remote from the celebration of the Lord’s
Supper use their own elements. Furthermore, sharing together in “one bread” and
“the cup of blessing” is an essential feature of the Lord’s Supper. This
symbolic representation of sharing together in the body and blood of Christ
also fails where groups or individuals remotely use their own bread and wine.
For this reason, using an electronic means of communication to invite groups or
individuals at locations physically remote from the celebration of the Lord’s
Supper to participate using their own communion bread and wine compromises the
integrity of the sacrament.
Since unity in the essential features of the Lord’s Supper is necessary for
unity in the Church, radical innovation in the way that the Methodist Church
permits the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated would have very significant negative
implications for relations with ecumenical partners at a time when the
Conference is committed to working towards the goal of visible unity. By the
claims made in its own doctrinal standards, the Methodist Church is constrained
both by a general responsibility towards the universal Church for the
guardianship and right use of the sacraments, and by its specific
responsibilities under an Anglican-Methodist Covenant, to preserve and extend
the existing unity in the essential features of the Lord’s Supper as a necessary
step on the way to visible unity.
To return to the original Memorial to the Conference from the South-East
District, it must be emphasised that this present report has not argued that
‘remote communion’ is ‘irregular’, ‘invalid’ or ‘contrary’ to the ‘rules’,
‘practice’ or ‘discipline’ of the Methodist Church. Such terms are often
interpreted pejoratively as being prohibitive in a legalistic sense. Instead,
the Faith and Order Committee has demonstrated that it is not possible
theologically to recognise ‘remote communion’ (as described in the Memorial) as
being truly the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as this has been received in the
Methodist Church. For the Conference to permit such practice by Methodist
presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the Lord’s Supper would compromise
the integrity of the sacrament.
The Faith and Order Committee recommends that the Conference adopt the policy
that presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the sacrament of the
Lord’s Supper may not be permitted to use electronic means of communication, such
as the internet or videoconferencing, in order to invite those not physically
present at the celebration of the sacrament to participate by using their own
communion bread and wine.
The Faith and Order Committee recommends that presbyters and other persons
authorised to preside at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper make full use of
current provisions in the Methodist Worship Book for “Holy Communion in a Home
or Hospital” and for “Extended Communion” as part of the Local Church’s regular
pastoral visitation and care of those who, for good reason, are prevented from
attending services in church.
The Faith and Order Committee recommends that the Methodist people continue to
engage in theological investigation concerning the use of electronic means of
communication in relation to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in consultation
with ecumenical partners. A short resource list for further reading will be
placed on the Faith and Order section of the Methodist Church website.
The Conference received the report as an interim
report and directed that the further work be undertaken (including the
involvement of those set out in the original response to the M13 (2011), young
people involved with 3Generate, CODEC and others with broad, in- depth
expertise in this fast developing area) and that a fuller report be presented
to the Conference no later than 2018.
Appendix to the Position Statement
Memorial M13 (2011)
M13 Communion mediated through social media
The South East District Synod (M) (Present: 80. Voting: 72
for, 8 against) requests the Conference to instruct the Faith and Order
Committee to form a policy regarding the practice of celebrating Holy Communion
with dispersed communities via live, interactive media such as the Internet or
video- conferencing. In this form of remote communion, a minister in one
location would be permitted to preside over a celebration of Holy Communion
with a gathered group of fellowshipping believers consisting of groups or
individuals residing in disparate locations who provide their own elements to be
blessed by the person presiding. Synod asks that clarity be given by the Faith
and Order Committee as to whether such a form of Holy Communion is acceptable
within our discipline and practice.
The Conference thanks the South East District for its
memorial, and notes that the Faith and Order Committee was asked to explore the
theological and liturgical basis for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper through
the use of social media in the summer of 2010. In its advice to those members
of the Connexional Team dealing with the enquiry, the Committee pointed to the
previous statements of the Methodist Church on the celebration of the Lord’s
Supper which emphasise the corporate nature of this celebration. The Committee
discussed the suitability of a love feast as an appropriate alternative to a
celebration of the Lord’s Supper remotely using social media. The Committee
raised considerable concerns about the concept of ‘remote’ sacraments.
It is clear, however, from the initial and subsequent
discussions at the Faith and Order Committee and from the comments made in the
memorial that further consideration should be given and a formal response or
clarification given on the issue of Remote Communion or, more preferably, Communion
mediated through social media.
Although the Conference notes the specific nature of the
memorial in outlining a particular liturgical practice, the Conference
instructs the Faith and Order Committee to establish an appropriate group to
discuss the issues related to this memorial and to report back to a future
Conference at the earliest opportunity. This group should include members of
the Faith and Order Worship and Liturgy Resource Group, CODEC*, and appropriate
members of the Connexional Team (eg Discipleship and Ministries, Youth and
Children/Youth Assembly, Communications, Evangelism Spirituality and Discipleship).
If possible, the group should have representation from the Joint Implementation
Commission or the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England, from
Fresh Expressions, and from the United Reformed Church, in order to assist in
the ecumenical exploration of the issue and any potential impact on the
Anglican-Methodist Covenant of any potential outcomes proposed, as well as
drawing on the experience of other Churches currently exploring this issue.
*CODEC is a research initiative at St John’s College, Durham
University which is exploring Christian Communication and Identity in a Digital