And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There ; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows ; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
And God held in his hand
Fr Simon Rundell, Parish Priest, Parishes of Bickleigh and Shaugh Prior, Plymouth, Diocese of Exeter.
Worship with children, especially sacramental worship with children needs to tread a fine line between accessibility for the participants and authenticity to the faith which is manifest in worship. Within the canon of Fresh Expressions, there have been many innovative gatherings which have struggled to find this balance, and the challenges of Messy Eucharist for example to move from gathering to sacrament have been well documented.
The Nursery Rhyme Mass (NRM) is an ongoing, collaborative initiative to enable authentic expression of the sacramental but in idioms which are appropriate to children from pre-school to school year 6 (Age 10/11). By reinterpreting the liturgical structure of Common Worship and by reworking age-appropriate rhymes set to traditional nursery rhyme tunes, a new liturgy is formed which is identifiably Anglican and yet owned by young people.
Brian Ogden published a series of Nativity Plays set to Nursery Rhymes and this provided the springboard for parish youth workers and priest to collaborate to create this liturgy. The key challenge was in the representation of each individual element of the liturgical structure with a suitable rhyme, and then to find appropriate rhymes. Many of the rhymes simply fell together with little effort and then were modified in practice, either to improve the rhyming scheme or to enhance the theological message.
So in an act of penitence, set to the tune of “Ba Ba Black Sheep”, after absolution there is a resounding song of thanks to “If you’re happy and you know it…” which culminates in a powerful “If you believe that God forgives you say “We do…”” “WE DO!” They all shout. Such liturgical elements can be frequently reused in Collective Worship, which (much to the approval of SIAMS Inspectors) emphasises the connection of school Collective Worship to the wider worshipping community with full gathering songs, penitential rites, intercessions and Trinitarian blessings borrowed directly from the NRM. Although a whole Eucharist Prayer was written (to the tune of Kum By Yah) it is always replaced by initially the excellent Roman Prayer 2 for Children and now the Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer for Children once it had been authorised.
Coming from a distinctly Anglican sacramental tradition, the NRM unashamedly seeks to express this Anglican charism within its texts, speaking of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and evoking images and metaphors consistent with liberal Anglocatholicism. In an age when certain powerfully rich Evangelical strands can enforce their own spin on Anglicanism through their materials, this is a subtle, low-tech and under-resourced response. Churches uncomfortable with the praying of the Hail Mary during the intercessions may simply omit it, for this Creative Commons-released project encourages local adaptation and refinement which can feed back into the project and enrich it. No copyright is claimed on the materials and they are freely available on the website: www.nurseryrhymemass.org.uk
It can be employed with little or no additional resource. The songs are always sung acapella. As a priest quite comfortable with the use of multimedia, I usually used slides for the liturgy but as demonstrated when the school projector was out of action, the children quickly absorbed the words and demonstrated that they actually didn’t need the text. A screen is much more engaging than a printed sheet of rhymes and these should be avoided as much as possible.
The NRM is used weekly in a Church of England Primary School, and frequently as the liturgy of a Family Mass aimed at pre-schoolers. In school, in their own time, between 8 and 20 young people participate and communicate weekly. This is connected to a parish ethos which is more concerned with administering the sacraments of salvation than preventing access to them: a completely open table is practiced and all children, regardless of baptism, admission to communion or confirmation are invited to communicate. However, for safeguarding reasons, in school, communion is received in only one kind (the Host) unless a child has been formally admitted to Holy Communion. Other Churches in the UK, Australia and Canada have also adopted its use and contributions and refinements are received from far and wide.
The use of the NRM has greatly increased the decision of unbaptised children to seek Baptism of their own volition, for families to find deeper and lasting connection with the church following Baptism and for young people to further engage in Admission to Holy Communion and Confirmation (depending upon age). In my own Parish, children who receive First Communion are strongly encouraged to continue to participate in sacramental worship from that point onwards. It has been used successfully at All Age Masses with positive response from both adults and children communicants.
So, if we are to proclaim the Gospel afresh in each generation then we should be prepared to use tools which are both authentic to our spirituality and theological expression but which are couched in language, metaphor and style which reaches the participants. I pray that it will continue to grow and enable even more young people to meet with Christ in his most Holy and Blessed Sacrament.
Fr Simon Rundell
Fr. Simon’s books: https://amzn.to/2FNgPKX
Please feel free to take any image from the website: https://www.nurseryrhymemass.org.uk/
 Ogden B (2002) Nursery Rhyme Nativities, BRF. Oxford.
 Rundell S (2011) Sacramental Worship with Children Canterbury Press. Norwich.
 Common Worship Ordinal
Revelation requires both the willingness of God to reveal and the openness of humankind to be revealed to. This possibly explains that whilst the nature of God is unchanging, our understanding of the nature of God may change over time as our hearing and reflection on that Word becomes more nuanced. This becomes problematic when one ties theology to an unchanging document in changing times and the context of a concretely derived document such as Scripture is ignored and may even become a false idol itself.
What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws?
Outlaws are wanted.
I bought my friend an elephant for his room.
He said “Thanks”
I said “Don’t mention it”
I bought the world’s worst thesaurus yesterday. Not only is it terrible, it’s terrible.
This is my step ladder. I never knew my real ladder.
My friend asked me to help him round up his 37 sheep.
I said “40”
What’s the difference between a good joke and a bad joke timing.
I told my girlfriend she drew her eyebrows too high.
She seemed surprised.
I have the heart of a lion and a lifetime ban from the London zoo.
I have an EpiPen. My friend gave it to me when he was dying, it seemed very important to him that I have it.
I bought some shoes from a drug dealer. I don’t know what he laced them with, but I’ve been tripping all day.
Two clowns are eating a cannibal.
One turns to the other and says “I think we got this joke wrong”
My wife told me I had to stop acting like a flamingo. So I had to put my foot down.
What’s the difference between a hippo and a zippo?
One is really heavy, and the other is a little lighter.
I poured root beer in a square glass.
Now I just have beer.
My friend says to me: “what rhymes with orange”
I said: “no it doesn’t”
And God said to John, come forth and you shall be granted eternal life.
But John came fifth and won a toaster.
How many opticians does it take to change a lightbulb?
Is it one or two? One… or two?
What do we want?
Low flying airplane noises!
When do we want them?
Why did the old man fall in the well?
Because he couldn’t see that well.
Whatdya call a frenchman wearing sandals?
What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?
What do you call a dog that does magic tricks?
So what if I don’t know what Armageddon means? It’s not the end of the world
I went bobsleighing the other day, killed 250 bobs
A blind man walks into a bar. And a table. And a chair.
How do you get two whales in a car?
Start in England and drive west.
I’ve found a job helping a one armed typist do capital letters.
It’s shift work
Wife says to her programmer husband, “Go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, buy a dozen.”
Husband returns with 12 loaves of bread.
Communism jokes aren’t funny unless everyone gets them
What did the pirate say when he turned 80 years old?
What do the movies Titanic and the sixth sense have in common.
Icy dead people
I used to be addicted to soap, but now I’m clean…
What time does Sean Connery go to Wimbledon?
Dishes Sean Connery
Have you heard about those new corduroy pillows? They’re making headlines.
I couldn’t figure out why the baseball kept getting larger. Then it hit me.
Two men meet on opposite sides of a river. One shouts to the other “I need you to help me get to the other side!”
The other guy replies “You are on the other side!”
Ever noticed that glass tastes like blood?
My friends say there’s a gay guy in our circle of friends… I really hope it’s Todd, he’s cute.
I’ve been told I’m condescending.
(that means I talk down to people)
Guy walks into a bar and orders a fruit punch.
Bartender says “Pal, if you want a punch you’ll have to stand in line”
Guy looks around, but there is no punch line.
Two drums and a cymbal fall off a cliff.
People in Dubai don’t like the Flintstones.
But people in Abu Dhabi do!
Why don’t ants get sick?
Because they have little antybodies.
How did the hipster burn his mouth?
He ate the pizza before it was cool.
What thinks the unthinkable?
A dyslexic man walks into a bra
Before your criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticize them, you’re a mile away and have their shoes.
What’s ET short for?
He’s only got little legs.
What’s the difference between a BMW and a porcupine?
A porcupine has pricks on the outside.
What does Lent mean to you?
Lent is a time of preparation, of taking a season to reflect and prepare for the most significant week in the Christian Life: that is Holy Week – the Passion of Christ through to the Triumph of the Resurrection.
I think Lent is less about what you give up than what you take up. Dieting over Lent is… just a diet, something for my own benefit and my own vanity, whereas taking up something, some charitable act, some devotion or prayer ritual helps others and helps me also.
For me it is a time to pray more, for me quiet contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament, and the praying of the Rosary, to dwell on Scripture more, reflect more and even repent – I only go to make my confession a few times a year, but that act of reconciliation in the early part of Holy Week is so important to me, an opportunity to come to God in openness and honesty. It takes me all of Lent to build up to that, and to seek true reconciliation and a fresh start. In some ways, 40 days isn’t enough. But the feeling after that reconciliation: to be assured of God’s love and forgiveness takes me from the depths of Peter’s denial to his forgiveness on the beach.
What could you live without?
I could live without feelings of guilt, of self-recrimination, of doubt which undermines my self-esteem. If I was able to ditch those major thorns in my flesh that things would be a lot better, and I could adjust to flourishing as a complete child of God, but I’m not sure I can let those self-accusations go fully. Yet.
What does hope look like?
Hope looks like an empty tomb, which has let it’s occupant loose because it cannot hold him. Hope looks like the promise that he would be with us always. Hope comes in the visceral presence of God in broken bread and wine outpoured which transforms the broken and those who have it all together alike, Hope is the result of being assured of his return in Glory and the opportunity we have to make this world a better place in readiness for his return.
Some work on Ecclesiology and Ethnography led me to an essay by Fr Kenneth Leech “Beyond Gin and Lace: Homosexuality and the Anglo-Catholic Subculture” which can be found at http://www.anglocatholicsocialism.org/lovesname.html#gin1
1 “Beyond Gin and Lace: Homosexuality and the Anglo-Catholic Subculture”. In Beck, Ashley; Hunt, Ros. Speaking Love’s Name: Homosexuality: Some Catholic and Socialist Reflections. London: Jubilee Group. 1988. pp. 16–27. OCLC 19881427. Retrieved 30th January 2019
In it (and it was written in 1988, before the ordination of women priests, and its language is strikingly of that we used in the mid/late 80s on Anti-Section 28/9 Marches, which seems a little problematic now), Leech explores the confusing relationship between the ready embracing of Anglocatholicism by (at the time) gay men and its bizarre simultaneously homophobic and misogynistic nature. Recently, letters have been written to the Bishops condemning the Pastoral Advice over the reception of the newly transitioned with a renewal of baptismal vows from not just the Conservative Evangelical but also the Anglocatholic, and my Twitter timeline is padded with expensively dressed youngish men who extol a fervid ritualism and an equally conservative approach to social policy.
Leech – a lifelong sacramental socialist – sitting on the fringe of Anglocatholicism appears mystified by this duality. To me, it feels like Stockholm Syndrome, where the captive develops empathy and then love for the thing that imprisons it. Without LGBT+ Clergy the whole church would fall, not merely as it would fail to represent the true body of Christ, but because of the sheer numbers of devoted, committed LGBT+ people in its clergy and in its pews. Why then, does the Church and the Anglocatholic Tradition therefore stand so condemnatory of its own?
I was a product of a Theological College where Names and Religion held sway: a nickname that put you in the opposite gender: Ruby, Minerva, Gloria, Mildred (we were all male ordinands at the time, and ordinand wives were given names like Steve and Bruce: I expect the female ordinands get them now) with all the arch-knowingness of a drag act. Straight or Gay (married, single or very single) these nicknames were pervasive and accepted, even celebrated. With it, came acceptance. Some Ordinands had girlfriends come to stay, some had boyfriends come to stay. They were all welcomed, accepted, celebrated even.
Most people in the pews now have a very relaxed attitude towards LBGT+ people, because they know them, are related to them, work with them. In a very traditional title parish, an elderly lady was set against women priests “Well Farv, I’d sooner have one of ’em ‘gay priests’ behind the altar than a woman” as I thought of the succession of my numerous predecessors who remained (to the parish) closeted and whose sexual identity was overlooked and ignored. I pray that as more women and LGBT+ people are in visible ministry such antipathy will diminish through familiarity, but with a self-defeating loathing, little appears to have changed. As Leech in 1988 concludes this dualism can be pathological and toxic
Certainly, some AC priests seem to operate on the basis of a rigid anti-gay position in what they say, combined with a very permissive attitude in what they do and in their pastoral dealings with others. The combination of public anti-gay rhetoric and private gay lifestyle is well known in some AC circles and produces curiously unpleasant manifestations from time to time. Statements by some leading AC bishops in recent months suggest that they too are living in two worlds, speaking in public as if “practising” homosexual clergy did not exist in their dioceses, yet surely knowing from their pastoral experience that this is not the case. The AC subculture seems to have promoted this kind of doublespeak and dualism, and encouraged its growth. It is not a promising basis on which to build a responsible sexual ethic.
If the nature of sacramentalism is only to force our true natures inside, in private, in denial of our incarnated realities, and Anglocatholicism (whatever that actually means – Leech’s historical pen portrait was simplistic but an interesting overview of wider general interest) engenders that dualism, then it is neither healthy nor realistic. With the advent of renewed anti-LGBT+ sentiment here in the late 2010s, we need to understand and at times challenge this self-loathing.
I was asked what I thought of it. This was my response…
Evangelism is at the heart of all Christian calling, a living out of the baptismal call and is therefore not unique to the Pioneer charism, but the way in which it is intentionally shaped is depending upon the Pioneering context.
As Pioneering is based upon a situational, ground-up approach to building community, so evangelism within those communities is also based upon situational, contextual approaches. The top-down, one-size-fits-all, hierarchically imposed model of discipleship is therefore inappropriate because strategies have to be based upon first the people with whom we are called to work. The model for mission and evangelism therefore has to be a close application of Acts 17: Paul speaking to the Areopagus where he contextualises the Gospel message to begin where his audience/congregation/mission field are at. He assimilates the Hellenistic model of both rhetoric and spirituality and seeks to transform it. Therefore any Fresh Expression which evangelises using an Alpha Course isn’t really Pioneering.
Where I have seen this most effectively is when different techniques and approaches have been adopted for different constituencies: the mid-teens who became involved in the first incarnation of Blessed were inspired by ritual, mystery and setting fire to tealights and incense: a technique which almost entirely failed with a different group of younger people in a different parish (after I had moved) who responded to an interactive story-telling and activity-based mode of evangelism. On the face of it, two entirely different modes of mission, the latter of which had to be experientially discovered.
So, to my mind, Pioneer Evangelism calls for flexibility of approach: a willingness to ditch well loved and well worn familiar techniques of evangelism and an embracing of the context in which we Pioneer; a process of listening and discerning which does not automatically discount the life-experiences of the community, but which speaks their language (a good example would be Fr Robb Sutherland’s Rock Mass in a very poor estate in Halifax), which authentically projects the charism of the evangelist themselves (no clones of Nicky Gumbel or Mark Driscoll required) and transforms any given gathering or community with the Good News of Jesus for them, not some asinine middle-class aspiration of megachurch.
Thoughts and reflections that didn’t get used at PremDAC18
Introduction and overview
Imagine my friends, there exists a country where it is said that only evil prevails; where abuse of people because of their gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, income and ethnicity abound daily; where violence is threatened; and fraud is a daily risk of doing business there. It is also a country where the Church has been reluctant to go. A country where the deep spiritual yearnings of many of that country’s inhabitants are unmet because all denominations of the Church are scared to do more than simply put up a poster telling you the times where they meet elsewhere. It is a Spiritual no-go area and definitely one where so far, the Church (in all its diversity, wonder, glory and frailty) have decided that Christ should not, and indeed cannot be properly proclaimed. It is a land where, up to now, the Church has decided that the Sacraments don’t work.
Wouldn’t that be a terrible place, my friends? Where Christ was thought to be absent? Where baptism and eucharist was denied to those to seek it? Would we not want to castigate the Church for being afraid to send missionaries into that field? Would we not want to fervently evangelise its people with the Good News and bring them the Sacraments of Salvation?
But that is where the Church, the Body of Christ, currently stands at the present on the Digital Space, the land of the Cyber, the new frontier where because it is currently viewed like a map [xkcd map of the internet] where “here be dragons” is written, the Church and the Academy are unwilling to engage in this mission field and deny its indigent people the living water.
My name is Fr Simon Rundell, and I am a Church of England Parish Priest in the South West; my background and spirituality is grounded in the sacramental life of the church and that would make me, if labels were a necessity, an Anglocatholic, a “high church” person where sign and ritual and above all the incarnational reality of Christ present in the sacraments of the church are both the tools of mission and the signs of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the world today.
My key interests are in using the sacraments as the tools of mission: engaging people into a deeper relationship with God through these powerful ancient signs and expressing them in ways which are both rooted in that history and contextualised for the current age. This means moving liturgy, ritual and image into the digital space and using multimedia, highly visual imagery in the support of the sacraments. This has been honed for many years through alt.worship and emergent communities such as Blessed, Holy Ground and at events such as Greenbelt (when it was still possible to plug things into the mains), the National Youth Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Sanctum Conference for Sacramental Fresh Expressions.
My Twitter Biography describes me as (quite accurately, I believe) a pusher of pixels and sacraments (twitter bio). In equal measure.
So in this session, I want to explore how the digital environment enhances existing sacramental mission and then look forward to where it might lead us so that this rich digital ocean may bring forth a shoal of soals.
What do we understand as Sacraments?
Depending on where you sit in the massive marquee that we call the Church, there are a huge variety of understandings, interpretations, emphases on (or avoidance of) the significance, meaning, effect and of course, number of sacraments used in the Church. Ask five Anglicans about the sacraments and you’ll get about nine different answers, and the understanding in the pews does not always match that which is promulgated from the pulpit, the Doctrine Commission or the Magesterium.
Perhaps drawing upon the excellent catechetical teaching many of you would have received in Sunday School, one of the classic descriptions of the Sacraments is that they are:
“outward physical signs of inward, spiritual grace”
Which again can mean whatever you really want. Things that speak of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christ left the Spirit within the Church from the Day of Pentecost, so that she might not only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable but be the sign and assurance of God’s presence on earth.
The list of two or seven sacraments is therefore inadequate for the protean manifestation of the Spirit on earth, and must begin at a more fundamental level, and begin, with the primary, primordial sacrament himself: Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Both fully human and fully divine (thank you, the Council of Chalcedon), the Belgian theologian and one of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, Edvard Schillebeecx, spoke of Christ as the Sacrament from whom all Sacraments flow. This echoes the writing of Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Boenhoeffer in recognising that Christ is at the centre of all: the Word which moves over the waters from the Beginning, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Anywhere that God is not present can only be described as Hell, and even Christ descended there to preach (pic: Apostles Creed), and so there is NOWHERE that Christ cannot be present.
From Christ himself springs the other Primordial Sacrament: the partner with the Holy Spirit in the creation of Scripture and the ongoing manifestation of the Body of Christ: the Church. The Lord declared that whereever two or three are gathered, then the Body of Christ is manifest. As people of faith gather together in Digital Space, in discussion forums, in seeking prayer on Twitter and Facebook, in long pointless arguments on Reddit, or the Ship of Fools, how can we deny that their association, in the presence of the Christ who is in all, is not some part of the gathering of the Body of Christ?
It was the Church who pondered, identified and ordered the other sacraments of the Church: recalling those directly instituted by the Lord and recorded in Scripture (Baptism and the Eucharist, making four already) and those inferred by his actions, teaching and the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit: Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation and Healing (making nine). Indeed, if the fingerprints of God may be spotted on all of creation, what can be said to be beyond sacramental grace? Scripture, for example, clearly contains an outward physicality in words (said, inscribed on clay tablets, copied on manuscripts or printed) and an inner reality of the Word. Is all life sacramental?
My work as a priest is to be a conduit of the sacraments: to enable these manifestations of God’s grace to be present. It is not be their guardian or custodian and to keep them from the people but to enable them. We must be clear that the Priest is only God’s avatar, and the work of the Holy Spirit is what brings about these sacraments. In each of these Holy Sacraments, the Holy Spirit is invoked and there is a point of Epiclesis – the meeting of heaven and earth in the power of the Spirit. It has been to the detriment of many in the Catholic Tradition that the work of the Spirit in this sacramental life has been diminished and the detriment of the Charismatic Tradition that the manifestation of the Spirit in the sacraments has been diminished.
Digitally Communicated Sacraments: Digital Mediation
Almost instinctively, the Church ™ has shrunk back from the idea of digitally mediated sacraments, but we should ask ourselves perhaps, what actually is digital mediation? If I require a hearing aid, which is a digital device, have I heard the words of the priest, or have I heard a digitally enhanced, mediated version of it? If I see it pictured on a screen, because the Mass is taking place at the other end of a massive basilica, a megachurch or a field at Greenbelt and is too tiny to see otherwise, have I been present, even though I was unable to see it with any clarity without the Jumbotron screen? If I am prayed for over a Skype session, perhaps for my healing, is that any less that being prayed for in a prayer meeting, or even being prayed for when I am not even present? Dare we place any limit on the power of God, or the efficacy of prayer in any circumstance? The moment we start to place limits is the moment that we try and limit the power of God, which as we all know, cannot be contained. (? Story of the Boy and the Sugarbowl)
In many Churches, digital screens are commonplace, moving beyond projectors (not the best idea for a bright sunny Sunday morning) and with flat screen TVs available for £350, you can even put one in the pulpit of a traditional church without the need for a faculty
In my work as a Parish Priest, as one who gives Spiritual Direction and acts as a Confessor, most encounters still take place face-to-face; and yet there are some which do not. Many of the younger people who see me for Spiritual Direction live in disparate places across the country, and so find Skype and Facebook Messenger to be the ideal medium for such support. Often this Spiritual Direction turns into the Sacrament of Reconciliation, an it does not for a single moment feel any less authentic than a face to face sacrament. Reconciliation with God is sought, advice is given and Absolution assured. For both the penitent and myself we are both confident that God’s grace has been given and so the Sacrament is complete. Given the incomplete nature of the technology as it exists at present, this is one of the sacraments which feels possible now, alongside Christ and the Church and as technology continues to develop, the others will come online (literally and metaphorically) as well.
I have worked on other experiments in this area, particularly in the sacrament of reconciliation, with an Online Confessional based upon one described by Teresa Berger in her excellent book @Worship, and we should recognise that there is a huge need for an act of reconciliation in not only Christian terms, but in a wider sense. The Social Media network Whisper allows the anonymous posting of text and image and for the majority age group serves as both a humorous and poignant confessional. On paper, you should be aware of the PostSecret Project, which we turned into a digitally mediated reflection in itself for Holy Ground in Exeter Cathedral, as it is posted weekly in a blog (PostSecret Video)
When we look to the future, it is impossible to guess where technology will lead us next, for after all, in the 1950s IBM only imagined a market for five or six computers in the world. In a future when the only restraint might be our imagination and creativity, I would suggest that Science Fiction is where hints about future technology and our relationships with it may lie. In the 19th Century Jules Verne wrote fancifully about a Journey to the Moon, and by the latter half of the 20th Century we had achieved that.
When a new medium is first invented, the initial intention of it is seldom envisaged. Do you remember when 3G phone technology was invented, they touted Voice Calling and Messaging, because they had not envisaged the possibilities of the mobile internet. In a previous life, I was a health information guru in the NHS, and we spoke in the 90s of the excitement of bridging the final mile from the workstation to the bedside. And now? The mobile internet has more that bridged that, and is starting to exceed data traffic of traditional PC usage. Similarly, the Internet was primarily a communications network: a vast infrastructure to connect machines and transfer plain text files between Unix systems. As technology and most importantly bandwidth has improved, so the methods of communication have improved and full motion video communications (Skype), picture-based social media (Instagram) and Cat Videos (YouTube) have become the staple methods of communication not just for the children of the digital age, but for their grandparents also.
In the 2018 Spielberg film Ready Player One, the near-apocalyptic real world is largely supplanted by a huge digital one known as the Oasis, a fully immersive environment where one can not only be entertained, but work, learn and effectively live. Its immersion is possible because of the development of haptics which provide feedback to the player. At present this is limited to a shaking gaming seat or a steering wheel but when extrapolated into a complete suit, the separation of person from digital environment is removed and the Platonian shadows on the wall of the cave become inseparable from reality. There is nothing virtual about something that can be physically encountered, which is why Sacraments exist.
In the Oasis, all of human existence is possible, and so that cannot preclude the presence of God and his manifestation into that world. Of course at present, we are only at the beginning of this journey and through a series of thought experiments and sandbox trials we can but hint at the Oasis that is to come. In its present form, the sacramental life beyond the Primordial Sacraments cannot be realised, but there are hints, as we gaze through the letterbox of a monitor at a 3D rendered environment and try to imagine where this will lead us. Ready Player One looks at a world where digital is not merely the means of communication, but is the landscape itself. This is the world that digital evangelists need to be prepared for; where digital liturgy needs to speak, and where all the sacraments of God may find expression.
I have started to experiment with environments such as Gary’s Mod which extends the Valve Engine which created Half Life, Portal and Counterstrike into creating an environment for active Christians and seekers of faith may gather and engage with each other; be fed by God’s Word and enriched in study, prayer and reflection. It is a tantalising foretaste, but highly limited in immersion. The major difference in modifying what started out as a First Person Shooter and the early experiments with faith in Second Life begins with a matter of perspective. At all times in Second Life, the avatar was visible and the disconnect obvious, with with a first person perspective, we are there, even if we don’t understand yet where there might actually be. In the future, further immersion will engender deeper engagement.
Digital Worlds offer unforeseen opportunities, and wherever there are opportunities, God steps in. The digital environment has seen innovative disruption of many traditional businesses and social structures, from Uber to the Cloud-based Office; in the same way as Bitcoin disrupted, undermined and transformed the banking transaction, so perhaps we see glimpses of a… bitSacrament which finds a new way of transacting grace in a digital space.
God is not absent. Christ, the alpha and omega, is in all and over all. The body of Christ in ecclesial form gathers and networks into community. Let us see where God leads us and imagine.