Creating Digital Sacred Space

A paper given online for Premiere Digital

Because I am too young for an interest in railway trains and too old to gain proficiency in Call of Duty, I am therefore a Parish Priest with an interest in mission and creative worship particularly curating worship which is digitally mediated. I even completed an MA in Digital Theology just a few months before COVID19 locked us all down.

I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to explore what I see as important in creating sacred space both theologically and practically. How can what I have thought about and do week in and week out, help you determine what all of this means. Coming from a distinctly sacramental perspective how can this even be ‘proper’ church?

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider how we engage with God. Connection with God occurs on two levels: externally through Worship: art, performance, music and the sacred space of church, chapel or megachurch auditorium, and internally: prayer and meditation, divine reading of scripture and through revelation by the Holy Spirit and so on. There is of course a liminal intersection – a thin place – between the external and the internal which is where ritual and sacrament inhabit both domains.

Our entire faith is really an internal process: it is lived deep within our souls. All faith is therefore a spiritual communion; from the acceptance in our hearts of      Jesus Christ as Lord at conversion, to the receiving of sacramental grace, all external forms whether expressed in analogue or digital ways are ultimately experienced as spiritual communion. This, of course, is then reflected out into a living faith which seeks to embrace the external, the whole world until the Kingdom of God is built on top of the satanic mills and the love intimately shown to us in spiritual communion is reflected out in love to neighbour and stranger.

This happens in both the digital and what I refer to as the analogue church, even though the external sphere appear very different, the internal is within us, it is our souls reaching out to God in prayer and worship.  Do not think that because you cannot touch the digital, it is no less real, but like God, it’s genuine transcendent reality is both real and really different.

The Digital therefore  is not merely a substandard copy of something real, but we should recognise that when something becomes indistinguishable from its original, it becomes in effect the thing itself[1].

Rather than thinking that all the time we have spent since the advent of COVID19 is merely doing Church Online, I want us to understand that we have been doing is proper Online Church[2].

Thus technology and digital space is not an end in itself, but an enabler. In the same way, a non-digital church, from a mighty basilica to a intimate country chapel is not an end in itself but a medium through which the interface between our interior dialogue and God’s mystical presence is enabled. Both people, buildings and the digital all seek to invoke liminal space, and are therefore valid.

Participants in an online version of the creative sacramental practitioner network Sanctum this summer have identified how quick in the scramble to respond to the move online, most Churches quickly put aside the sacraments and focused on the Word.

Was this because it was easier to deal with theologically? Or perhaps because the Word lends itself more readily to a broadcast medium whereas the sacramental always involves an interaction?

When we think of interaction, we normally assume dialogue, shared spoken or video communication, and even services of the Word were treated back in April and May like Zoom webinars. Yet, the interactivity which occurs in an online sacrament is not between minister and people, but between God and worshipper. The external (going back to our diagram) is merely an enabler of internal engagement.

The danger is that we have inadvertently undermined the essential importance of the sacraments from online church life. By the agreed definition of the WCC, those religious bodies which exclude the sacramental life are categorised as Parachurches. If we believe truly that what we seek to do is not parachurch activity, but part of the living breathing body of Christ, then it needs to fully embrace the centrality of the sacramental in its expression.

Receiving the sacraments of the online church is not dependent upon physicality. It is not the bread and wine which make the eucharistic communion, but rather the body and blood of Christ. The dependence of a sacramental economy based on physicality is just  a metaphysical legacy, whereas in this digital and postmodern era, what becomes more important is its sign, symbol, its pointer to the divine, it’s phenomenology[3]

Spiritual communion occurs in all sacraments, regardless of physical form. It is perhaps most evidenced in the sacraments of reconciliation or those of healing, but Spiritual Communion is the final link between the internal and God.  It is the Interface with the soul.

Some might worry that this undermines the Incarnation, and is prey to Gnosticism:  that heresy suggests that Souls are trapped inside physical bodies, the soul being of God and the body, that dirty little thing, created by something lesser. Yet both body and soul are uniquely created by God and this is amply demonstrated by the two personae of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, therefore all created matter are God-breathed.

Atoms, molecules, electrons are all part of the created reality, regardless of the purpose they serve in a physical world: within a physical object (bread, wine, oil, my hand) or as a series of bytes on a disc. Electrons are as created as an elephant is… Each has an element of physicality at its quantum level. My argument is that whatever forms the external: a physical church, bread and wine, oil or hand; or flickering pixels reaches into the internal soul, and uses sacrament and ritual as the conduit for that.

This is, to me, one of the (many) points of the incarnation:  the Gnostic claim to direct spiritual contact is always mediated by spiritual communion closest to the soul and by the liminal intersection of ritual and sacrament (and I am sure many other things) to whatever external, incarnational form God chooses to reveal himself through. Although Chauvet’s phenomenology didn’t use the articulation of Spiritual Communion in Symbol and Sacrament, I hope to argue that it is an extension of that.

As an Insulin-dependant diabetic, this metaphor might help: In the same way that Insulin wraps itself around glucose and enables the glucose to be transmitted across the cell wall to feel the cell, so spiritual communion is a mechanism which wraps all spiritual activity and enables it to pass into the soul, regardless of whether the sacrament is received physically or digitally. This isn’t receptionism but trying to understand how sacramental action happens at its most quantum level.

I think that therefore that we have to recognize that Spiritual Communion is not merely a special prayer or a state of mind, but a core process which happens to all spiritual encounters; it is, as I said, the interface through which God is mediated through the sacraments and connects with our souls.

Digitally mediated worship enables an ikon of God and his community, his church, to be created. Just as an ikon in Orthodox circles is significantly more than a mere image, it is a window gazing out to a glimpse of the divine and an invitation to the mystical relationship. In the same way, the digital platform, the minister and the ritual is that window. We should therefore look to create sight and symbol which transcends simply recording an existing act of worship. Even if the liturgical framework is largely traditional or historic in origin, its form of expression, its audiovisual language should take full advantage of the audiovisual possibilities of the digital.

This spiritual communion reaches from the screen into the individual, the external to the internal. and therefore can be supplemented with all manner of multisensory stimuli: ambient lighting in a persons home, the creation of a “digital altar” around the screen to add significance to that which is seen, the adding of olefactory stimuli through incense (George Guiver CR used to argue that the first truly multisensory Masses occurred in the 4th Century Basilicas) and even in the context of the love feast, items to eat and drink.

Yet, I am cautious to regard a piece of bread and a cup of wine placed before the laptop as capable of being consecrated remotely by a priest. My hugely redacted conclusion on this matter is that we can only receive digital sacraments fully immersed in digital space: in the Matrix or in the Oasis world of Ready Player One. In the hybrid context of here and now, a merger of digital and analogue worlds, Spiritual Communion is no less efficacious; for as we have seen, the desire to engage spiritually with God obviates the need to engage physically with him who transcends physicality.

Each Sunday, therefore and during the week, I therefore offer a full Mass for the purposes of Spiritual Communion. Its liturgy is founded entirely upon the ancient liturgies of the Church and yet it seeks to present it in ways which are more than simply a good camera position, a quality microphone and words on screen. I personally do not think it goes far enough, but time and limited resources prevents really being able to deliver week -in and week out what this vision sets out. However, for special events, such as for the previously mentioned Sanctum conference, an act of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament could be created which better illustrates this aspiration.

Both contain elements which I see a see as essential to creating these sacred spaces: they are crowdsourced from members of the community and from around the world thanks to the Online Digital Psalter Project[4]. Liturgically they follow familiar patterns often expressed in new ways and while they make reference to the visual language of Christianity, they also draw hugely from the secular, the urban and the natural beyond the walls of the church.

This, as expressed in general terms is my vision for Church Online. The specifics are down to, your context, your resources and those whom you serve. Your mission needs to be contextualised and I cannot tell you exactly how that will look beyond a few theoretical pointers.

A couple of years ago, I wrote of a strange land where the Church was unwilling to visit: a place where it was thought only evil prevails; where abuse of people because of their gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, income and ethnicity abound daily; where violence was constantly threatened; and where fraud was a daily risk of doing business there.

My call for was evangelists to enter this new frontier and to enable Christ to be fully proclaimed to its natives. Now, it seems the world has been exiled to the land of the cyber and digital space is the new norm: a sometimes scary environment for those unfamiliar with it. The Church has been forced to set up in this supposedly hostile territory, rather than venturing out willingly as I would have hoped. In order to flourish in this space, the Church not only needs to bring its Holy Word, but also its Holy Sacraments.

May what we have learned in this period become the future and may the Church and her proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord be heard throughout Digital Space. Amen.

[1] Jean Baudrillard

[2] Tim Hutchings

[3] Chauvet