Cranmer Hall, St John’s College
M.A. in Digital Theology
Word count: 14954 words
This 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 project.
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 Order Committee 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 document:
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 Theology, 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 alone.
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 lens.
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 smartphones. 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 life.
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 this up:
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 communion.
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 Church.
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 grace.
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 humanity. 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 sought:
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 Literature. 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 matter:
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 Aquinas. 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 suggests:
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 with God” 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 experience.
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 this.
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 online church.
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 as inauthentic.
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 sanctioned format.”
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 faith expression.
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 Baudrillard describes, 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 ersatz reality.
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 being.
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, and consubstantial – 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 or Sims 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 Human. 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, dematerialized practice.
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 population. 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.
Neuromancer 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 unlimited power.
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 position document:
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 rite.
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 digital space.
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 sacramental grace.
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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Wagner, Rachel (2012) God-wired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge
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World Council of Churches (1982) Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry: Faith and Order Paper No 111. https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text Accessed 11th November 2018
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Daniella (2015) Virtual Presence as Real Presence? Sacramental Theology and
Digital Culture in Dialogue Worship 89
 Roman Catholic Church Pontifical Council for Social Communications (2002) The Church and the Internet http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_20020228_church-internet_en.html Accessed 19th October 2018 See Appendix 1
 Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church (2018) Holy Communion Mediated Through Social Media Methodist Conference Report Para 5.6 pp363-365; See Appendix 3
 Roman Catholic Church Pontifical Council for Social Communications (2002) Ibid.
 Hill, Christopher (2012) Second Life and Sacrament Sept 15 2012 https://slangcath.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/second-life-and-sacrament-4.pdf Accessed 19th October 2018 See Appendix 2
 Church of England Declaration of Assent https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/ministry/declaration-assent Accessed 18th July 2019
 Roman Catholic Church Pontifical Council for Social Communications (2002) Ibid.
 Graham, Elaine; Walton, Heather; Ward, Frances (2019) Theological Reflection Methods Preface to the 2nd Edition London: SCM Press
 Hodgson, Peter C (1994) Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology London: SCM Press. pp37-50
 Eiesland, Nancy L (1994) The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability Oxford: Abingdon Press pp107-121
 Copeland, M Shawn (2005) Body, Race and Being in Jones, Serene and Lakeland, Paul (Eds) Constructive Theology: a contemporary approach to classical themes Minneapolis MN: Augsberg Fortress. pp167-199;
 Wyman, Jason A. (2017) Ibid pp326-327
 Pace, Steven (2012) Writing the self into research: Using grounded theory analytic strategies in autoethnography TEXT Special Edition 13 April 2012 https://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue13/content.htm Accessed 17th July 2019
 Mahan, Jeffrey H (2014) Media, Religion and Culture: An Introduction Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge. p13
 Poushter, Jacob (2016) Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies Pew Research Centre: Global Attitudes and Trends, http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/internet-access-growing-worldwide-but-remains-higher-in-advanced-economies/ Accessed 18th July 2019
 Church of England (1662) Book of Common Prayer Catechism https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/catechismAccessed 30th May 2019
 Chauvet, Louis-Marie (2001) The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. p xxv
 Carmody, Denise L. (1985) Ibid. p9
 Rundell, Simon P (2018) (Conference) Reimagining Digital Worship Premier Digital Conference November 2018
 World Council of Churches (1982) Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry: Faith and Order Paper No 111. https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text Accessed 11th November 2018
 World Council of Churches (1982) Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry: Faith and Order Paper No 111. Ibid
 Fiddes, Paul (2018) Sacraments in a Virtual World (Symposium): The Virtual Body of Christ? Sacrament and Liturgy in digital spaces 16-19th April 2018, CODEC and St. John’s College, University of Durham
 Davidson, Andrew (2013) Why Sacraments? London: SPCK. p1
 Salvation Army (1986) Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry: WCC Faith and Order paper No. 111 – A response from The Salvation Army https://www.salvationarmy.org.uk/files/tsaresponsetobem1986pdf/download?token=DaJB-BsA Accessed 30th May 2019
 Philippians 2:7. Unless otherwise stated, all subsequent biblical references come from the NRSV.
 Strong’s Number 2758 κενόω “to empty out, render void; (passive) be emptied – hence, without recognition, perceived as valueless (Phil 2:7)” https://biblehub.com/greek/2758.htm Accessed 30th May 2019
 For example: Job 27:3; 33:4; 34:14-15 and Psalm 104:29-30
 Acts 17:27-28
 Martos, Joseph (2001) Ibid. p7
 Maquarrie, John (1997) Ibid pp14-5
 Maquarrie, John (1997) Ibid p15
 Jankiewicz, Darius. (2004) Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority. Andrews University Seminary Studies 42.2 https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol42/iss2/6/ Accessed 18th July 2019 p368
 Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (2013) Phenomenology https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/ Accessed 26th July 2019
 Schillebeeckx, Edward (1963) Christ the Sacrament of the encounter with God Sheed and Ward, London pp5-54
 John 1:14
 Acts 2:1-21
 Schillebeeckx, Edward (1963) Ibid. pp55-109
 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is inspired by God [θεόπνευστος] and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
 Belcher Karen H (2019) Sacramental and Liturgical Theology 1900-2000 in Ayres L and Volpe MA (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199566273.013.49 Accessed 7th July 2019
 Belcher KH (2019) Ibid
 Schillebeeckx, Edward (1963) Ibid. p15
 Chauvet, Louis-Marie (2001) The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body Collegeville, Mn: Liturgical Press, pxii
 Rahner, Karl cited in Martos, Joseph (2011) Ibid p113
 O’Connor, John D (2003) Expansive Naturalism and the Justification of Metaphysics in Sacramental Theology New Blackfriars 84 (989) July 2003 pp361-370
 Chauvet, Louis-Marie (1995) Ibid p55
 Martos, Joseph (2011) Ibid p122
 Psalm 139:7-10
 Roman Catholic Church Liturgy of the Easter Vigil para 11 http://www.liturgies.net/Liturgies/Catholic/roman_missal/eastervigil.htm Accessed 3rd August 2019
 Revelation 22:13
 John 1:2
 Colossians 1:15-17
 1 Timothy 2:5-6
 O’Collins, Gerald (1983) Interpreting Jesus London: Geoffrey Chapman p202
 Church of England (nd) Apostle’s Creed https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/what-we-believe/apostles-creedAccessed 1st August 2019
 Aquinas, T ST III.52 http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4052.htm Accessed 12th August 2019
 John Paul II (1979) Redemptor Hominis 4th March 1979 http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html Accessed 3rd August 2019
 O’Collins, Gerald (1983) Ibid p203
 Zsupan-Jerome, Daniella (2015) Virtual Presence as Real Presence? Sacramental Theology and Digital Culture in Dialogue Worship 89 pp526–542.
 Stoellger, Philipp (2016) Religion als Medienpraxis – und Medienphobie in Das Christentum
hat ein Darstellungsproblem: Zur Krise religiöserAusdrucksformen im 21. Jahrhundert. Eds: Tobias Braune-Krickau et al. Freiburg i.B: Herder p. 197. cited in Berger, Theresa (2016) @Worship: Liturgical Practices in Digital Worlds. Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge p79
 Galatians 3:26
 Appendix 1, line 220
 Healy, Nicholas (2000) Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
 Appendix 1, line 227
 Wagner, Rachel (2013) Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge p131
 For example: https://www.reddit.com/r/Christianity/ (website) a General thread about Christianity and https://www.reddit.com/r/Anglicanism/ (website) a thread specifically for one Church denomination. Accessed 7th August 2019
 Ship of Fools Forums (website) https://forums.shipoffools.com/ Accessed 7th August 2019
 Nintendo of America Inc. (2018). Minecraft.
 Roblox (website) https://www.roblox.com/ Accessed 7th August 2019
 Linden Research Inc (website) https://secondlife.com/ Accessed 7th August 2019
 Harwig. Christian. Roeland, Johan. & Stoffels Hijme. (2018) Click to Connect: Participation and Meaning in an Online Church. Ecclesial Practices 5 pp22-38 DOI://10.1163/22144471-00501004 Accessed 13th May 2019
 Thompson, Deanna A (2016) The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World Nashville TN: Abingdon Press pp13-27
 http://disabilityandjesus.org.uk/community/ Accessed 27th May 2019
 Dave Lucas (2019) Personal Communication @DisabilityJ 10th August 2019
 Rheingold, Howard. (1993). https://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/intro.html Accessed 12th August 2019
 Smith, Aaron and Anderson, Monica (2016) 5 Facts about Online Dating https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/29/5-facts-about-online-dating/ 29th February 2016 Accessed 12th August 2019
 Harwig. Christian et al. (2018) Ibid.
 Appendix 3 lines 70-72
 Appendix 1, lines 224-225
 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 DOI://10.1163/22144471-00501004
 Appendix 1, lines 135-140
 See Appendix 1, lines 226-228; Appendix 2 line 184-5; Appendix 3 lines 337-344
 Bartle, Richard (2004) Designing Virtual Worlds Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing p1
 Krotz, Friedrich. (2007). Ibid pp256–260.
 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
 Fiddes, 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 2019
 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) 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 Arts.
 McGrath, Alister (2009) Heresy London: SPCK p111-2
 Fiddes, Paul (2009) Ibid. Accessed 11th August 2019
 Appendix 3, lines 345-354
 Berger, Theresa (2018) @Worship Abingdon: Oxon: Routledge p18
 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 32(4) pp343-354
 Sutherland 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 August 2019
 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 Publishers
 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
 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
PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR SOCIAL COMMUNICATIONS
THE CHURCH AND INTERNET
1. The 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.
Thus the 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”.
Quoting Pope 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”.
The modern 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”.
Today this 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.
3. The 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”.
But the 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”.
God 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”.
4. Three 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”.
All this 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”.
5. “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 cultures”.
Since 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.
The media 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.
The Internet 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.
A growing 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.
6. The 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.
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.
The 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”.
Similar 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.
Here, then, 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 international levels.
7. Education 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”.
Education 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.
Young people 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.
8. The 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 not.
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”.
Among the 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.
The proliferation 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.
9. Certain 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 forward.
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.
Similarly, 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 Christian commitment.
10. 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 practice.
It is 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”.
11. In concluding these reflections, therefore, we offer words of encouragement to several groups in particular—Church leaders, pastoral personnel, educators, parents, and especially young people.
To Church 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”.
This applies 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.
A special 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.
To pastoral 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.
As for 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”.
To educators 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.
Catholic 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 higher learning.
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.
Parental 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 itself.
To children 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.
The Internet 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.
Young 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.
12. To 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 contents.
Prudence is 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 opportunities.
Justice is 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”.
Fortitude, 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.
And temperance is needed—a self-disciplined approach to this remarkable technological instrument, the Internet, so as to use it wisely and only for good.
Reflecting 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”.
Vatican 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 in Internet.
 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, n. 37.
 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 Day, 1990.
 Cf. Ethics in Internet.
 John Paul II, Message for the 35th World Communications Day, n. 3.
 Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media, n. 7.
 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 Day, 1990.
 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 7, 2000.
 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 encouraging.
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 ‘You’.
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 world.
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 irrelevant.
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 practice.
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 martyrdom.
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 a sacrament.
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
Resolution 37/1. 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
Subject and 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 the sacrament.
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
1. 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 Conference.)
2. 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 practice.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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
6. 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 Corinthians 11:23-26)
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)
7. 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)
8. 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 here.
9. 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 body’:
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)
10. 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 body’.
11. 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
12. 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.
13. “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 sacrament.
14. 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 visible unity.
15. 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.
16. 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
17. 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).
18. 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).
19. 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.
20. 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 Lord’s Supper.
21. 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.
22. 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.”
23. 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
24. 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.
25. 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.
26. 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
27. 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.
28. 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.
29. 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.
30. 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.
31. 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 20:27).
32. 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.
33. 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 of reconciliation.
34. 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 holy living.
35. 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 reasonably frequently.
Presiding at the Lord’s Supper
36. 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.
37. 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.
38. 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
39. 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.
40. 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.
41. 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) (§5.3.6; §5.4.16).
42. 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 subsequent distribution.
43. 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.
44. 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.
45. 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.
46. 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.
47. 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.
48. 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 declaration states:
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).
Extending 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.
49. 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 conclusions.
50. 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.
51. 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.
52. 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.
53. 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.
54. 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.
55. 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.
56. 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.
57. 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.
58. 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 Age