Reimaging Sacramental Worship

Thoughts and reflections that didn’t get used at PremDAC18

Introduction and overview

Imagine my friends, there exists a country where it is said that only evil prevails; where abuse of people because of their gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, income and ethnicity abound daily; where violence is threatened; and fraud is a daily risk of doing business there. It is also a country where the Church has been reluctant to go. A country where the deep spiritual yearnings of many of that country’s inhabitants are unmet because all denominations of the Church are scared to do more than simply put up a poster telling you the times where they meet elsewhere. It is a Spiritual no-go area and definitely one where so far, the Church (in all its diversity, wonder, glory and frailty) have decided that Christ should not, and indeed cannot be properly proclaimed. It is a land where, up to now, the Church has decided that the Sacraments don’t work.

Wouldn’t that be a terrible place, my friends? Where Christ was thought to be absent? Where baptism and eucharist was denied to those to seek it? Would we not want to castigate the Church for being afraid to send missionaries into that field? Would we not want to fervently evangelise its people with the Good News and bring them the Sacraments of Salvation?

But that is where the Church, the Body of Christ, currently stands at the present on the Digital Space, the land of the Cyber, the new frontier where because it is currently viewed like a map [xkcd map of the internet] where “here be dragons” is written, the Church and the Academy are unwilling to engage in this mission field and deny its indigent people the living water.

My name is Fr Simon Rundell, and I am a Church of England Parish Priest in the South West; my background and spirituality is grounded in the sacramental life of the church and that would make me, if labels were a necessity, an Anglocatholic, a “high church” person where sign and ritual and above all the incarnational reality of Christ present in the sacraments of the church are both the tools of mission and the signs of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the world today.

My key interests are in using the sacraments as the tools of mission: engaging people into a deeper relationship with God through these powerful ancient signs and expressing them in ways which are both rooted in that history and contextualised for the current age. This means moving liturgy, ritual and image into the digital space and using multimedia, highly visual imagery in the support of the sacraments. This has been honed for many years through alt.worship and emergent communities such as Blessed, Holy Ground and at events such as Greenbelt (when it was still possible to plug things into the mains), the National Youth Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Sanctum Conference for Sacramental Fresh Expressions.

My Twitter Biography describes me as (quite accurately, I believe) a pusher of pixels and sacraments (twitter bio). In equal measure.
So in this session, I want to explore how the digital environment enhances existing sacramental mission and then look forward to where it might lead us so that this rich digital ocean may bring forth a shoal of soals.

What do we understand as Sacraments?
Depending on where you sit in the massive marquee that we call the Church, there are a huge variety of understandings, interpretations, emphases on (or avoidance of) the significance, meaning, effect and of course, number of sacraments used in the Church. Ask five Anglicans about the sacraments and you’ll get about nine different answers, and the understanding in the pews does not always match that which is promulgated from the pulpit, the Doctrine Commission or the Magesterium.

Perhaps drawing upon the excellent catechetical teaching many of you would have received in Sunday School, one of the classic descriptions of the Sacraments is that they are:

“outward physical signs of inward, spiritual grace”

Which again can mean whatever you really want. Things that speak of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christ left the Spirit within the Church from the Day of Pentecost, so that she might not only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable but be the sign and assurance of God’s presence on earth.

The list of two or seven sacraments is therefore inadequate for the protean manifestation of the Spirit on earth, and must begin at a more fundamental level, and begin, with the primary, primordial sacrament himself: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Both fully human and fully divine (thank you, the Council of Chalcedon), the Belgian theologian and one of the architects of the Second Vatican Council, Edvard Schillebeecx, spoke of Christ as the Sacrament from whom all Sacraments flow. This echoes the writing of Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Boenhoeffer in recognising that Christ is at the centre of all: the Word which moves over the waters from the Beginning, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Anywhere that God is not present can only be described as Hell, and even Christ descended there to preach (pic: Apostles Creed), and so there is NOWHERE that Christ cannot be present.

From Christ himself springs the other Primordial Sacrament: the partner with the Holy Spirit in the creation of Scripture and the ongoing manifestation of the Body of Christ: the Church. The Lord declared that whereever two or three are gathered, then the Body of Christ is manifest. As people of faith gather together in Digital Space, in discussion forums, in seeking prayer on Twitter and Facebook, in long pointless arguments on Reddit, or the Ship of Fools, how can we deny that their association, in the presence of the Christ who is in all, is not some part of the gathering of the Body of Christ?

It was the Church who pondered, identified and ordered the other sacraments of the Church: recalling those directly instituted by the Lord and recorded in Scripture (Baptism and the Eucharist, making four already) and those inferred by his actions, teaching and the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit: Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation and Healing (making nine). Indeed, if the fingerprints of God may be spotted on all of creation, what can be said to be beyond sacramental grace? Scripture, for example, clearly contains an outward physicality in words (said, inscribed on clay tablets, copied on manuscripts or printed) and an inner reality of the Word. Is all life sacramental?

My work as a priest is to be a conduit of the sacraments: to enable these manifestations of God’s grace to be present. It is not be their guardian or custodian and to keep them from the people but to enable them. We must be clear that the Priest is only God’s avatar, and the work of the Holy Spirit is what brings about these sacraments. In each of these Holy Sacraments, the Holy Spirit is invoked and there is a point of Epiclesis – the meeting of heaven and earth in the power of the Spirit. It has been to the detriment of many in the Catholic Tradition that the work of the Spirit in this sacramental life has been diminished and the detriment of the Charismatic Tradition that the manifestation of the Spirit in the sacraments has been diminished.

Digitally Communicated Sacraments: Digital Mediation

Almost instinctively, the Church ™ has shrunk back from the idea of digitally mediated sacraments, but we should ask ourselves perhaps, what actually is digital mediation? If I require a hearing aid, which is a digital device, have I heard the words of the priest, or have I heard a digitally enhanced, mediated version of it? If I see it pictured on a screen, because the Mass is taking place at the other end of a massive basilica, a megachurch or a field at Greenbelt and is too tiny to see otherwise, have I been present, even though I was unable to see it with any clarity without the Jumbotron screen? If I am prayed for over a Skype session, perhaps for my healing, is that any less that being prayed for in a prayer meeting, or even being prayed for when I am not even present? Dare we place any limit on the power of God, or the efficacy of prayer in any circumstance? The moment we start to place limits is the moment that we try and limit the power of God, which as we all know, cannot be contained. (? Story of the Boy and the Sugarbowl)

In many Churches, digital screens are commonplace, moving beyond projectors (not the best idea for a bright sunny Sunday morning) and with flat screen TVs available for £350, you can even put one in the pulpit of a traditional church without the need for a faculty

In my work as a Parish Priest, as one who gives Spiritual Direction and acts as a Confessor, most encounters still take place face-to-face; and yet there are some which do not. Many of the younger people who see me for Spiritual Direction live in disparate places across the country, and so find Skype and Facebook Messenger to be the ideal medium for such support. Often this Spiritual Direction turns into the Sacrament of Reconciliation, an it does not for a single moment feel any less authentic than a face to face sacrament. Reconciliation with God is sought, advice is given and Absolution assured. For both the penitent and myself we are both confident that God’s grace has been given and so the Sacrament is complete. Given the incomplete nature of the technology as it exists at present, this is one of the sacraments which feels possible now, alongside Christ and the Church and as technology continues to develop, the others will come online (literally and metaphorically) as well.

I have worked on other experiments in this area, particularly in the sacrament of reconciliation, with an Online Confessional based upon one described by Teresa Berger in her excellent book @Worship, and we should recognise that there is a huge need for an act of reconciliation in not only Christian terms, but in a wider sense. The Social Media network Whisper allows the anonymous posting of text and image and for the majority age group serves as both a humorous and poignant confessional. On paper, you should be aware of the PostSecret Project, which we turned into a digitally mediated reflection in itself for Holy Ground in Exeter Cathedral, as it is posted weekly in a blog (PostSecret Video)

When we look to the future, it is impossible to guess where technology will lead us next, for after all, in the 1950s IBM only imagined a market for five or six computers in the world. In a future when the only restraint might be our imagination and creativity, I would suggest that Science Fiction is where hints about future technology and our relationships with it may lie. In the 19th Century Jules Verne wrote fancifully about a Journey to the Moon, and by the latter half of the 20th Century we had achieved that.

When a new medium is first invented, the initial intention of it is seldom envisaged. Do you remember when 3G phone technology was invented, they touted Voice Calling and Messaging, because they had not envisaged the possibilities of the mobile internet. In a previous life, I was a health information guru in the NHS, and we spoke in the 90s of the excitement of bridging the final mile from the workstation to the bedside. And now? The mobile internet has more that bridged that, and is starting to exceed data traffic of traditional PC usage. Similarly, the Internet was primarily a communications network: a vast infrastructure to connect machines and transfer plain text files between Unix systems. As technology and most importantly bandwidth has improved, so the methods of communication have improved and full motion video communications (Skype), picture-based social media (Instagram) and Cat Videos (YouTube) have become the staple methods of communication not just for the children of the digital age, but for their grandparents also.

In the 2018 Spielberg film Ready Player One, the near-apocalyptic real world is largely supplanted by a huge digital one known as the Oasis, a fully immersive environment where one can not only be entertained, but work, learn and effectively live. Its immersion is possible because of the development of haptics which provide feedback to the player. At present this is limited to a shaking gaming seat or a steering wheel but when extrapolated into a complete suit, the separation of person from digital environment is removed and the Platonian shadows on the wall of the cave become inseparable from reality. There is nothing virtual about something that can be physically encountered, which is why Sacraments exist.

In the Oasis, all of human existence is possible, and so that cannot preclude the presence of God and his manifestation into that world. Of course at present, we are only at the beginning of this journey and through a series of thought experiments and sandbox trials we can but hint at the Oasis that is to come. In its present form, the sacramental life beyond the Primordial Sacraments cannot be realised, but there are hints, as we gaze through the letterbox of a monitor at a 3D rendered environment and try to imagine where this will lead us. Ready Player One looks at a world where digital is not merely the means of communication, but is the landscape itself. This is the world that digital evangelists need to be prepared for; where digital liturgy needs to speak, and where all the sacraments of God may find expression.

I have started to experiment with environments such as Gary’s Mod which extends the Valve Engine which created Half Life, Portal and Counterstrike into creating an environment for active Christians and seekers of faith may gather and engage with each other; be fed by God’s Word and enriched in study, prayer and reflection. It is a tantalising foretaste, but highly limited in immersion. The major difference in modifying what started out as a First Person Shooter and the early experiments with faith in Second Life begins with a matter of perspective. At all times in Second Life, the avatar was visible and the disconnect obvious, with with a first person perspective, we are there, even if we don’t understand yet where there might actually be. In the future, further immersion will engender deeper engagement.

Digital Worlds offer unforeseen opportunities, and wherever there are opportunities, God steps in. The digital environment has seen innovative disruption of many traditional businesses and social structures, from Uber to the Cloud-based Office; in the same way as Bitcoin disrupted, undermined and transformed the banking transaction, so perhaps we see glimpses of a… bitSacrament which finds a new way of transacting grace in a digital space.

God is not absent. Christ, the alpha and omega, is in all and over all. The body of Christ in ecclesial form gathers and networks into community. Let us see where God leads us and imagine.

Thank you,