In time of Pandemic, when Churches have been closed as a result of the spread of COVID-19, many of us have turned to online technologies as a method of continuing to support the Body of Christ separately, together. For gatherings online (whether live, prerecorded or played back later) this technology lends itself perfectly to the ministry of the Word: prayer, singing, meditation, study of scripture and teaching. But this is not the only expression of worship, as the sacramental life has an equally important life in the lives of Christians, whether they prefer it or not.
So, if a Church broadcasts a Eucharistic Service, what is happening here? Some, especially those schooled in metaphysics, reject the broadcasting of this worship, and emphatically support the statement of the Roman Catholic Church that “there are no sacraments on the Internet”1
The appropriate response to that is, I argue, “Yes, but…” for the broadcast of a Mass is only a broadcast of an act of worship which contains all of the necessary elements of Christian worship: gathering, penitence, word, and worship. In the building in which it is taking place, it also contains sacrament. But this does not make it invalid.
There are many people who attend Mass in a building without participating in Communion. Do we say that they have not attended Mass? Of course not! Although Communion is the desired pinnacle, what the church mandates is that people be present in worship, not necessarily communing.
This kind of broadcast is a means of grace through presence of worship, but does not create for the remote viewer a direct sacramental encounter. It is theologically impossible for a consecration to be made across digital media: bread and wine at your end cannot be consecrated by a priest at the other end of a video link2. But although the remote viewer is not participating in the communion they are still participating validly in worship, and the Mass is the perfect vehicle for that worship.
How therefore might we be able to engage in online sacramental worship? In my MA Dissertation at the University of Durham, I explored the move from the Internet as a means of communication towards a more immersive means of being, with the development of immersive digital environments where all participants may be digitally present, although corporeally separated. At the heart of this is a reappraisal of our understanding of sacraments as phenomenological manifestations of the divine rather than metaphysical ones. A metaphysical theology demands the presence of the physical, but as some sacraments already eschew the physical in their sacramental signs (reconciliation springs most obviously to mind), so we must be drawn more to an interpretation of sacrament as hierophanical actions.3
In Digital Space, the currency of physicality no longer applies, and sacramental signs may be flickering pixels representing Eucharistic elements or something more creative, as long as they draw the participant into a sacramental encounter in that environment. Outside of that digital space, that is not sacramental, because physicality applies.
This is why we should be clear than an online Mass is not a participative sacramental act, but an act of worship wherein a sacrament exists (at the hands of a priest) to be a focus of that worship, but which cannot be conveyed across the ether. However, the practice of Spiritual Communion enables the grace of that sacrament to be obtained through fervent desire.
The Book of Common Prayer rubric says:
and a commonly used prayer for Spiritual Communion expresses the power of the sacrament beyond physicality:
So, observing a broadcast Mass, especially when subject to isolation is a perfectly valid Spiritual Communion, a valid participation in the body of Christ as worshipping community in diversity and an opportunity to connect more deeply, and more frequently than perhaps we might have been physically able to before.
- 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
- Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church (2018) Holy Communion Mediated Through Social Media Methodist Conference Report Para 5.6 pp363-365;
- Chauvet, Louis-Marie (2001) The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.