A decade or so ago, about five years before she passed away, Phyllis Tickle and I were talking about how technology would change the church. She was enthusiastic about the Internet, her imagination opened by the possibilities of virtual reality to form new sorts of community. She had recently joined a church in the online world of Second Life, and told me about her avatar (I had no idea what an avatar was!). I remember how excitedly she spoke about how “virtuality” would expand our sense of “reality,” and how that would, in turn, foster a new reformation in Christianity. This technology would be, she assured me, as radical as the invention of the printing press—and this emerging sense of space and time would be as revolutionary for faith as were the first widely available vernacular Bibles.
“It raises so many theological questions!” she exclaimed. “For instance, if an avatar priest consecrates elements online, is Christ really present? Is the liturgy valid?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“No one knows yet,” she said. “Because we haven’t thought about it. But pretty soon, we’re going to be arguing over these things. Maybe not about avatar church. But the first time a priest or bishop offers the Eucharist online, it will be like Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the door.”
Phyllis threw her head back, with the laugh for which she was justly famous—half joy, half a sort of gleeful anticipation of how the future was at hand.
I’ve rehearsed this conversation a hundred times in my mind over the last two months. Since the coronavirus lockdowns. Since real-life churches have moved online. The argument she anticipated has started in earnest: Can Christians celebrate the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion —through technology? Is the sacrament valid if it happens virtually?
The answers to these questions are intertwined with the diverse theologies of polity and sacraments of different Christian traditions. Indeed, Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples, free churches, and many Methodists have no problem with online communion. Their beliefs about the priesthood of all believers and (generally) memorialist ideas of the Lord’s Supper have made possible online communion with few theological questions. But more liturgical churches—many Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and Orthodox—have restricted or denied the possibility of online Eucharist. They say that “online community isn’t real community,” that “physical presence” of a congregation is necessary for the sacrament to be valid, that laity cannot be trusted with appropriate reverence of the elements, and that a priest (or duly ordained minister) must consecrate the elements in person. Indeed, some leaders in these churches have forbidden all virtual communion, warning against any form of lay presidency or consecration, instituting forced Eucharistic fasts, substituting “spiritual communion” for partaking bread and wine, or insisting that priests can celebrate the mass privately for the whole of the church.
Oddly enough, much of the argument against online communion has taken place online. Self-identified “traditionalists” have ridiculed and attacked those who see this moment as a time when churches might experiment with liturgies, including offering bread and wine virtually. On Twitter, I posted about my conversation with Phyllis Tickle, suggesting that online liturgy was not, in effect, very different than the sorts of liturgical innovations of the Reformation, and that this moment of virtual church was a perfect time to imagine church anew—to open ourselves a future where technology reshapes Christian practice as much as it was reshaped 500 years ago.
I’ve worried that in withholding communion, the church has been, in effect, hoarding the bread and wine, restraining the healing beauty of Eucharist when hungry people most need to feast. A forced fast is no fast—it is an expression of institutional power over and against God’s people in a time of emergency. And I can’t help but think the lack of theological imagination at this moment will give people already wary of church another reason to consign Christianity to historical irrelevance. The pandemic, however, has been a sort of Pandora’s box for churches and technology, letting loose the theological questions Phyllis Tickle once predicted with the fierce urgency of suffering and death. The lid is open and can’t be shut. Sadly, some denominations seem incapable of seeing this as gift and possibility, preferring instead to give into controlling impulses and fear.
Despite overall institutional reluctance to engage these questions, some clergy have been hoping their denominations would provide for online Eucharistic celebration—and have been worried and even cowed by pressure coming from those who insist that God cannot use “virtuality” as a vehicle for the sacraments. While online argument might be expected, a chilling episode moved from social media to an “in real life” space. After Easter, a bishop in the Episcopal Church gave permission for his diocese to celebrate virtual Eucharist in an attempt to meet pastoral needs and address some of these issues. He appears to have been pressed by the denomination—the same denomination of which Phyllis Tickle had been a member—to rescind the option he had given to congregations in his care.
Over the last weeks, I've been agitating for better, more creative theological thinking about the Eucharist, virtual community, and new forms of liturgical celebration—all of this in line with two decades of my own research and writing. The questions that were once speculative have arrived, and religious groups are going to have to face them with courage and creativity. The pandemic has forced the issue: God’s presence is uncontained by time and space. We are in need of the healing beauty of bread and wine, to sit at the table that exists at the hinge of time, the first feast of the Age-That-is-to-Come. All of this already exists in virtual time—the virtual reality that is the cosmic presence of God. The last thing we need right now—in a time of food shortages, lockdown, isolation, and separation—is the church shutting the people out of the banquet, unable to recognize that we live in the virtual reign of Christ. Virtuality isn’t just technology; it is theology.
A clerical-friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) shares my concerns for the bread and wine to be freed into the world, however that happens in this time of crisis. On a day after a particularly strained Twitter argument, my friend wrote this poem and sent it to me. The words capture the sense of urgency and power of Eucharist far better than my halting prose. Sometimes when the church can’t hear even the most loving critique, my hope is that it can still hear poetry.
An Order for Communing in a Pandemic
She took a loaf of bread,
broke it and gave it,
half to the hungry, the poor, the millions
whose gap-toothed pantries
dwindling sand racing
through the widening neck of an hourglass
and she felt the weight
of a sacrament pressing
into her soul
as the body and blood of Christ
spilled out of doors,
flowing as freely,
as slick and messy,
as it did from his own tortured body,
as if God really could be present
everywhere and in everything.
Diana Butler Bass, Ph.D., is a multiple award-winning author, popular speaker, inspiring preacher, and one of America’s most trusted commentators on religion and contemporary spirituality. She holds a doctorate in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of ten books, including Christianity After Religion and Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution. For more information on Diana and her work, see http://www.chaffeemanagement.com/dianabutlerbass