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July 26, 2010

7

Communion and the Virtual Presence

by quaesitor

Communion was of course a hot button issue 500 years ago. It’s unlikely to be again in quite the same way, even though the debates were fiercely fought over issues of transubstantiation, real presence or (in Zwingli’s case) a real absence. The question all revolved around the extent to which God was actually present in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine at Communion

Things have moved on – some of the concerns may matter still, but as Tom Wright so pithily put it (when speaking about hermeneutics and the New Perspective on Paul):

the trick is to recover the first-century questions and try to give twenty-first century answers, rather than taking sixteenth-century questions and giving nineteenth-century answers…

And the twenty-first century has certainly thrown up some new conundra to get our heads around – things that the likes of Calvin and Luther could never have anticipated. For it seems that a Methodist minister, Tim Ross, has started tweeting the Communion service. This was his explanation:

Twitter offers unique possibilities for communication for the Church. It’s a community that’s as real and tangible as any local neighbourhood and we should be looking to minister to it… The perception of church is often that it is rusting away in antiquated buildings and not in touch with the world around us, but this is a statement that we’re prepared to embrace the technological revolution.

Where he’s onto something…

Well, he’s right about perceptions and the unique communication possibilities that offered by new media. And I do believe embracing the technological revolution is important (as I said in my Digital life paper). For online, people can look for, find and make genuine, authentic connections with other people.  These are essential ingredients if any community is to grow and develop.

But that doesn’t mean that what is created by the likes of Twitter is necessarily ‘a community’ – not in the traditional understanding of the word, at any rate. A community is where we rub shoulders with one another, where we deal with our quirks and foibles, where personalities clash and where conflicts must be resolved somehow. Authentic community life is not a consumer’s paradise of pick and choose (and thus avoid what we don’t like), but a place where we are forced to face hard realities about ourselves as we learn other-person centredness.

Where he’s missed the point…

So Twitter might be a way of attracting people into a community, and it might conceivably be a means to deepening that community life; but it can never replace community life. Communion is one of the key, but not only, places where (if it is functioning as it should) community life is challenged to be Christ-centred, cross-centred, forgiveness-centred. That’s why ‘the peace’ (all too often, completely skimmed over) is so important, for example.

We are to forgive as we have been forgiven… And there is something important about the tangibility of the sacrament and the togetherness of a community service that no virtual reenactment (however real it might be in other senses) can ever convey. And it’s not because I’m going all anglo-catholic here. Far from it.

It’s just that I sense that (quite apart from what’s happening with the bread and wine) a communion without the real presence of the community is no communion at all.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jul 26 2010

    When Holy Communion services were first broadcast by television some Christians objected on the grounds that Jesus’ invitation is to ‘take and eat…take and drink…’ not ‘watch and see’ but many have found that participating as viewer at home or hospital can give a real experience that ‘the Lord is here’ and a real exerience of the communion of saints. Physically meeting with other Christians is a blessing not everyone is always able to share for all sorts of reasons. Better to eat bread, drink a little wine and feed on Christ ‘by faith with thanksgiving’ alone and prompted by a tweeting minister than not to take any part at all – hopefully after suitable preparation. Very interesting and controversial experiment by Tim Ross.

    Reply
    • Jul 26 2010

      thanks for the comment Nancy – and it’s a fair point. Though I think I’d still say the same thing about TV communion services.

      I agree that there are grounds for those who (for whatever reason) are unable to participate – this may well be the next best thing. But the crucial thing is to realise that it can never be a full, nor long-term, substitute for the real thing… don’t you think?!
      mark

      Reply
      • Jul 27 2010

        I don’t think taking part in a tweeted communion can ever be ‘a full, nor long-term, substiture for the real thing’ – in that I agree with you. On the other hand, who am I to know how the Holy Spirit of God might work through such means?

      • Jul 27 2010

        of course – God is God!

      • Chris E
        Aug 1 2010

        God is God. Though on the other hand claiming that God could act through such and such as an excuse for not speaking out against it seems to fall into the category of thinking that we know the secret things of God.

        And the debates of 500 years ago are unlikely to be repeated because Zwingli won. Functionally, the communion services in most protestant churches could be replaced by projecting a picture of bread and wine and commanding an act of rememberance.

  2. Aug 7 2010

    The inspiration for Twitter Communion came about shortly after I joined Twitter. I suddenly realised that it would be possible to connect Christians from around the world together in real time and share a very simple form of communion. This was intended to be a testimony to the fact that whatever our denominational and doctrinal differences, we are still just one Body of Christ. I realised it would be challenging for some, but I hoped they would be able to accept it as part of the rich diversity of devotional expression in the Church.
    In the end, I have had to cancel, as I came under heavy pressure from Methodist Church authorities. You can my arguments for Remote Communion on my blog.

    Reply
    • Aug 7 2010

      Hi Tim
      Thanks very much for the comment – i do admire the motivation even if I disagree with the end result. I hope that you haven’t been overwhelmed by all the brickbats, and that you can keep experimenting digitally…

      Reply

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