Communion and the Virtual Presence
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.