Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Sacraments Aren't Virtual

Centuries ago, theologian and Protestant Reformer John Calvin stated that a church is marked by two things: the presence of faithful preaching, and administration of the sacraments. Wherever people participate in communal hearing and interpretation of God's revelation and share together at baptism and communion constitutes "church." That's all such a gathering required.

To me, this definition is pretty simple and offers itself to broad application. If these are the only two required marks of church, we could engage in them in a wide variety of settings. One doesn't necessarily need stained glass, steeple, pulpit, font, or altar for such things. Preaching and the sacraments can happen in places as diverse as homes, pubs, coffeehouses, hospitals, parks, airports, and campgrounds, among many other possibilities.

In recent times, people have been exploring how church could be expanded to include online gatherings. One example from my own tradition is Extravagance UCC, which has established itself as a virtual church for several years now.

I respect the innovation of such faith communities. I believe that community can and does happen online. I've experienced it in many ways over the years, both related to faith but also related to popular culture, sports, and other common interests. I've seen people offer support to one another both through online encouragement and information sharing, as well as beyond that to real-life connection and offering of resources.

Given this, I see no reason why an online community couldn't be considered a church, at least in the sense that one can share in similar support. Streaming sermons and worship, chat room or Skype Bible study, sharing prayer concerns, direct deposit offerings, and sending resources via mail or in-person meetups are all possible through virtual churches.

But the one thing that such churches are unable to offer: the sacraments. But as it happens, the Church of Scotland is at least entertaining the notion:
For centuries the key Christian sacraments of baptism and communion have symbolised people coming together in one place. 
But under potentially radical plans being considered by the Church of Scotland, the rites could be administered online for the first time in a move to redefine the idea of a congregation in the internet age. 
The suggestion, to be debated by members of the Kirk’s decision-making General Assembly which meets in Edinburgh next week, stems from initiatives such as streaming services to enable housebound parishioners to join in despite being unable to be physically present. 
A paper presented to members of the General Assembly drafted by the Church’s Legal Questions Committee suggests re-examining issues such as voting rights at congregational meetings to people joining remotely. 
But it goes on to argue that it is also time to go further and create what could effectively amount to virtual congregations, by allowing “access to the sacraments” for people are not “physically present in the congregation”.
The term "virtual sacrament" is an oxymoron. By their nature, baptism and communion make use of tangible, visible, tastable elements to communicate an experience of God's presence and grace. Water, bread, and wine embody something in baptism and communion that require firsthand participation in order to receive their full effect.

Sacraments are about incarnation. When we are able to feel water running down our forehead or as we rise from the baptistery, we have experienced a sign of cleansing and new beginning that baptism signals. When we chew or sip and swallow at communion table, we experience a real sense that we are participating in a meal at which Christ presides.

A virtual version of these acts takes away some fundamental element of what they are: a remembrance, re-experiencing, an outward practice that manifests an inward reality. 

As much as the internet has expanded the possibilities for community and support, the sacraments do not lend themselves to be substituted in an online space. As sign-acts that require tangible elements for what they communicate, at least one limitation of online church seems to have been reached.

According to Calvin's definition, then, does that mean these spaces can't truly be considered churches? I think that's an open question. It could be that virtual faith communities need to keep thinking creatively about how to administer the sacraments with integrity; that allows participants to experience them as they are meant, whether in occasional in-person meetups or other options not yet imagined for this new frontier in church organization.

Maybe the Church of Scotland will surprise us with an answer. I'll hold out hope for the possibility.

But you can't be baptized or receive communion through a computer screen. That's simply not how they work.