Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 2: Some possible objections

I argued in the previous post that an online Eucharist could be a theological possibility for Baptist Christians. I here want to consider and forestall some potential criticisms:

  1. The need for ‘physical’ presence

Do we need to be physically together to meet around the Lord’s Table? Yes, but let me interrogate what that means. Too much recent writing in this area has worked with a ‘physical’/’virtual’ dichotomy, which makes no sense. Signals in fibre optic cables and electromagnetic waves are physical realities; our shared presence together in an online—virtual—meeting is therefore a mediated physical presence. What it is not is a somatic presence; we are not together bodily.

This distinction is important. There may be eucharistic practices that require somatic action; I don’t off-hand know of one, but an insistence that the celebrant must touch every eucharistic wafer for it to be properly consecrated is not very hard to imagine; a rubric that insists that every communicant must make bodily contact with every other communicant as the peace is shared is less plausible, but certainly not beyond conception. But these have not been our practices. We have been unreflectively comfortable with non-somatic physical presence, and so should be comfortable with virtual presence, because it is still physical.

  1. Mediation

This granted, could we imagine a different distinction, between mediated presence and unmediated presence? Possibly, but: (a) it will not make much difference; (b) it is probably again nonsense; and (c) in any case would be a very odd thing indeed to imagine in the context of the Eucharist.

On (a), we have again been demonstrably very relaxed about mediated presence—I do not recall the last time that I preached without a microphone, and for those relying on the induction loop and their hearing aid, any engagement with my sermon was necessarily mediated by technology. I have communicated at, and indeed celebrated, eucharists where some or many of those present could see the celebrant only because of projection onto a screen.

Further, mediated relationships at a distance have been normal for the whole history of the church. Consider, for representative example, the medium of the letter. Mark Noll, amongst others, has argued that the Evangelical Revival was shaped, if not totally sustained, by the existence of good trade routes for sharing epistolary testimonies across the North Atlantic; in the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena had a profound influence on the reform of the medieval church, and on Italian politics, through her letter-writing; and in the first century the letters of Paul, Peter, and John are generally judged to have successfully harnessed the medium for gospel purposes… Unmediated relationship has never been the only practice of the church, and so discussions about the adoption of new media must be comparative judgements—is this new medium better or worse than media we have previously adopted, and in what ways?—rather than complaints that mediated relationship is somehow antithetical to the gospel

On (b) we need once again to think about physicality: when I recite the words of institution in a normal Eucharist I create sound waves which reach the ears of the congregation; physical mediation is a condition of all human interaction. If there is something inappropriate about mediation that involves wifi, we will need to give a theological explanation of why sound waves are an acceptable mediation when electromagnetic waves are not; I assert with some confidence that no such explanation is available.

On (c): a sacrament is, following Augustine, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’—sacraments are physical mediations of divine action. It is possible that, precisely at the point where God is mediating His own gifts through physical media, He bans us from using (certain sorts of) physical media, but it is hardly plausible, without a very compelling argument.

  1. The shared meal

Some have argued that online communion is impossible because the basic reality of communion is a shared meal. There is an easy argument against this, turning on the very visible divergence of most eucharistic celebrations from anything resembling a meal, but I would rather go a different way.

Many of us in the past few weeks have become used to taking social occasions into virtual space. I have encouraged my staff to continue their various coffee hours using video conferencing, and I know that other groups in my university have continued regular pub nights in a similar way. If we sit and chat together whilst each drinking a coffee, or indeed a pint, how is what is happening not a shared communal drink? (Consider that, for the pub night, everyone present could easily have ordered something poured out of a different bottle.)

Similarly, if we consciously meet through web apps to eat a meal together, how is that not a shared meal (assuming all the points about physical presence above)? There may be an argument that differentiates it, but it is I suggest far from obvious, and needs to be made, and made carefully, not relying on meaningless claims about ‘physical presence’ or the like.

  1. Common sense

I can imagine some readers wanting to dismiss all this as sophistry or worse—we all know that online engagement is just different from face-to-face engagement! But do we?

First, none of the arguments above claim indifference; I have been clear about the imperfection, limitation, and partiality of online meetings, only seeking to relativise that with the claim that all other meetings are also to some extent imperfect, limited, and partial. Obviously, given the choice between coming together in the sanctuary to celebrate the Eucharist and doing it online, we would choose the former—but lacking that choice, as at present, we can and must ask whether the latter move is possible for us; my argument has been not that it is the same experience, but that there are no basic theological differences that should make us reject it as a possibility a priori.

Second, most of us are only now gaining our first experiences of online worship; in my university, people are already pointing to surprising positives about online teaching—no-one wants to give up face-to-face teaching, but there are genuine goods in the other mode. If, after we’ve all been worshipping online for six months, we conclude that it is massively inferior in every way, then fine—but we cannot make that judgement now, with no experience, but only prejudice against the new, to support it.

I suspect that, as we become used to it, we will find the differences between online engagement and somatic engagement blurring in many areas. What now seems bizarre to us might soon feel normal. In other areas the differences will become starker; once we have that shared body of experience, we can reflect on it with regard to eucharistic celebration; for now, I am not sure we have the data to make serious judgements. On this basis, I suspect there is no good argument to ‘common sense’ in this area.

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