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: 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. 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. 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.)...

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Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 1: A positive argument

For us Baptists, I think that there are two possible ways of asserting that an online/scattered Eucharist is possible: one is obvious but bad, and one less obvious but better; both are completely dependent on distinctives of Baptist ecclesiology.

The first is the suggestion that we can have many household communions at the same time; the second the idea that we might celebrate one communion, even if we are in separate homes as we do.

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Our story begins in exile: ‘Baptist social theology’ and the EU referendum

One of the books I have recently been reading with interest and profit is Anglican Social Theology (ed. Malcolm Brown) (London: Church House Publishing, 2014). Apart from the intrinsic interest in tracing significant contributions to political theology that happened to come from within the Church of England, I was struck by the contributors’ awareness that the project, or projects, they were tracing were distinctively ‘Anglican’. As Brown puts it in an early prospectus: We have chosen to speak of an Anglican social theology with a deliberate intention of echoing the concept of Catholic social teaching because we recognise that the latter is much better known as a theological school or tradition that informs practice. Our contention … is that a distinctively Anglican tradition of social engagement can be discerned through most of the twentieth century… (p. 2) I find this interesting because I have long had a minor interest in the extent to which different Christian traditions in fact propose different practices in various areas—and of course a sustained interest in the distinctively Baptist contributions that may be available. What, I have begun to wonder, would a ‘Baptist social theology’ look like? We are, after all, the largest protestant tradition in the world, and have had our fair share of social reformers whose programmes were in some way shaped by their faith—a list headed, but far from exhausted, by Martin Luther King. At the same time I have been following what Christian contributions to the debate over the EU referendum I have been able to find. Most are Anglican, whether for Remain (Michael Sadgrove, ex Dean of Durham, founded Christians for Europe), Brexit (Christians for Britain is run by Giles Fraser and Adrian Hilton), or thoughtfully neutral (Andrew Goddard‘s personal contribution, or the excellent and thoughtful Reimagining Europe blog, which is billed as a joint project between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but a glance down the contributors list suggests the balance is heavily tilted south of the border). Is there, I have wondered, a specifically Baptist approach to the EU referendum, and to the wider questions it crystallises? Political matters are generally questions of practical wisdom, and so do not admit of definitive theological answers. We might argue theologically that the most vulnerable in our society must be protected, but theology cannot then guide us to the best way to offer such protection. A robust doctrine of original sin will warn us that greed and fraud will be endemic under any tax regime, but it will not then help us to construct a regime that protects effectively and efficiently against these problems. I am not, then, looking for an argument that will insist that all Baptists should vote one way; there are issues where this might be the case (a narrow proposal to limit religious liberty, for example), but it seems clear enough that the EU will not be one of them. Rather, I want to suggest that Baptists, if they are faithfully Baptist, will argue and evaluate differently. Things will matter to us that others will be careless of; things that are decisive for others will be unimportant to us. Although not decisive, such considerations might well make us more likely to lean one way, so that Baptists might split 70-30 when society is 50-50. In other cases we will split the same as others, but for very different reasons. An obvious example of this is the sermon many of us preach in the run up to each general election. The messaging from every party is often enough ‘you will be richer if you vote for us’; we preach that Christians should not vote selfishly, to enrich themselves, but for other reasons (which vary: for some it will be, pick the pro-life candidate, regardless of party; for others issues of justice and ‘good news to the poor’ will loom largest; for others again it might simply be the personal morality or faith of a candidate). I want to suggest that one of the main themes of the EU referendum is a matter Baptists should have a distinctive view on. The matter is national sovereignty; and at the heart of our Baptist distinctiveness is, I suggest, the historical fact encapsulated in my title: ‘our story begins in exile’. The British Baptist movement began in 1609 when, as John Robinson reports, ‘Mr Smith [sic] baptized first himself and next Mr Helwys and so the rest.’ Smyth and Helwys were the officers of an illegal separatist congregation that had been meeting in Gainsborough, north of Lincoln, but like many others they fled Anglican persecution and by 1609 were resident, with much...

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On religious liberty: an open letter to Franklin Graham

Dear Mr Graham, This week someone who has put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency of your great nation made a number of hate-filled and inaccurate comments about Muslims, and proposed some extreme policies on the back of those comments. This came to our attention here in the UK because one of the things he claimed, entirely erroneously, was that parts of London were so radicalised that they had become no-go areas for our police and security services. Our national response was, as our national responses so often are, as mocking as it was derisive. The mayor of London led the way, but on social media many of us joined in with the humour. I know London well; I trained for ministry there, took my PhD there, pastored my first church there, made, with my wife, our first home there, and saw two of our three daughters come into the world there. My home has been elsewhere for eleven years now, but it is a city I still visit several times a year, a city that still has a significant place in my heart. For all these reasons, I know that the truth about London was expressed far better by a young Muslim Londoner caught on camera as our police arrested someone who had attempted violence, pretending to represent Islam. In a pure London accent he called out to the attacker, ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv!’ London is an exhilarating and sometimes disorientating coming together of people of different national backgrounds and of different faiths; London is also a city that is passionate that people come together, without denying who they are. London Muslims are truly Muslim, and devoted the the peace of the city also; London Baptists the same, as I know well. In London, the person who believes the two are impossible to hold together will be told, straightforwardly, ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv.’ It was with sadness, therefore, that I noticed that you had associated yourself with some of the policy proposals of that presidential candidate, specifically the suggestion that your nation should close its borders to Muslims for an indefinite period. I know that you have spoken strongly about Islam before, calling it a ‘religion of violence’ and so on; I know that your words then were as mistaken as they were inflammatory. I wish that you had taken the time to understand Islam a little before speaking so publicly about it, but I am a Baptist, and so I believe passionately in freedom of speech, even if that speech is damaging and inaccurate. Which is why I am writing to you now, although I do not expect that you will ever read this. Your father is, alongside Martin Luther King, the greatest Baptist statesman your nation has produced; I do not know if you would claim to be Baptist also, but your most recent comments are unacceptable to any Baptist, and – as a Baptist – that concerns me. Let me take you back to suspicious religious minorities in east London; the attack I referred to above happened in Leytonstone; not far away from there, just the other side of the Olympic Park really, is an older part of London called Spitalfields. There, in 1611, a religious radical suspected of violence and insurrection established a new congregation. His name was Thomas Helwys; his congregation tiny – perhaps in single figures. But that church was the very first Baptist church in England and the origin of the Baptist movement across the world. Your father’s faith, and so I suppose yours, can be traced, under God, back to those few believers in Spitalfields. Helwys was soon imprisoned by the government; the immediate cause of his imprisonment, somewhat ironically, was a book he had written demanding the government grant religious liberty – not only to him and his followers, but to all. As the most famous passage of that book has it, ‘…man’s religion is between God and themselves … Let them be heretics, Turks [that is, Muslims], Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.’ Did you know that the faith of your father virtually began with a plea for religious freedom for Muslims in (what was then) the greatest city in the Western world, Mr Graham? It is not just Baptist beginnings, either. As your nation began, in the heady days of the revolution, a Baptist, Isaac Backus, was arguing the same point. Backus objected to the newly-independent States imposing compulsory church taxes to support the ministers of the majority, Congregational, churches. In his finest rhetorical flourish, he...

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‘A dirge for the down-grade?’

I recently had a meeting in London at the Oasis Waterloo centre; arriving slightly early, I stayed on the tube for one more stop and went to the Metropolitan Tabernacle bookshop, which I frequent fairly regularly, mostly for its republications of older Puritan and Baptist material that is not easily available elsewhere. I picked up, amongst other things, a slim paperback promising Spurgeon’s original source materials on the ‘Down Grade’ controversy, the event that led to his withdrawal from the Baptist Union, and to several strained relationships. The volume is not complete (most obviously to my eyes, MTP2085, ‘A Dirge for the Down-Grade’, is missing; that said, I had the privilege of discovering and cataloging Spurgeon’s own notes on this sermon back in the day, so I may be ascribing it undue prominence…); it does, however, collect the relevant notes from the Sword and Trowel, which is valuable. I had not read the material abstracted like this before, and several consistent themes jump out from it, when read in sequence. Spurgeon is deeply concerned about a general falling-away from Biblical Christianity infecting the churches in his day; he constructs this, not as a matter of degree, but as a fundamental binary: ‘A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese…’ (S&T, Aug. 1887) One is, on his construction, faithful – or one is apostate. There is no middle space. Now, of course, every evangelical will have some sympathy with this; we believe in conversion and the new birth; there is a basic binary divide: once-born vs twice-born; in Adam vs in Christ; … But every thoughtful evangelical will also hesitate, because in our history we have repeatedly and wrongly aligned this basic binary with other opinions which, whilst perhaps important, are not direct correlates. Far too often, we have questioned the salvation of people with whom we disagree about this or that; it is a habit we desperately need to break. Spurgeon repeatedly insists that in speaking of a ‘down-grade’ he is not speaking of Arminianism; this is interesting: a century or more earlier a Calvinistic Baptist like Spurgeon would have absolutely identified Arminianism as a departure from Biblical Christianity – and rightly so; seventeenth-century Arminianism was, basically, a rationalistic system. In the eighteenth century, an ‘evangelical Arminianism’ developed which – right or wrong (my sympathies here remain with Spurgeon…) – was nonetheless recognisably committed to the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth. What is he speaking of? Strikingly, his most common illustration, cited in almost every reference he makes to the ‘Down-grade’, is that pastors not only attend the theatre, but defend the practice of so doing. Next to the theatre, he references the decline of attendance at prayer meetings, and some more theological themes, but this is his most regularly repeated point. Here, my sympathies are not with Spurgeon. It happens that, presently, I do not go to the theatre very often; our local theatre closed a couple of years back. In a different context I would go more often. I do not regard this as a basic failure of morality, or a departure from Biblical Christianity (‘theatre’ not being a common Biblical term, as far as I recall…), I know why seventeeth-century Puritans objected to the theatre of their day – they were right to – I do not think their concerns speak meaningfully to the theatre of our day, or of Spurgeon’s. Now, of course, I may be wrong about this, but I suspect there will be relatively few who are wholly with Spurgeon on this one today, and even fewer who would hold up, as he did, theatre-going as the key demonstration of apostasy from the Biblical faith. I read the texts finally with some sadness; Spurgeon’s basic concerns were not misplaced; there was unquestionably a broad departure from evangelical Christianity amongst the English nonconformists of his day. His mode of waging the campaign, however, seems to me to have been very unfortunate; even he acknowledged that he was drawing a divide not between the faithful and the apostate, but through the middle of the faithful camp, as he separated from those who, whilst remaining committed to Scriptural faith, did not agree with his response to ‘the down-grade’. Further, as the example of the focus on the theatre shows, his illustrations of what constituted apostasy were sometimes rather eccentric, and often enough very poorly aimed. He knew that the central points were the authority of Scripture and the necessity of the new birth; why not stand there, rather than seeking proxies? Of course, in every age, including our own, the church has been very energetic in seeking out...

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