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Pixelating Christ: A Hopeful Communion in Hybrid Spaces

The Covid-19 pandemic may or may not be winding down, but what’s heating up are the assessments of “online worship” and what we think we have been learning as we enter the third year of this pandemic.

Among the many recent essays in that vein, two have seized a sizable share of social media buzz. Just yesterday, New York Times opinion writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren declared that it’s time to stop online worship services entirely. On the flip side of that coin, Church of England priest and theologian Richard Burridge argues in a new book that Holy Communion via online platforms (like Zoom) is “valid and effective.”

I’ll toss my hat into that ring by referencing an essay of my own that was published last year in Concilium about what I called “Eucharistic cyborgs” and the conundrums Christian congregations face when nearly all of the activities we call “worship” become vectors for a deadly infection. (That issue of Concilium, by the way, is well worth exploring for its theological and spiritual framing of the “post-human” in a digital world.)

We will likely be living for quite some time with a patchwork quilt of ecclesial policies and liturgical postures around these issues, and it’s far too early for definitive conclusions. We are, after all, evaluating innovations we had not planned on making, and using theological principles we are not sure directly apply, while quite a few of us are finding ourselves (surprisingly) grateful for a new set of tools and skills to use in this challenging era of religion’s putative decline.

As a parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I facilitate and lead worship in a hybrid space, with masked, in-person worshippers receiving the Eucharistic bread while offering a prayer for “spiritual communion” for those joining us online. The tension between these two forms of “communion” can, I hope, provoke fresh engagements with what communion itself means and why it matters in a world of pain and for the sake of healing.

Like most hybrid spaces, this one is not always comfortable and includes awkward moments. Naming that discomfort, pondering why such worship can feel awkward, is important for our ongoing discernment about why Church still matters for exactly such a time as this.

Do note the distinction between the broader category of “online worship” and the more sacramentally peculiar question of the Eucharist in that broad category. Personally, I endorse what the Episcopal Church seems to have adopted: embrace online worship but refrain from what has become known as “remote consecration” of bread and wine.

That distinction blurs when reading the two essays I noted above, and I find compelling arguments in both—on the one hand, I heartily endorse Warren’s reliance on physical proximity as paramount in a religion of incarnation and, on the other hand, I tend to agree with Burridge’s insistence that the cyber-distance between a presiding priest at the Eucharistic Table and an online worshipper should make no difference in the ability of the Holy Spirit to bless and, yes, consecrate bread and wine remotely.

Compelling arguments from both, but I am not fully persuaded by either author. I find Warren’s categorical dismissal of online worship not only hasty (watching someone die from Covid-related causes should quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that we can safely manage Covid infections); but she also seems insufficiently attuned to the pastoral benefits of reaching people unable to attend worship in person (just because the Church has found ways to do so in the past without computer technology does not mean we should eschew such technology today). In my own congregation, we have also appreciated the evangelistic reach of our streamed worship—we have been welcoming new members to our physical sanctuary on Sunday mornings who worshipped with us first online.

Concerning Burridge, I would (ironically) cite Warren’s arguments about embodiment as a rebuttal to his apparent disregard for the significance of being physically distant while only visually and audibly present online. I think Warren rightly worries that online worship makes embodied presence optional for too many people, or akin to a “consumer preference,” rather than essential and vital to sacramental efficacy. She likewise proposes that bodily risk itself is inherent to the story of God’s Word becoming flesh and that our avoidance of all risk (which is never actually possible) amounts to a form of resistance to divine embodiment.

Reading those two writers side-by-side, I realize and I freely admit that my embrace of worship online but not consecration online is probably incoherent. But I still think it matters, theologically, that the Church has always insisted that the priest must touch the bread and wine to consecrate it, and I cannot do that for the bread and wine that people have at home while they watch me on a screen.

I suppose one could argue (and some have, like Burridge) that the Holy Spirit can just as easily bless the bread I touch as the bread people themselves hold at home. Perhaps, but I certainly wonder whether inviting people to treat “cyber touch” the same as we would “physical touch” underestimates just how physically touch-deprived so many have become during these last two years of social distancing in a pandemic; I am so grateful to see my friends on a screen, and yet for months I have longed finally to hug them once again. That longing is the very foundation of the liturgical insistence on touching the bread.

These conundrums seemed utterly novel and to appear quite suddenly in the spring of 2020, but the Church has actually wrestled with the liturgical theology at the root of such questions for centuries, including during times when Eucharist was interrupted or not permitted. Christians have always found ways of “being Church” nonetheless, and we are in one of those moments once again—a “moment,” by the way, that certainly deserves a healthy dose of patience and generosity toward each other as we sort this out.

Like many others, I had to grapple with all these issues in “real time” wrestling simultaneously with how to stream anything online and what it means liturgically to do so. I offered no conclusions about such matters in my essay for Concilium but I did land on some questions that I continue to find theologically stimulating and pastorally compelling; in various ways, I keep inviting the congregation here in Saugatuck to land there with me.

For example, are we human online? That question is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. Having now clocked hundreds of “Zoom hours” in committee meetings and worship gatherings alike, I wonder what physicality and proximity actually mean in relation to bodies. Just how close exactly do we have to be to one another to be “in proximity”? And what does it mean to be “physically present”? Do we suddenly become immaterial when we enter a Zoom room? As a theologian who appreciates the concept of “deep incarnation”—supposing that God’s Word incarnates all the way down to the microscopic, cellular level—I cannot help but wonder why I resist the notion of God’s Word showing up in a pixel.

On the brink of Black History Month, I’m also reminded of womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s concise declaration that the “body provokes theology.” She offers that declaration with the Eucharist clearly in view, insisting that the Table has material significance for how we treat racialized and gendered bodies. This is especially so because of the bodily communion the Eucharistic Table performs and what Copeland insists must be our Eucharistic solidarity with the oppressed, forgotten, tortured, maimed, and lost.

Do virtual bodies provoke theology in the same way that Copeland so persuasively argues that physical bodies do? Or does that question assume that our electronic digitization makes us substantially (note that word!) less human?

Another womanist theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas, has argued why we should even care about such questions. The carnal or fleshy character of Christian faith matters, she argues, for how we address a misogynistic society of white supremacy. Sexism and racism flourish, in other words, in contexts where our bodily lives are not honored with profound respect. So it’s at least worth wondering whether online gatherings can sustain bodily engagements sufficiently to promote social justice.

All of these questions strike at the very heart of our shared distress in a world of runaway climate chaos, unrelenting racialized violence, and gendered oppressions. These are material, bodily concerns for which Eucharistic worship provides vital framing and shaping. For that reason (among others) the parish that I’m privileged to serve as rector will continue to stream our worship services online and we will continue to refrain from “remote consecration” of the Eucharistic bread and wine.

I believe and I hope that such an approach to worship is a coherent balance to strike for the sake of refreshing our shared engagement with what communion itself actually means at a time when we are more desperate for its depths than we likely realize. I mean “communion” in the widest sense—communion with each other as humans; communion with other species; communion with the ecosystems of Earth; and therefore communion with God-in-Christ.