When Florent and the interview team were visiting with me, one of the topics we covered involved what it’s like for a priest to participate in online life. Florent’s question set me to reflecting about “e-Parish” ventures of one sort or another. The projects I’ve read about seem all to have involved replicating, in various ways, the notion of a “parish.”
But that premise relies on the kinds of geographical, physical relationships that online interaction renders supplementary (rather than essential). If something like congregating is going to happen online, it’s not going to happen because someone stakes out a virtual chapel, a virtual coffee hour, a virtual parish membership roll. That picks up the impaired aspects of the physical-world congregation, and makes them the definitive norm for digital congregation. That picks up the stick at the wrong end.
Contrariwise, I’ve found that something much closer to a “congregation” or (in a limited sense) “parish” arises freely in situations where people want to communicate with somebody on a basis that regards their theological identity. Think of the Real Live Preacher’s weblog; that (it seems to me) reflects something much closer to the full sense of “online congregation” than a posited “St. Somebody’s Cyber-Parish.”
And, to bring this around, I’ve found a very parish-like community of people who have offered their time and attention and thoughtfulness to the matters about which I’ written here. Only a small proportion of the people who come to this site profess an active Christian faith; that’s not a problem to my claim, though, because part of my point is that the who’s-in-and-who’s-out game doesn’t have the same compulsory urgency. Over the years, I’ve emailed and chatted and blogged with people about life and death, marriage and divorce, sex and loneliness, God and Jesus and Torah and gods and no-god. I’ve talked to you on the phone, theologized and interceded and just meandered. Sometimes we get together, which is a special treat. I’ve prayed for people who asked me to, and for some who didn’t ask (sorry if I give offense here), and in all these things I’ve felt a keen awareness of our connections to one another — even when I haven’t known your offline name. Sometimes people have checked back in to register a sense of how this connected with their faith, or lack thereof — but that’s entirely beside the point (not to them and me, I mean, but to the notion of “how we are together”). At the heart of what we do together lies the extent to which our connections, yours to me and mine to you, affect us, our hearts and dispositions and actions; those connections don’t reduce in any true way to a simple “in” or “out,” “parish” or “other kind of community” dichotomy. It’s more complicated than that.
That’s different from “being a parish,” you may say — and that’s just my point. It’s an online way of congregating; it makes sense of how we gather and disperse online, and it fits. People who congregate around here accept me as a priest, even if they’re not sure what to make of that. I’m a priest for them, and they’re friends to me — and we make a pretty snazzy congregation, as far as I’m concerned. Better than that ol’ cyber-parish any day, so there!