Ersatz or Stopgap?

The estimable Revd Dr Canon Alasdair Coles (there should be an ecclesiastical office that confers that ‘estimable’ honorific; perhaps for parish clergy with earned academic doctorates or summat) of All Saints, St Andrews, called my attention to an article on becoming a distributed church without becoming a virtual church, by Bob Hyatt on the website. Bob notes that gathering is one of the vital elements of the church (a legit claim), so that the practice of streaming worship services threatens this essential facet of ecclesiastical life. I suspect that part of his argument rests on an ecclesiology that soft-pedals the role of formal liturgy and sacraments in favour of the Spirit’s empowering presence wherever two or three gather in Jesus’s name.To that extent, we’re on different wavelengths from the start, but it should likewise be noted that (as Metropolitan John Zizioulas has recently reminded us, ‘The church without the Eucharist is not the church’. Both Spirit-gathered ecclesial assemblies and sacramentally-focused liturgical congregations face challenges in the face of a COVID-19 lockdown. (Not that God cannot sustain the Church through such hardships, but that human labour toward cultivating a spirit of fellowship and piety may suffer catastrophic impairment.)

There are people in the Anglican Communion who are more devoted to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar than I am — but not a very large proportion. It’s precisely because the Eucharist constitutes so crucial a sign and cause of Christian community that I stand very firmly with those who advocate a priest’s ‘solitary’ communion shared with the community by whatever means possible. If that means participating by watching and listening, so be it; I will make my spiritual communion in keeping with what the church teachers. But there’s all the difference in the world between making a spiritual communion when one is kept from the breaking of the bread by compelling circumstance (on one hand) and shrugging, having a lie-in, and tuning in a selected Mass on the telly out of diffidence (on the other).

While the essay from Ecclesianet makes reluctant allowance for the situation I describe, it manifests symptoms of what I have called ‘replacement panic’. That is, it suggests that staying away from church in favour of watching streamed services will become the new normal, just as once people warned that television would kill cinema, home taping would ruin the music business, and e-books would destroy the print publishing economy. I will no more forgo participation in the Mass because I could just watch Fr Damian on Facebook than I would skip visiting my grandson because his father opens up a Facetime chat with us every few days.

But why must we take the streamed-services phenomenon as dangerous, rather than marvelling that despite the comprehensive difference between the experience of going to Solemn High Mass and watching a priest offer the Mass in their drawing-room, people persist in wanting to watch the streamed services (possibly even more than they would have attended)? Isn’t this at least as much a positive sign and an opportunity as it is a cause for hand-wringing? If I am moved to view a streamed service, with only modest musical, visual, olfactory, and sacramental nourishment, how much more likely am i to long for the full Supper?

I’m not so much enthusiastic about streamed worship as I am confident that the reasons people might go to church, might belong to a church, after the plague abates will not differ dramatically from the reasons for going to or belonging to a church did five months ago. Rather than fretting about the makeshifts that help us get along while prohibited from attending, I give thanks that I have so many opportunities to join (to the extent possible) in worship while I await the freedom to meet with my sisters and brothers, to sing, pray, breathe deeply the ceremonial incense, admire the festal vestments, and most importantly to receive the divine nourishment of the Body and Blood of Christ.

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