Thoughts and questions about ‘online Church’

At the heart of the Christian faith is a world-altering paradox: that out of desolation, devastation, and death comes the fulness of God’s restoration and renewal. And at this time of coronavirus, where there has been a necessary end to physical public worship, the in-person proclamation of God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments, we have seen a renewal in the life of the Church, in particular in the online space.

Amongst the technological difficulties, steep learning curves and (often amusing) mishaps, it’s been a delight to see many aspects of the Church’s life, both in its worshipping life and in its social life, ‘projected’ into and rooted in the online realm. And while this may be new to many Christians, they have been led by the countless Christians who have trod this path before: those Christians who have been ‘shut out’ of our physical church spaces because of the failures of the institutional Church to be properly accessible. If anything is to come out of this time of lockdown, it must surely be a re-awakened sense of the importance of making sure the life of Christ’s Church is accessible to all. And that will necessarily involve both repentance and a greater willingness to listen from those Christians, myself included, who have clung uncritically to some of our inherited ways of Church life.

Aside from all the ways I’ve personally engaged with ‘online Church’ during this Pandemic (it’s been a great joy to ‘visit’ a number of churches around the world that have, for a long time, piqued my interest), I hope that all I’ve said above makes two things clear. First, I don’t in any way intend to diminish or devalue those who argue for the presence of the Church in the online space or to treat ‘online Church’ as inferior to what might pejoratively be called ‘normal Church’. Secondly, that when the coronavirus lockdown does come to an end, there can be no going back to how things were before: the renewal that has been brought about in the midst of the pandemic’s destruction cannot be a passing phase in the life of the Church.

All of this being said, however, I continue to have a number of questions about what it means for the Church to be the Church (in technical language, ‘ecclesiology’), and whether the substance of the Church (that is, what constitutes the Church as Church) can apply equally to the forms of ‘online Church’ that currently exist. It’s with the intention of inviting comment, debate, and a mutual exploration of these issues that I write this short post, seeking to raise further thoughts and questions about the direction of development for the post-coronavirus Church both physically and online.

Perhaps it’s useful to start by setting out two rough models that might be said to exist for the Church online, as it’s currently being lived out. Here I’m now particularly concerned with the worshipping life of the Church, acknowledging that there is a much wider variety of models of engagement when it comes to the Church’s social life, as well as other aspects of Church life, like catechesis, teaching, and nurturing discipleship. When it comes to the Church as worshipping community, it seems to me that there are two principal ways in which this is worked out online, which I’d like briefly to explore.

The first model, which I call the ‘broadcast model’ of online Church, is very much dependent on an established, physical worshipping community (most commonly a parish church). ‘Broadcast models’ of Church will, as their name applies, seek to broadcast the physical life of the Church into the online space. And so we see parishes streaming the daily office, the eucharist, sermons and so on, through YouTube, Facebook Live, Twitter, etc. Often this can be quite a passive experience for those engaging with the Church online, but it needn’t be so: uploading orders of service, involving videos of different people with readings and intercessions, saying the daily office or the eucharist through Zoom and inviting people to join in are some of the many ways of deliberately orientating the broadcasted worship towards those who aren’t physically present, allowing for a more active participation of the whole people of God, physically and virtually.

The second model of online Church is the ‘virtual model’. By ‘virtual’ I mean a Church community that is not anchored in any physical Church space. It’s here that we’ve seen some of the more pioneering and creative ways of living out the life of the Church online, from new forms of online Church services that have no physical parallel to wholly online communities which have often been more accessible and welcoming than their historical, physical equivalents. At the same time, the concerns that affect the ‘broadcast model’ of online Church can affect the ‘virtual model’ too: how much active engagement a YouTube Sunday service has, for example, can vary considerably, and it’s possible that these means of engaging people with Church can be just as passive as their ‘broadcast model’ equivalents. (On the question of ‘inclusion’ other issues arise as well, most especially as to the extent to which the inclusion that’s ‘won’ through online forms of Church is accompanied by other forms of exclusion: the technologically illiterate; those living in circumstances of material poverty without adequate computer equipment, phone data, internet connections; those whose homes aren’t safe or welcoming places and who value the communal space of a physical church building?)

I hope this clears some of the ground in terms of what we mean by ‘online Church’. In particular, I hope it’s clear that I don’t think either model is intrinsically better than the other as online Church, and that both are liable to many of the same strengths and weaknesses. What I’d now like to do is think a bit more deeply about ecclesiology, what makes the Church ‘Church’, and ask to what extent each of the above models is capable of satisfying any conclusions that might be reached.

As someone in the catholic tradition of the Church of England, much of my thinking about ecclesiology has been informed by ecclesiological discussions in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Orthodox Churches of the Christian East. Roughly speaking, the main thrust of ecclesiology from this perspective has been to emphasise the Church as both constituted by and constitutive of the sacraments, and in particular the eucharist. Writers like the Roman Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac and the Greek Orthodox bishop John Zizioulas have emphasised the Church as structured around the eucharist. This is emphasised as an ‘orthodox’ ecclesiology, in the sense of being rooted in holy scripture and the writings of the Church fathers. This is stressed particularly in one of the earliest Christian writers, St Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the beginning of the second century (that is, just a couple of decades after the later books of the New Testament). For Ignatius, it’s the liturgical celebration of the eucharist by a local community of Christians, presided over by their bishop, that makes that community the Church. So, in his letter to the Christians in Smyrna (chapter 8), having just written of the presence of Christ in the eucharist, Ignatius goes on to say:

Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. You should regard as valid that eucharist which is celebrated either by the bishop or by someone the bishop authorises. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

This teaching is reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Quoting from the Vatican 2 document Lumen Gentium (‘Light of the Nations’: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the Catechism describes the eucharist as ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (article 1324). Every aspect of the Church’s life — the daily office, liturgies of the word, the other sacraments and sacramentals, preaching and teaching — ‘flow out’ of the Eucharist by which the body of Christ is made present to and in the Church that is his body as part of the ‘sacramental economy’. Summarising its eucharistic ecclesiology, the Catechism itself cites Ignatius, in his writing Against Heresies: ‘Our way of thinking is attuned to the eucharist, and the eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking’ (article 1327).

This isn’t just Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox exceptionalism. Article 19 of the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles, finalised in 1571, says that ‘[t]he visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men (sic.), in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’. When speaking of the authority of the Church, article 20 speaks primarily of the Church’s role in decreeing rites and ceremonies, alongside its role in ‘Controversies of Faith’ and as ‘a witness and a keeper of holy Writ’. The Prayer Book’s Catechism itself speaks of the ‘Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’ as being ordained by Christ for the continual receipt of the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice: the grace conferred by Christ’s death on the cross is communicated to the faithful through their participation in the eucharist. It’s clear that this understanding of the (visible) Church as gathered congregation with the celebration of the sacraments at its heart is as much a part of Anglicanism’s Reformed legacy as its Catholic legacy (to operate under a questionable modern binary!): see, for example, Calvin’s description, in his Institutes, of the ministry of the word and sacraments (i.e. baptism and the eucharist) as the ‘perpetual badge for distinguishing the Church’ (cf. Institutes IV.2.i).

All of this is worked into an admirable Anglican synthesis in the report of the first Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC 1) in 1981, which speaks of the Church, in fashionable ecumenical language, as ‘koinonia’ or ‘communion’,  with the eucharist seen as ‘the sacrament of Christ, by which he builds up and nurtures his people in the koinonia of his body’ (para. 6). ‘By the eucharist all the baptized are brought into communion with the source of koinonia’ (para. 6). The place of the sacraments—both baptism and the eucharist—as well as the preaching of God’s word and the communal gathering of the faithful are set out fully in paragraph 8, which succinctly summarises the ecclesiology explored above:

The koinonia [of the Church] is grounded in the word of God preached, believed and obeyed. Through this word the saving work of God is proclaimed. In the fullness of time this salvation was realised in the person of Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. Jesus prepared his followers to receive through the Holy Spirit the fruit of his death and resurrection, the culmination of his life of obedience, and to become the heralds of salvation. In the New Testament it is clear that the community is established by a baptism inseparable from faith and conversion, that its mission is to proclaim the Gospel of God, and that its common life is sustained by the eucharist. This remains the pattern for the Christian Church. The Church is the community of those reconciled with God and with each other because it is the community of those who believe in Jesus Christ and are justified through God’s grace. It is also the reconciling community, because it has been called to bring to all mankind, through the preaching of the Gospel, God’s gracious offer of redemption.


Back to the question of ‘online Church’. Where does all that has been said above lead us? What we cannot say, I don’t think, is that ‘online Church’, construed in terms of the ‘broadcast model’ or the ‘virtual model’, is ‘not Church’. In nurturing the faithful, in holding together a community of the baptised, in offering prayer and praise and the proclamation of God’s word, online churches clearly participate in much of what it means to be ‘the Church’ in the world today. This is especially the case when ‘online Church’ serves the important role of incorporating (or, re-incorporating) those for whom ‘physical church’ is made impossible – either because of extraneous circumstances like the present pandemic or by the strident inaccessibility perpetuated by the ‘physical Church’ – into the worshipping life of the community of the baptised. The Church on earth is made up of all people who have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection: any ‘physical Church’ that is deliberately or inadvertently exclusionary of certain groups or individuals arguably forfeits at least some of its claim to be fully, perfectly realised ‘Church’.

At the same time, however, the above exploration in ecclesiology begs some difficult questions about ‘online Church’ that need further consideration. And this is especially the case when it comes to seeing the Church as sacramentally constituted, and itself constitutive of the sacraments as guaranteed (if not exclusive) channels of grace. If membership of the Church is constituted by baptism, what means exist for bringing new believers into the body of Christ? And if the sacramental economy of the Church (extending to every aspect of the Church’s life: social; catechetical; proclamatory; sacramental) is structured around and renewed by the presence of Christ in the community’s celebration of the eucharist, what meaningful connection is there between a particular instance of ‘online Church’ and the eucharist itself? 

When it comes to my first model of ‘online Church’, the ‘broadcast model’, the links are, I think, clearer. With the physical celebration of the eucharist in a physical Church, attended by (some of) the community of believers, there is a clearer satisfying of established ecclesiological norms. When it comes to renewal here, the emphasis needs to be put more squarely on making that community’s worship truly accessible, and consciously incorporating those who cannot be there physically at the eucharist into the Church’s wider life: through active online participation, home Communions, equal involvement in Church governance and so on. (As a partial aside, I don’t think anywhere near enough consideration has been given, with either model of ‘online Church’, to the importance of the reception of Holy Communion in the eucharist as much as the importance of the eucharistic offering per se.)

But when it comes to the purer examples of the ‘virtual model’ of online Church, things get trickier. We need, I think, a much more constructive debate, and some honest questioning, about the extent to which it’s desirable or even (theologically speaking) possible to have wholly virtual communities of Christians whose existence isn’t connected, in some real and meaningful way, to the celebration of the sacraments and the sacramental economy that flows from the eucharist. (I’m deliberately not entering into the question here about whether the sacraments themselves, and particularly the eucharist, can be celebrated virtually: this is obviously a relevant consideration, though I remain, personally, to be convinced of its desirability if not its possibility.) Note that this isn’t exclusively a problem with some forms of ‘online Church’: many of these same ecclesiological concerns could be expressed about non-sacramental ‘fresh expressions’ of ‘physical Church’ that run in parallel to more ‘traditional expressions’ of Church.

I recognise that in much of this debate about ‘online Church’, the risk of being misunderstood and of causing hurt feelings is great. This is especially so when debate is carried out on Twitter and other social media, where tone is difficult to discern and nuance difficult to convey (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa …). This is a stressful time. A lot of people are hurting in different ways: those who’ve pioneered online church spaces before coronavirus who now feel they are being conveniently used as a temporary measure, to be discarded as soon as we can get back to ‘real church’ (sic.); those who are nurtured by ‘physical church’, who miss the eucharist, the sacraments and physical community, and who are worried that their genuine grief isn’t appreciated by those who lead the Church. But, as I said at the start of this piece, amidst the desolation and devastation of coronavirus there is the possibility of the Church’s renewal. My intention in writing this piece has been to ask in what ways this renewal might legitimately develop in a way that’s consistent with the Church’s understanding of itself, of what it truly means to be Church. I hope that in that modest aim I have at least partially succeeded, and apologise now for any unintentionally hurt feelings that may have been caused in the process. This is a crucial and exciting debate that the Church needs to have, and I hope that any further discussions, comments or questions that might be raised by what I’ve written here may be pursued in a constructive and respectful manner that befits us all as members of Christ’s risen and ascended body.

This is a guest post by The Rev’d Dr Philip Murray; Assistant Curate: parishes of St Peter, Stockton-on-Tees and St John, Elton, Diocese of Durham.

One thought on “Thoughts and questions about ‘online Church’

  1. For me, the fundamental issue brought about the Covid-19 and when it’s over, is whether we continue to present and represent in the larger secular society, questionable beliefs from biblical literalism and the incorporation of present knowledge in teaching and actions.

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