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Aether and Ethernet: Historical Perspectives on Immediacy and Eu-charistic Participation in a Digital Age

Christian theology has long dealt with the questions of "presence" and "absence". Environment has frequently provided material for such engagements. How might a digital environment re-configure practices such as Eucharist and pilgrimage?

Published onJul 02, 2021
Aether and Ethernet: Historical Perspectives on Immediacy and Eu-charistic Participation in a Digital Age
Aether and Ethernet: Historical Perspectives on Immediacy and Liturgical Participation in a Digital

Aether and Ethernet: Historical Perspectives on Immediacy and Eucharistic Participation in a Digital Age

Srebrenka Kunek,

Matt Brain,

Fergus J. King


The recent COVID pandemic has changed the ways in which churches have performed ritual and liturgy, provoking questions about whether on-line worship is “real” or the equal of Face-to-Face Worship.

These questions are not new. The church addressed questions of absence and presence in considering how the worshipping community relates to God, Christ, and Spirit from its earliest days. Previous answers might assist the current discussion, if a missional hermeneutic is adopted, which recognises the need to identify “a manner, a style, a spirit” (Boff).

Such “translations” bring significant change and deny theological antiquarianism. Reflection on how sacramental theology was shaped by Judaic patterns of anamnēsis and sacrificialisation, as well as later debates about the real Presence, indicate significant engagement with these themes. These reflections were rooted in the changing environments around the church as they brought fresh materials and questions within the purview of theologians.

The digital environment provides fresh contexts for revisiting matters of absence and presence. One approach is outlined in the description of the opportunities for online ritual and worship offered by the My Pilgrims’ Way [MPW]materials which have been developed. Consideration of their role within missional church life reveals that digital platforms are no mere substitute for embodied presence. Rather it is through a digitally mediated gathering that new forms faithful to old patterns may be established.

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COVID-19 has normalised video conferencing in church life. It has been applied to present church online, daily prayers, celebrations of life and death, for pastoral care, and official church gatherings including ordinations.

Church services and ministry via digital media have become acceptable to church organisations, ministers and parish councils. Pre-COVID, the digital risked being discounted as not authentic or real, and so not legitimate for ministry. So, there has been a shift in meaning. Digital media and the internet inform how church services are curated, prepared and delivered. Furthermore, how features of the internet and digital media are applied for engagement and outreach pose significant missional questions, such as whether the features of the internet and digital media are being applied efficiently to support church life and ministry.

This has shifted the focus from questions about the format of the digital to whether the use of the medium is informed by missio Dei.1

This programme is located in cyberspace, a context where spirituality and technology intersect,2 and arguably a new existential context.3 Features of the internet need to be incorporated into a mission which responds to ‘reading the signs of the times’ (Luke 12:54–58).

While such questions may seem novel, they are not without precedent. Christians in other ages have also integrated worship with their changing environments. A recurring feature has been their stress on gathering and proximity at the eucharist. This, from the earliest days, had a ritual aspect, since the death or sacrifice of the victim, and/or the identity of the host of a meal [Jesus, in either scenario] became increasingly separated by both time and geography from the communities who gathered in his name. How, put crudely, might Jesus host a meal at Corinth in the 50s CE, when he had died in Jerusalem?

The first Christians developed answers to these which were as radical in their re-accentuation of the rituals of their time as those of today. They also developed liturgical expressions of faith, for example, in their development of pilgrimage traditions. Their answers may shed light on our problem, even if they are not magic bullets for today. Their re-accentuations of existing ritual patterns, the identity of the host of the meal, the nature of the meal, and the identity of the community give material for rethinking worship and mission in a new digital age.

A Hermeneutic drawn from Mission

Claims that the present may be informed by the past need some methodological foundation. David Bosch’s magisterial Transforming Mission subscribes to concepts such as Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts: distinct breaks between scientific systems which are incommensurable.4 Some have pushed back against the Kuhnian model, concluding that commensurabilities “emerge…from the partial overlaps of the multiple secular and religious traditions than mark all civilizational states”.5 Thus, the remarks that follow are based on the premise that some continuity persists.

But, of what kind? Simply lifting advice from earlier Christian materials and applying it to contemporary contexts is inadequate. Even those who claim to do this reconfigure their behaviour in situations which were beyond the originals. Alternatively, the “correspondence of relationship” hermeneutic advocates a dynamic equivalence:

We need not, then, look for formulas to “copy”, or techniques to “apply” from scripture. What scripture will offer us are rather something like orientations, models, types, directives, principles, inspirations- elements permitting us to acquire, on our own initiative, a “hermeneutic competency,” and thus the capacity to judge- on our own initiative, in our own right- “according to the mind of Christ”, or “according to the Spirit”, the new, unpredictable situations with which we are continually confronted. The Christian writings offer us not a what, but a how - a manner, a style, a spirit.6

As contemporary contexts increasingly include digital elements, dynamic equivalence must address the fact that the medium is as important as the message. Historians of Christian thought and practice recognise that the media used by Christians change the practice of ministry. Thus, the shift from the writing of scrolls to the codex changed both the study of scripture and the performance of liturgy.7 So, too, did the shift from manuscripts to the Gutenberg presses: bibles and prayer books became affordable for many. And, if liturgical celebrants in the past struggled to get congregations to focus on the liturgical act and not their prayer books, today’s vie for their attention with screens and digital projections.

Dynamic equivalence prompts a further consideration. The translation of texts looks a fairly one-sided movement: the original text is static, plasticity exists in the receiving language. Lamin Sanneh offered a different view: translatability. The practice of translation “changed the world”: “Once they introduced vernacular literacy, translators could not turn back the clock or pretend that things would remain the same. Many were not so dim as to persist in that attitude”.8 All acts of translation reveal that “translatability acquired a life of its own, which translators could not control; and, in any case, had they been able to control it, we would still have accused them of political manipulation”.9 So, the traditional answers to questions of liturgical immediacy and participation simply will not suffice.

Theologians have a choice: either to recognise these missional realities, or deny them. However, they may still look to the past for guidelines and prompts to answer the questions raised by the present.

Sacrificial Immediacy: The Cross, Lord’s Supper, Anamnēsis and Spiritualisation/Sacrificialisation

Emerging Christianity engaged with the issue of immediacy and participation in the eucharist from the beginning. This sacrificial dimension is enshrined in its aetiology (Mark 14: 24; Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 5:7). Ritual meals might well be associated with offerings made to deities, and their consumption indicate allegiance to those same gods. This is clear from Paul’s comments about eidolothuton in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. Consuming food recognisably identified with a diety effectively places the consumer in their thrall,10 but foods lacking such associations are permitted.11

Sacrificial meals always involved a two-fold action: the offering of a sacrifice, and a meal. Normally, the meal followed the sacrifice. Emerging Christianity, with its focus on the Last Supper, tested this pattern: the meal preceded Jesus’ death on the Cross. Later Christianity will effectively return to the customary order, simply because the death of Jesus on the Cross has preceded every subsequent celebration of the eucharist. Yet, the gap between Cross and celebration indicates a departure from the ancient convention: the immediacy of sacrifice and meal was gone.

Early Christians did not think that the eucharist repeated the death of Christ. They understood it to be anamnēsis, which was never about repetition, but rather “making present and effective” what happened in the past.12 An anamnēsis of the Passover did not re-enact the Exodus: it “reminded-God” of his saving of Israel, and so expected similar treatment. Furthermore Christian anamnēsis never simply looked back to history:

To make the eucharistic remembrance simply an actualization of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is to have an incomplete and altered understanding of remembrance. It would be better to understand it also to include the future- to make the future, the eschaton, a reality here and now.13

effectively replaced physical participation in cult. These did not entail a loss of sacrificial activity, but its reconfiguration to include physical absence.14 Gathering to read to the texts of Torah would be as efficacious as attending the Temple for the festivals described.15 Emerging Christianity would demand different configurations of immediacy and participation from those afforded by recitation of a text alone.

Even if Christians disagreed about when and how to celebrate the eucharist, they maintained the practice of celebrating an actual meal. Early Christians celebrated using a variety of foodstuffs, and included the shift from a supper to a breakfast. Elements of this change reflected a “cultural setting, rather than a developed theology”, which leads the eminent liturgist Alistair C. Stewart to conclude: “the oddity….is that the bread-and-wine-tradition survived at all”.16 His remarks are testimony to the fact that liturgical practice has undergone much change in the past, and may demand a corresponding degree of flexibility in the present.

“eschatological transcendence of all these social and natural divisions”.17

When Christian thinkers reflected on the nature of Jesus’ presence, and that of the company of heaven, in the eucharist they recognised the participation and presence of all but not in an immediate, physical manifestation. They asked what it meant to be “present”.

Sacrament, The Real Presence, (and Absence)

Defining presence would draw on the language of sacrament. Early eucharistic theology evolved in a world which sacramental activity which invested ordinary item with a new meaning or significance through words (often a blessing) which intimated at the change.18 By the time of Augustine of Hippo, sacraments were more clearly identified as the means by which particular graces, or gifts of God, were delivered to their recipients.19 They made real the promises of God.

Theories of “presence” would become more elaborate. Christian thinkers would later support or deny of such a “Real Presence”, in increasingly complex debates, particularly in the Reformation, when Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists disputed whether the “Real Presence” was physical or spiritual, and Zwinglians denied it in favour of a memorialism.20

The language of these debates reveals how the description of the “Real Presence” had been shaped by conceptualities which emerged in the post-Biblical thinking. The “Real Presence” was, by the Reformation, significantly different from 1 Corinthians. Critical to this was the adoption of Aristotelian categories like “substance” and “accidents” which came to the fore in scholastic theology. Thomas Aquinas notably embraced the Aristotelian materials which had been preserved in Islam21and Byzantium.22 Thomas’ theology took fresh directions because of the “conceptual strategies” these afforded.23 This shows how a new conceptual framework could radically alter the shape and contours of doctrine, dogma, liturgy and practice.

It was not the only one: others embraced the cultural contours of their exponents and their audiences. Thus, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the increasing use of seals in chanceries and documentary practice provided a fresh analogy to explain the dynamics of the eucharist .24 So, too, did the use of coins.25 These also provoked a change in eucharistic practice: “the metamorphosis from early Christian loaf to coin-like wafer”.26 The practice of elevating the host and chalice during the celebration would also lead to the introduction of the Benediction, in which simply looking upon the consecrated element would become a significant devotion for many.27 Whilst this ritual has mainly been restricted to Western rite Catholicism (Roman or Anglo-), the practice of spiritual communion has gained a wider acceptance, sometimes because a state of sinfulness has excluded a literal participation,28 or because of health constraints like the recent pandemic.29

Such adaptability was not restricted to eucharistic theory and practice. It is also visible in the development of pilgrimage. The antecedents of Christian pilgrimage are found in various Graeco-Roman and Judaic forms.30 Christian pilgrims were not constrained by previous practice, but innovated. Thus, Celtic pilgrims used the peregrinatio, not to visit existing shrines, but to leave “his [sic] homeland, usually for good, for the sake of his soul”: such salvific enterprises often became, intentionally or not, missionary endeavours.31 Similarly, medieval pilgrims would travel to known shrines like Canterbury and Compostela, and even participate in Crusades, for similar reasons. In recent years Christian pilgrims have integrated concerns for social justice into pilgrimage, as with the rebuilding of the abbey on Iona.32 Pilgrims today engage with ethical issues, not least in how visits to Israel or Palestine might be conducted.33 The digital age offers new possibilities: pilgrimages which do not involve a physical journey, but nonetheless offer opportunities for new perspectives and transformations.

Theology and worship have not been static entities within Christian tradition and experience; the environments in which worship is celebrated have provoked changes in both understanding and practice. At this point, it is now appropriate to ask how the advent of a digital age might change both the conceptual framework and practice of worship today.

The Digital Environment

The internet is a socio-technical infrastructure network and platform with mobile technologies; it is part of new culture of social connection, communication, relationship and information exchange.34 With the current focus on missio Dei, digital media become tools for a mission-shaped place-based and digital church. Furthermore, the use of digital media and communications transforms both church and users for the human computer interaction is a dynamic and interactive relationship changing both medium and human.35

Digital media are well suited to Pioneer Ministry for working with people in mission and developing emerging forms of church. Pioneer Ministers may be defined as those “called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church; gathering others around them as they seek to establish new contextual Christian community”.36

In the description which follows of Pioneer Ministry, MPW refers to the literature on church and ministry, the internet and digital media. MPW is a digital space and place-based practice developed as part of Anglican lay Pioneer Ministry, in the Diocese of Bendigo. The Diocese refers to Pioneer Ministry as “recognising the ministry of people who are starting or sustaining a ‘fresh expression’ of church, a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people not yet members of any church”.37

The aim of MPW is to develop a Christian response to the features of the internet and the design of a digital platform for engendering the formation of a community in mission. This is informed by human computer relationships, and the internet as a space of real congregating for the design, development and implementation of the missio Dei, located where people are present: on-line and in physical place.

A cross disciplinary research approach has been applied in developing MPW inclusive of cybernetics and human computer relationships, for furthering understanding and applications of digital communication and media of emerging forms of digital church and ministry.

There is a growing body of work on the impact of the internet and digital media on religion, theology and the church. However, studies fall short of informing a theologically informed approach for digital ministry and church development. Studies have examined the impact of the internet and digital media on religion, theology and the church and the surge in the use of the internet for worship.38 The early Vatican II document, Inter Mirifica highlights the significance of digital media as introducing “new avenues of communicating” defined as “media of social communication”.39

As Campbell and Garner point out, digital religion requires new forms of theological inquiry.40 Berger presents examples of online church practices, concluding that online worship principally represents a continuation of the long history of mediated practices in liturgy while reporting changes which lead to reduced liturgical authority.41 Their work reports on change being the result of digital media without providing a critical analysis of what is taking place within the introduction of the new media.

Phillips et al. point out that Jesus spoke in the language of Palestine of his time challenging us to share the missional message and be change agents in our time, referencing how Facebook can be applied.42 However, there is no method given which allows for concepts outlined to apply to the development of digital ministry or digital church for mission.

MPW reveals theological influences which enable people to be equipped as active agents in the networked digital ecosystem for being church thus engaging as God’s “instrument(s)” for mission.43

MPW references the work of David Brown who provides an engaged view of digital media, technologies and the networked space as being part of the sacramental, premised on the divine not bounded but found in our world, stating, God is to be found in “every aspect of human experience”,44 with religious experience being therefore “mediated”.45 According to Brown, the sacramental represents a “holistic view of how God relates to human experience in its totality”, providing a broader meaning of the concept than the “essentially ecclesiastical and narrowly Christian”.46

Such a theology applies to new forms of digital church and ministry and reveals the relational and dynamic aspects of God being part of the materiality of our world and in relationship with humans. The sacramental is not a static concept only associated with the technical meaning, but inclusive of God’s dynamic involvement in our world.47 The approach opens up discussion about the Eucharist as part of worship in digital space.

Brown’s theological interpretation of pilgrimage is relevant in demonstrating the practice as applicable to people congregating for worship on church platforms employing digital media and the internet. He demonstrates pilgrimage to be part of relating to God.48 Journeying as part of pilgrimage is a sacramental experience of God with place transformed and acquiring an “enhanced value”.49 Online space via digital media is a new relational space when designed with the intent of engagement in the sacramental and collaboration for mission.

MPW is designed to be located and responsive to where people are in digital space, seeking engagement and co-design of emerging forms of being church and service through ministry. The practice has been embedded in missio Dei and its outcomes since the end of the 1960s.50 At that time, the meaning of Church, defined as central to God’s mission as part of ecclesiology, shifted to missio Dei preceding the Church. As a result, missiology became defined as theocentric.51

With this change, people as the community in mission were seen as active agents, central to participation in the agency of God, supported by a mission shaped church.52 The common denominator between people participating in worship online and being members of communities in mission is participation in the agency of God, with the “missionary” triune God.53

MPW practice is informed by missio Dei with mission being an “organising axis”54 and people in mission as active agents, not bounded by a “church centric” ecclesiology.55 The practice is informed by methods for congregating and collaborating, applying digital media to enable active agency by users, collaborators and producers. MPW is being developed from the existing website with the next stage being four main collaborations: Pilgrimage, Feasts, Online Radio and Altar Live for developing digital church.

Features of the internet are part of the design of the MPW platform. The internet enables a lay Pioneering Ministry practice. The internet is ubiquitous, fluid, interactive, many-to-many, dynamic, real-time, non-place dependent and part of networked society,56 with social aspects of the technical infrastructure.57 Such features of the internet are conducive to the missio Dei. MPW’s design for collaborating with people in mission prioritises the relational in human computer interaction.

Cyberpilgrimage is helpful to further describe human-computer relationships and interaction, and the sacred and the presence of God in the digital space. The term cyberpilgrimage refers to pilgrimage operating in digital networked space of the web.58

The history and tradition of pilgrimage has merged with new digital media.59 Research in this domain is associated with cybernetics, the internet as a teleological mechanism60 and as a socio-technical system.61 Campbell notes pilgrims describe cyberpilgrimage as “spiritual networking”, because of the “sense of connection” to the place event: the online relationship gives a connection to God whereby they feel changed.62

The location of authority between people and the church alters significantly, as the internet is a many-to-many, open communication platform. The online pilgrimage environment is reported to be part of a changed relationship between religious authority associated with “rules and regulations” and “people’s interactions with the sacred”: pilgrims on digital platforms develop their own rules of interaction which subvert hierarchical relationship.63

MPW pilgrimages provide a curated walk of sacred ground and secular space of significance presenting people’s cultural heritage located in Melbourne CBD. The two-hour walk provides a connection for people between the sacred and sacramental online and in physical place. The Melbourne CBD pilgrimage includes the Stations of the Cross and sites of cultural significance including graffiti and monuments to people who have contributed to social justice and equity. Pilgrims co-design their pilgrimage as they traverse the terrain. Human computer interaction is evident in the co-design of pilgrimages, through participants posting on social media, tagging to influence algorithms and collaborating with viewers of their posts.

MPW pilgrimage design is informed by a theology of sacred place and online space. Pilgrimage is seen to be part of people’s embodied participation in sacramentalised place and events, the intersection of the material world and encounter with God.64

MPW Liturgical Feasts are curated feasts co-designed with people in community for celebrating the main Liturgical days and Patronal Festivals based on the current Lectionary. The Feasts are informed by the Year of Favour (Luke 4:18–19) and hospitality (Matthew 25:40). The purpose is to open up church buildings, particularly for people in local communities not associated with a worshipping congregation. An example of a curated liturgical feast was a program for Easter Saturday and the 150th Anniversary of St John the Evangelist, in a small village called Malmsbury, Central Victoria. The event turned the congregation of eight into six hundred and fifty people attending the all-day event and two church services. An outcome included greater awareness of the church in the village.

MPW Bendigo Anglican Radio is currently in development for presenting stories by clergy about their daily lives in their rural parish, Diocese of Bendigo. The program includes curated contemporary liturgical music. The purpose is for local people to experience the person behind the role of the vicar. Altar Live is a recently released digital church platform to be incorporated as part of MPW for people to congregate online for being missional in community.

Digital church and ministry exist in a context of amplified agency and are part of the features of the internet, digital platforms and technologies, with users transforming the medium as they are in turn transformed through their use. Today church online and the use of video conferencing have become an acceptable format. However, to develop digital worship and ministry for missional engagement and collaborating communities requires designing platforms informed by features of the internet and the human-computer relationship. This means being part of digital culture which potentially “disrupts” current authorising and dominant power narratives to amplify agency and missional practices.65

Thus, it becomes important to see how a ministry like MPW fits within and might be usefully part of an existing ecclesial body. This may well provoke reform of both MPW itself and any larger entity. In this case, the dynamic between MPW and the Anglican Diocese of Bendigo needs to be explored.

We who are many … are one body in Christ

The COVID 19 pandemic is a crisis rather than a cataclysm: unlikely to destroy the deepest structural levels of the church, it provides a point of departure for the new, digitally mediated, patterns of worship and witness which have arisen in response to the crisis forced upon the church. Yet we have also seen that digital platforms are no mere substitute for embodied presence. Rather it is through a digitally mediated gathering that new forms faithful to old patterns may be established.

At face value the liturgical, literary and federated nature of Anglican congregational life has been challenged by the pandemic. Church traditions less dependent upon an orderly, regulated and literary worshipful life, and less constrained by synodical agreement and an ordained ministry may more nimbly respond to changes forced by the exigencies of the pandemic. Many clergy and the congregations they serve have struggled with a “full’ ministry when physical gathering has been prevented.66 The approach of MPW presents the seeds of an answer to questions of presence and absence in sacramental ministry and of the divine mission within the diocesan experience of Anglican church life.

While acknowledging the many points of difficulty within diocesan episcopalianism, two points of strength emerge. The first is that every parish is incomplete without a wider framework.67 Daily ministry of each part is not hampered by the absence of a bishop, yet the continuing ministry of each part depends on their presence. This simply recognises that existence as part of the Church of God requires real interaction with other parts of that same church. Thus, the bishop is the focus of unity or the point around which an individual parish (and constituent congregations) recognises its blessed insufficiency. This first point of strength is an ironic recognition of weakness. Any triumphalistic self-sufficiency should be held at bay.

A second, related, strength inherent in diocesan life is the contingency of individual expressions of church life. While the settled norm of congregational life being fully and sufficiently served through the priestly endeavours of a ‘pastor after the pattern of Christ the great Shepherd’68 is valid the lack of a priest does not spell the end of a congregation. The work of the whole diocese should fill up what the local congregation lacks with practical help and the affiliative assurance of fellowship. If the first strength is the acceptance of weakness, then the second is the appreciation of assistance. At its best diocesan life is an exposition of the declaration in the Eucharist that “We who are many, are one in Christ”.69 This does not just refer to the unity of individuals in sharing the bread of the eucharist, it is also recognised by the mere presence of congregations formed together within a diocese- who at another level, share the one bread..

The strengths inherent in diocesan life provide a surprising starting point for a praxis of mission in a digital age. The necessity of the local expression of the Church of God in any discussion regarding the immediacy of the sacrificial work of Christ cannot be overstated.70 The eucharistic sharing of bread and wine requires embodied presence if true participation is to occur: it is not simply the body of Christ broken on the cross, but also the Body of Christ gathered in fellowship.71 Yet the tenuous contingency of the immediate, which is paradoxically complete in its weakness, provides the clue a pioneering appropriation of presence.

The immediacy and participation demanded by anamnēsis are the staging post for proximity and translatability. If an embodied faith is to become the sort of mission envisioned by Sanneh proximity to those for whom the faith is translated is required. MPW allows this. Whilst a digital presentation held alongside a physical pilgrimage does not necessarily make for easy transition to settled congregational life, it does provide the forum for a conversation in which those who form the settled and gathered congregation are able to walk alongside another in a pattern of life which invites participation in a reimagined world. It enables Sanneh’ proximity. It does not pretend to be a disembodied eucharist but it does provide the sacramental real presence of Christ for those who have the eyes, ears and feet to discern God’s prevenient grace. In this sense the people of God, themselves participating in anamnēsis become the sacramental bodies for those for whom that which is remembered is translated.72 The curious diocesan mix of weakness and willingness to receive assistance provide the launch pad and tether for a ministry which encompasses both digital space and physical space.


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