Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

On the Church in the Public Square

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 6 2020

The Speaker's podium at the Areopagus, Athens. Photo: Matthew Duckett, 2014

Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-end
John 14:15-21

It’s a long goodbye. The reading we have just heard is part of the last speech that Jesus makes in John’s Gospel, called the “farewell discourse”, four chapters and more of teaching for the time when Jesus will no longer be visibly present with his disciples. Given that there are 21 chapters in John altogether, four and a half is indeed a long goodbye. It’s set at the Last Supper, the night before Jesus died, but Jesus is looking forward to a time beyond that, when he is risen and ascended and the Holy Spirit will be sent on his Church. This is something for his Church to reflect on, after those days. This is why we read these passages now, as Ascension Day is approaching.
Jesus tells his disciples that his visible departure from them does not mean that he will be absent from them. Rather, he will be present more fully, more universally, through his Spirit. Christ through his Ascension is not going away, but becoming present in a new way.
Saint Paul in Ephesians tells us that Christ has ascended to fill all things, that through his Spirit he makes the Church his body, his new visible presence in the world. And through that presence, given life by the Spirit, the whole of creation is to be renewed and transformed. As in the parables, Jesus will be present in the world through his Church like leaven or salt, the visible community of faith bringing change and renewal to the world.
We see this in operation when Saint Paul met the men of Athens in our first reading. His speech at the Areopagus, the place of public assembly, was a turning point in the history of Christianity. Before this, the Gospel had been preached to Jews, and to those Gentiles who had already become believers in Israel’s God and attached themselves to the synagogue, joining in with the prayers.
When Paul came to Athens those were the people he spoke to initially – the Jewish community, and its Gentiles followers. But word had got out beyond those circles. And Greeks who knew nothing about Judaism wanted to know what Paul was preaching.
So Paul spoke to them, too, for the first time. He spoke in terms that they would have understood. He referred to the religious practices of the Greeks. He set out a logical argument, very Greek, different in style from the midrash of the rabbis that Paul used when speaking to Jews. He quoted Greek philosophers and poets.  
What Paul did not do was to quote the Bible. Not one single verse of Scripture in this first evangelistic talk to the Gentile world. These Athenians did not know the Jewish Scriptures, so Paul stuck to what they did know, using terms and ideas that they would have understood.
The Gospel had gone public in the Gentile world, for the first time, and immediately it was addressing and engaging with the culture and society that were actually present. Christ has ascended to fill all things, and that includes human culture, art and philosophy. And even the religious instincts and feelings of other cultures outside Judaism.
Of course, the Greeks believed in many gods, and needed to go deeper to discover the One who created all things. And yet Paul is able to tell them that they already worshipped the one true God without knowing it. Christ has ascended to fill all things and he is there already in the religious instincts of a society that up to now has stood outside the revelation of God to Israel.
Paul spoke to that culture using its own concepts and ideas. God was already there, for Christ has ascended to fill all things, and indeed all things were made through him. It needed only the eye of faith to be opened for it all to fall into place. For the partial and obscure glimpses of the Divine in the old religions to find their place in the full revelation of God in Christ.
Paul’s speech did not seem to have much success at the time, only a few Greeks believed initially. And yet it was enough. The Gospel had gone public in the Gentile world, and the transformation of its culture had begun.
Our discipleship of course has an interior dimension, the prayer of the heart in the secret place behind closed doors. In this we follow Jesus who took time out by himself to pray, to renew his communion with the Father which was the wellspring of his mission.
But his mission was public, and the mission of his Church is public, too. Like Paul in the Areopagus, we are in the public square. The Gospel that we bear must engage with the culture and values of the world around us, recognising that Christ has ascended to fill all things. Yes, human culture does need to be acted on and transformed by the Gospel, like leaven in the lump. The conversion of culture by the Gospel can be the work of centuries. But the Church is sent into the world precisely for this public task.
The transformation of culture by the Gospel is seen in many ways. The abolition of slavery was the fruit of Christians reflecting on the scriptures and realising that society needed to change. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted after the Second World War, owes much to the insight of the Gospel that every human being whatsoever has the dignity of a child of God.
Broader culture, too, shows this working of the Gospel. Our church buildings are a sign of its public presence. This is a public building, not the meeting house of a private club. It is here for everyone. Whether you are a believer or not, church buildings are part of the landscape, the fruit of centuries of Christian culture, speaking of a different way of inhabiting time and space. Out there in the busy world, space is at a premium, time is money, pressure and work. In here, space is freedom, celebration, and Sabbath. In here, time is the deep stillness in which God’s eternity pours the life of the Spirit into our world.
Church buildings are not “just” buildings, in the same way as Titian’s Assumption is not “just” a painting, and a Mass by Mozart is not “just” music. All of them are a fruit of the slow transformation of human culture by the Gospel. All of them testify in different ways that Christ has ascended to fill all things. It’s sometimes said that the Church is the people, not buildings or paintings or music. Well that’s not quite right, that’s not quite the full vision of the scriptures. In the scriptures, humanity renewed in Christ is the head of all creation, and “we look for the life of the world to come”. In the broadest sense, the Church embraces the whole of creation entering the Kingdom of God. Not only in the liberation of the oppressed, but also in things like buildings, paintings and music, even the blessings that we extend to material objects. These are all part of how the Church is transforming the world.

Of course, at the moment, all places of worship are closed to safeguard public health, and we understand and accept that. We can live differently for a time in an emergency situation, as Christians have done before. But that does not mean that the Church can change its way of being present in the world. There is no “new way of being [the] Church”. Interior discipleship joined with public mission are what we see in scripture and what we are called to today. Our Areopagus today, our public square, is not so different from the one in which Paul spoke to the Athenians with its wealth of ideas from all over the world. And when public life is resumed for everyone, the Church too will be there, speaking, engaging, and transforming, in the world in which we are set.

Friday, 1 May 2020

The Treachery of Images – The Church in the Online Age

“The Treachery of Images” (French: La Trahison des images), René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, is one of the defining images of the surrealist movement. Painted in 1929, the image of a pipe is captioned, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("This is not a pipe").


Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image: Wikipedia

It’s playing a game with us. If we were asked unawares “what is that?”, we would probably reply, “a pipe”. But it isn’t. It’s a painting of a pipe. Commenting on this, Magritte said, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I'd have been lying!” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images, accessed 27/4/20)
In this playful way Magritte, and surrealism generally, was posing a profound question about the nature of reality. What is real? How do we know it? How can we interact with it? What is the role of representation in mediating reality?
Magritte’s picture came to mind while thinking about some of the debates and suggestions in the Church that have been occasioned by our current state of dispersal and lockdown. Questions such as: Is watching a service by live-streaming the same as being there? Can community be created on the internet? Can “Church” happen virtually? Can the Eucharist be celebrated remotely? Can anyone celebrate the Eucharist?
Because these questions are important, touching on the nature of the Church and the means of grace, and because some people are bandying them about as though the answer is an obvious “yes”, it is necessary to look more rigorously at the underlying theology. We really ought to have a clear grasp of this before we start launching out into the deep on our own initiative.
It is troubling that some in the Church have suggested that an emergency situation somehow justifies putting theology to one side and dealing with it later. In Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross”, Father Brown unmasks the thief Flambeau as a fake priest because he attacks reason, which no real priest would ever do. Flambeau argues, “who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?” “No”, Brown responds, “reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason”.
Questions about what the Church might do differently in a time of social distancing must be bound by theological reason, and hinge on fundamental questions about the nature of reality, and how we engage with it. We are engaging with people differently, online rather than in person, so it is pertinent to ask whether that changed mode of engagement changes also the very nature of the Church that we are.
Questions about reality and how we engage with it are, however, nothing new, whereas the internet is very new. Philosophers down the ages have posed different theories of the nature of reality and epistemology, how we know things, the relationship between what is out there and what is in our heads.
The philosophical foundation that this builds underlies every other discipline. Science, for example, depends on being able to explore the universe and from that exploration communicate ideas which can be independently verified by others. Science assumes as a postulate, its foundational frame of reference, that objects “out there” are real, and that they are intelligible in a way that is consistent between observers.
Christian theology, too, affirms the reality of things in a robust and positive way, and this undergirds everything that Christian theology has to say. This is rooted in the doctrine of creation: God is consistent and rational, and so too is the creation. The Nicene Creed states: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”. In its very first paragraph, the Creed affirms belief, not only in God, but also in things. That objects are real, that they are what they are, is not only our common-sense experience, it is also, for Christians, an article of faith.
The doctrine of creation is further exalted and dignified by the Incarnation. The Eternal Son was made man, assuming created nature, becoming a thing whist remaining God. Now an actual body, a soul, flesh and blood, were not only objectively real, but also joined indissolubly in a new way to the first cause of their reality. This human nature was not an idea, but a concrete fact: incarnate of the holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died and buried, and he rose again. It’s very particular: the Incarnation happened at a particular place and time, and if you happened to be there was visible and tangible, “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands”, says the First letter of John. A symbolic star in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem marks the traditional spot where the Incarnate Word first touched the earth. It is very small, and whether or not it is the actual place doesn’t really matter. It says to us that God touched the world, really touched, because God for the first time was joined to creation in the Baby that rested for the first time on the earth that was created out of nothing. Small it may be, but that star changes the whole relationship between God and the world. It tells us that we have been met where we are, in the particular nature that is ours, and that the purpose of this meeting is our salvation.
It is, further, Christian belief that the Incarnate Son founded a Church, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. This too is in the Creed. The Church not only exists, it is “one”, signifying not only its interior unity, but also its status as a concrete ontological fact. The church is a thing, not just an idea. It can be actually encountered. The reality of God, the reality of things, the reality of the Church, are the foundation of what we believe as Christians. Indeed, there are no abstractions in the Creed, for in it epistemological principle frames an historical narrative anchored in space and time. Creation, Incarnation, and the Church, are entirely to do with this real world we are part of. “Our salvation”, also in the Creed, is not a diffuse idea, but a concrete reality. Were it not, we would be of all people most to be pitied. No, we acknowledge “one baptism”, the sacramental washing of actual bodies as a means of grace, “we look for the resurrection of the dead” (“of the flesh”, as the Apostles Creed insists), “and the life of the world to come”. Not a vague idea, this, not some distant hope in a spirit world that somehow survives, not some preservation of “me” in the memories of others. No, creation made new, “In my flesh I shall see God”. Scandalous that may seem, and you may take it or leave it as you please, but it is the Christian faith.
It is notable, then, that the New Testament calls the Church “The Body of Christ”. A body is an objective reality, visible, tangible, having form and substance. That it is the Body of Christ adds to this a Divine life, a vivifying principle that joins this Body, unlike all others, indissolubly to the first cause and source of its life. The Church indeed, in a sense, is Christ, “the whole Christ” in St Augustine’s expression, an extension of the Incarnation into creation, and a gathering in of creation into the life of the Most Holy Trinity. Augustine may sound audacious, but what he says is rooted in scripture. God “has made [Christ] the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1.22-23); “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3.10).
This high doctrine of the Church is no haughty expression from the ages of worldly ecclesiastical power. Ephesians was written when there were perhaps no more than a few dozen local churches scattered around the Mediterranean world, and some two and a half centuries before the conversion of Constantine made Christianity a tolerated religion. The Church was small, but, like the Star in the Grotto of Bethlehem, was so many touching places where the Incarnate God extended his saving work through the visible, tangible presence of his Body that was the Church. Ephesians gives us a profound statement of faith about how Christ, the new Head of creation, is saving the universe through participation in the Divine-human hypostasis that is his Body, and that as such is destined to draw all creation into the life of God. The Church in the fullest sense is cosmic, because Christ has ascended to fill all things, and the Church, ultimately, is all things being drawn into their eschatological fulfilment. As the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky said, “the entire universe is called to enter within the Church... that it may be transformed into the eternal Kingdom of God” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church)
The Body of Christ in the form of the Church, cosmic in its eschatological realisation, has, like the Body of Christ in His earthly life, a visible form on earth in this passing age. And, like all bodies, it has a form, a structure, and an organisation. The shape of the Church is something that appears right from the start, and is elucidated through the New Testament.
In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, it is notable how, from the Day of Pentecost onwards, the Church is seen to take the place of Jesus as the visible proclamation of God’s Kingdom in the world. That is to say, the story of Acts is of how one visible form of Christ’s Body is replaced by another. That remarkable story-teller Luke draws this out in a series of parallels: The Spirit descends visibly on the Church in the Upper Room, just as on Jesus at his baptism, extending the revealed identity of the “beloved Son” to the community of believers. Preaching, signs, miracles, crowds of new believers, follow. The death of the first martyr, Stephen, almost exactly parallels that of Jesus: the trial before the Sanhedrin; the false witnesses; the judicial murder outside the city, the sole exception being the manner of his death, for the Roman power, responsible for the death of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, has been tamed by his resurrection and ascension and from then on is seen to assist the spread of the Church at every turn. “From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God”, says Jesus at his trial (Luke 22.69); echoed by Stephen, “’Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7.56).
Even when developments happen outside the organisation of the Church, it remains the proper task of the Church alone to proclaim and make real the Gospel of Salvation. Where people know something of the Gospel and have started a local initiative, it still needs to be brought within the stream of Apostolic life, as in the case of the new disciples in Samaria baptised by Philip, to whom the Apostles go to lay on hands (Act 8.14-16), or the preacher Apollos who needs to be “instructed more fully in the Way” (Acts 18.24-26). 

This same principle even applies where there is direct supernatural intervention from God. An angel is sent to Cornelius to prepare him for faith in Christ (Acts 10), but it is not the business of the angel to make known the Gospel. Rather, his message is to send to Joppa and fetch Simon Peter, the Apostle, to whom this task belongs. As in the Shepherd’s field at Bethlehem (another delightful Lukan parallel!) the angelic instruction from heaven is to go and encounter a human body on earth, and so be saved.
This Church, this Body which is the new way in which Christ is visible, has a priestly ministry to offer. Naturally it does, for Christ is its Head, and its priesthood is the continuation of the one priestly ministry of Christ through his Body in the world. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2.9). Saint Paul declares himself “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Romans 15.16). The priesthood of Christ, and therefore of the Church in Christ, as the Letter to the Hebrews makes clear, is not a priesthood like that of Aaron with its purifications and sacrifices. Rather, it is a priesthood like that of Melchizedek, rooted in an indestructible life, Melchizedek whose offering was not sacrificial animals but bread and wine.

The chief tasks of the Church’s priestly ministry, as they appear in Acts, are the proclamation of the Gospel, the baptising of new disciples, and the form of worship given by Christ in the Eucharist: the breaking of bread that has taken place every first day of the week from the beginning (tangential evidence, incidentally, for the historicity of the Resurrection, for how otherwise could the persistent practice of celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday have started?).

The Church is an organised society, and within the royal priesthood of the whole Church there have from the beginning been distinctive roles, with some members invested with authority to preside, to rule, govern and sanctify the People of God. Initially these were the Apostles themselves, having their authority direct from Christ, but as the Church grew the Apostles appointed others to assist and succeed them in presiding in the increasing number of local churches. These ministers are in various places called presbyters (=elders) and bishops (=overseers). It is well known that in New Testament times these terms were not used precisely to distinguish two ranks of the ministry, but that does not mean that they were equivalent. It is also clear that there were two ranks in the ministry: those presbyter/bishops such as the Apostles themselves, or Timothy and Titus, who had oversight over a number of local churches, and exercised a monarchical ministry; and those presbyter/bishops whose ministry was usually in one local church, often exercised collegially alongside others. Those of the second rank were appointed by those of the first, by prayer with laying on of hands, and all, initially, had been appointed by the Apostles. It belongs to presbyter/bishops to preside in the church and to exercise authoritative ministry (1 Timothy 5.16; James 5.14), and the chief gathering of the Church was the weekly breaking of bread on the day of Resurrection. The unbroken practice of the Church, that presbyters and bishops alone preside at the Eucharist, is evident in the New Testament as a matter of Church order, as is the embryonic principle of Apostolic Succession.

At the same time, Eucharistic presidency is not only a matter of order, but also of power, and this too appears in the New Testament. It was to the Apostles, and not to the believers generally, that Christ at the Last Supper gave the command to “do this is remembrance of me”; and as it was the Incarnate Word who spoke, he also gave, with the command, the power to do what was commanded, which was subsequently handed on by the Apostles. The bishop Timothy is reminded by the Apostle Paul to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1.6-7).

If presiding in the church belongs properly only to presbyters and bishops, by reasons both of order and of a particular charism received for this ministry, the ministries of preaching and baptism on the other hand are exercised more widely in the New Testament Church. The deacons Stephen and Philip preach the word of God, Philip baptises (Acts 7-8). This is distinct from the Eucharist, but these are ministries of outreach and of initiation, rather than of presiding within the Church. They happen, as it were, on the margins of the Church, and are directed outwards, calling people in. The Eucharist is associated from the beginning with the gathered Church, the believers meeting to break bread, in which it belonged to the presbyter/bishops to preside.

That presbyters and bishops are called “priests”, in a way distinguished from the general priesthood of the Church, is something of a red herring. This usage appears explicitly only after New Testament times. Polycrates of Ephesus (c.190) referred to the Apostle John as a priest (“hiereus”). The heretical gnostic “Gospel of Judas” (late second century) mocks the “priesthood” of the Apostles and the Eucharistic “sacrifice” they offer over their “altar”, saying “A baker cannot feed all creation” (Gnosticism regarded matter as evil, and sacraments as the deceits of an evil deity). The Gospel of Judas is a polemic against orthodox Christianity, but it illustrates the terminology that had already, clearly, come into regular use. It confuses matters, that, in English, the word presbyter, meaning “elder”, became anglicised as “priest”, a word which also translates the Greek hiereus and Latin sacerdos, words which have various meanings not all of them the same as the Christian concept of priesthood. 

This is the Church we have received, founded by Christ and having an objective reality and definite form and organisation. But in our own day this is not always well received or understood. If we insist on the presiding ministry of presbyters and bishops, we can be accused of clericalism, or told, facilely, that “we are all priests” (that could be argued, in a sense – but we are not all presbyters). The modern appeal is to autonomy, and what is more autonomous, more democratic, than the free subject sitting before a computer screen, monarch of his or her own world. Who needs a priest? But such a supposition is completely detached from the life of the Church. There is no organic continuity or connection with the Body. “Cut off from me, you can do nothing” (John 15.5).
If we insist on the essential form of the liturgy as something we receive, not something we can devise or change, we can be accused of nostalgia and inflexibility. In this post-modern age of democracy, consumer power and choice, are we not exalting a merely human institution, an institution which, moreover, historically has so often failed to live up to its own teachings? Should we, can we, not change this institution according to what we imagine our own needs to be?
These thoughts and questions have been around for a good few years. When I was training for the priesthood they were prominent in the reading lists and course assignments devised by academic staff, many approaching retirement, for whom these had been lively ideas when they themselves were first studying theology. They have certainly gained ground in the Church of England. The 2004 report “Mission Shaped Church” was widely criticised for its theological lightness, but gave all the impetus that was needed to the “Fresh Expressions” movement. “Fresh Expressions of Church” (without the article that the noun “Church” requires) are described as “new forms of church that emerge within contemporary culture and engage primarily with those who don’t ‘go to church’”. They “may look different and seem different to what’s been done before, but they make discipleship a priority – valuing people’s different faith journeys and supporting them as they wonder, explore and encounter”. (https://freshexpressions.org.uk) .
Fresh Expressions are usually sacramentally light, as that preamble makes clear. Discipleship, the individual’s journey, are to the fore. The website only once mentions “The eucharistic heart of the church” – in a short piece drawing heavily on the theology of Archbishop Rowan Williams, and which seems to have had little impact on the movement after being filed on the website. (https://freshexpressions.org.uk/find-out-more/going-deep-1-the-mixed-economy/) .
Fresh Expressions are explicitly defined as complete and self-contained alternatives to “Inherited” churches (i.e. things like parish congregations), supposedly having everything that is needed for ecclesial life. Nothing that is simply an outreach initiative, designed to draw people into an historic liturgical community, can count as a “Fresh Expression” in the Church of England’s annual “statistics for mission” roundup. But a monthly meeting in a café for some prayer and Bible study, even with no sacramental content, apparently can – so long as no-one actually goes to church afterwards. This is, however, far short of the New Testament idea of the Church as explored above, and as experienced through Christian history.
It is against this background of ecclesiological drift that one has to read, and understand, and be concerned about, the statement put out by the Archbishops when the suspension of public worship was first announced. The Church of England was called upon “to become a different sort of church”; “radically different”; “rooted in prayer and service to others” – nothing wrong with prayer and service of course, but the Eucharist was relegated to something to be done “where possible”, meaning implicitly that it was no longer necessary. (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/archbishops-call-church-england-become-radically-different-public-worship).
Then followed further letters closing churches, in accordance with Government requirements that came into force a few days later, but also – contrary to the Government’s explicit permission – banning even clergy from entering their own churches to live-stream services with no-one else present (a ban later “clarified” as “guidance”).
The Archbishops’ statements beg a huge question: is it really possible for the Church to “become a different sort of church”? Of course, the Church can and does adapt remarkably to external circumstances. But it cannot change in its essential nature and remain the Church founded by Christ. It is a gathering in of people into a new life, not virtually, but really. The Eucharist is essentially the same if celebrated in a glorious cathedral to the strains of Mozart, or in secret in the corner of a prison cell in the Gulag with a few salvaged crumbs of bread. Baptism is essentially the same if administered at a beach mission in the roaring sea, or in a silver bowl in the private chapel of a royal palace. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ and handed on by the Apostles, who may have been startled had they been able to see some of the ways in which the Dominical commands were to be fulfilled; but they would, nevertheless, have recognised what was done.
The nature of the Church and its mission and ministry remains essentially the same, but indeed may vary greatly in expression, according to circumstances.  The term “Fresh expressions of [the] Church” has a theological value, and it is a pity that is has been so devalued by the indiscriminate way it has sometimes been used.
It is an easy step – or perhaps a slippery slope – from “Fresh Expressions” understood so loosely, to proposing that the Church can become “radically different” or even “go online”. This is to say, in effect, that the Church has the power to radically change its nature, to become delocalised, disembodied, virtual. To consist, in fact, of images on screens, which are representations, not reality.
Many would argue that there is nothing wrong, per se, in the use of images in Christian worship. The mainstream position in East and West takes the view that the Commandment to make no graven image (Exodus 20.4) has been modified by the Incarnation. God has made an image of himself, Christ who is “is the image of the invisible God”. Moreover, Jesus himself omitted this Commandment in his own summary of the Law (Matthew 19.18-19).
Icons in the Christian tradition are, however, not images of this present time and space, but rather representations of eschatological realities. It is only as such that they can mediate grace. Eastern theological traditions affirm a direct, quasi-sacramental grace of images, so that by meditating before an icon of Christ or a saint, one may come into spiritual communion with the real person who even now is in God’s Kingdom, whose representation we gaze on in this passing age. The West, especially since the reforming Council of Trent, sensitive to protestant criticisms, has tended to emphasise more the didactic role of holy images as acting on the mind to raise us indirectly to Divine contemplation. But in both cases it is the eschatological dimension that makes sacred images a means of grace, mediating a transcendent power. Images on computer screens of a scene in this passing age are not the same. They mediate to us, essentially, only where we are now, and are the gateway to no journey of the spirit, no breaking through of the world to come, as sacred images can be.
There is an iconic significance also to church buildings, for sacred architecture, too, seeks to express eschatological realities, a representation in brick and stone of the heavenly Jerusalem. A church building is a consecrated space, lending itself to no other purpose than the liturgy, caught up in which, mystically, with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, we pass through the gates of pearl and tread already the streets of golden glass that we cannot yet see. Of course, the liturgy does not require a consecrated building, and if need be we can gather and celebrate anywhere. The power of the liturgy lifts us into the heavenly places anyway. But, if a building is available, if the sacred architecture speaking of Divine realities can be seen even by way of a computer screen, should it not be used?
The frustration and pain felt by so many clergy at present, constrained by episcopal obedience to stream services from their homes when in so many cases they could just as easily do so from nearby churches without any risk to anyone, seems not to be understood. A secular home interior, however tastefully arranged, reflects back to us our present realities rather than mediating transcendent ones. The fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury chose to stream his Easter Day Eucharist from his kitchen, when all the world knows that he has two functioning, historic and beautiful chapels in his home, is sadly indicative of the state of ecclesiological bewilderment in which we find ourselves.
Every time bread and wine are taken in the Eucharist, part of the creation is drawn through into eschatological reality: both the bread and wine themselves, which become the Body and Blood of the Ascended Lord who fills all things; and the faithful who become what they receive.
But one part of the creation cannot be detached from another, and the Eucharist, like the Church itself, is cosmic in its ultimate scope. Certainly, one celebration of the Eucharist, be it with only a handful of faithful present, or even in exceptional circumstances celebrated by a priest alone (as representing both apostolic authority and the people of God), nevertheless embraces the whole Church. Thus, Cranmer’s Eucharistic Rite in the Book of Common Prayer prays that “we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of [Christ’s] passion”. Or, as the congregation prays in the Roman Rite, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church”.
For the Eucharistic action to happen, for the sacrifice of Christ to be pleaded for those present and absent, for the whole Church to be caught up in this action, it is necessary that bread and wine be actually taken and offered, consecrated and received. The tangible Church offers tangible elements; the real presence of the elements is prior to the real presence of Christ whose sacramental sign they become. Certainly, believers who are not present can join in spiritually with the offering being made, and may make an act of spiritual communion. Spiritual worship may be offered anywhere, for “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4.24). It should not need to be pointed out that this does not depend on the internet, an invention of the mere last few decades. The absent faithful have always made spiritual intentions in union with the Eucharist being offered elsewhere. Live-streaming, or having pictures of people watching on screen via video conference software, makes no difference in principle to this at all. It is the same thing, aided by new means.
New media may enhance the experience of remote spiritual participation, but do not change its nature. The internet, in fact, can add nothing new to the nature of the Church, to the possibilities of its life, or to the matter and form of its Sacraments. These were instituted by Christ, and the Church in every age must receive them with faithfulness and obedience. The internet is nothing more than a tool of communication, a human invention of recent years. It is a good thing, and a blessing in a time of social distancing. But it does not, and cannot, add any new ontological dimension to the Church’s existence in which the Church and the Sacraments assume a different nature.
In fact, we can express this more broadly, and say that the internet adds no new ontological dimension to human existence generally. It is a profound mistake to suppose that it does. Human persons remain bodies, and community and relationships remain embodied. The internet is no gnostic “Astral Plane” into which we can project our consciousness and live some new disembodied reality. There is no such thing as online existence, only images on screens representing – and who knows if faithfully or not – a physical reality elsewhere. CS Lewis, in his theological science fiction trilogy “Out of the Silent Planet”, published in 1945, posits a race of fallen beings on the moon where, “when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty in their dreams of lust” (That Hideous Strength, 13.1) Lewis knew nothing of the internet, but his prescience is remarkable. The treacherous image deceives: in online “relationships” the disembodied representation of a person is not a person, and true Eros, the love that transcends the boundary of the self in going out to the other, cannot happen. Bodies do not meet. The two cannot become one, because they cannot become one flesh.
It is the same in the Eros of the Church, the Deified Body in which the many become one, in which the self is transcended in the new ecclesial reality which is Christ. It is embodied by its very nature, and a disembodied church is a contradiction in terms. “Church” – the Church – cannot happen online, because online is only a representation, an image that may help our communication, but that becomes a treacherous image if we mistake it for the reality it represents. If, indeed, what we see represents reality at all. Images can be changed at will on our computer screens. Even in live streaming I may choose to appear in a hat and glasses that do not exist, or standing in the Palace of Versailles or on the mountains of the Moon. This can indeed be done quite easily by accident, as some live-streaming clergy have discovered…
Sacraments require material things, really present. Baptism requires real water actually poured over an actual body. Looking at an image of water being poured on a screen will not do. Similarly, bread and wine cannot be consecrated remotely by a priest looking at an image of them on a screen. Why not? Because there is no bread and wine there! It is only an image. To make the point clearer, consider the problem in this way: could bread and wine at a remote address have been consecrated by a priest elsewhere, before the days of the internet? Indeed, might St Paul, in writing an Institution Narrative in 1 Corinthians 11, be considered to have consecrated the bread and wine that were in the houses of the people of Corinth, when his letter got there? The absurdity of the suggestion is its own answer. If it could not be done before the internet, then it cannot be done after, for the internet is only a means of communication, changing nothing in the nature of human society or the Church.
Likewise, some have said, “God can do anything”: the Holy Spirit is not limited, therefore God can create “Church” online, can consecrate sacraments remotely, and so on. Now, to write the words “God can…”, in front of a logical contradiction, is simply to write nonsense – and see above for the logical contradictions. But if that is not enough, consider putting it this way: “If I step off the pinnacle of this Temple, God can hold me up, so that I dash not my foot against a stone,”. I wouldn’t recommend trying it at home. And in any case the scriptural answer to that, of course, is, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4.5-7). Belief in the omnipotence of God also requires belief in, and attention to, what God has in fact done, and not what we would like God to do according to our fancy.
The current situation of social distancing and closed churches has brought to the fore theological currents of thinking that have been building for years, and whose inadequacies are being exposed. Treating the form of the Church as something almost infinitely mutable runs the risk of eliminating the Church altogether. Mistaking representation for reality invites us into a seductive and easy, but surreal, world of imagination and shifting forms, moulded to our own desires. Whereas the Church in its reality, its ontological solidity, moulds and changes us. Conversion is only possible in submitting to a reality that is greater and truer than ourselves.
The online age gives us powerful new tools for staying in touch, sharing and communicating, and indeed for reaching out at the boundaries of the Church to draw people in. These are great blessings. But the treachery of images deceives, if we mistake them for what they are not. If I cannot smoke it, then it is not a pipe. If I cannot encounter the life-changing and life-giving Body of Christ in its incarnate reality, then it is not a church.
Matthew Duckett

1st May 2020