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Pixellated bread, tweeted wine

Posted on 06 August 2010, 19:39

Last week, a Twitter communion service scheduled for 14 August was called off after the UK Methodist Church pulled the virtual plug. The service was the brainchild of Rev Tim Ross, a Methodist minister, and as far as I know would have been a first for Twitter.

Tim explained on his Twitter Communion website: ‘Whilst I have not been absolutely forbidden to perform the Communion on Twitter, British Methodist Church authorities have strongly urged me to cancel it. The main reason for this, they say, is that it comes at difficult time, because the whole issue of performing services like Twitter Communion over the Internet is being re-examined by the Methodist Church.’

I’m writing a piece for the Church Times about virtual communion: mad, bad or fab? And including the current state of play on the subject in some of the online churches, including St Pixels, i-church and the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life. I’m collecting material for that over the next few days, so if you have a story to tell about online communion or virtual worship, or want to say what you think about the pros and cons, please comment below.

When we launched Church of Fools in 2004, we did think about installing a pool baptistery (as we’d already made a virtual swimming pool for The Ark), but decided we’d have enough to worry about in just doing 3D church – which proved to be right. Church of Fools was partly sponsored by the Methodist Church, so I’m especially interested to hear that they’re now making cautious noises about online worship.

Picture: Church of Fools publicity shot

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Thanks, everyone who posted here, for your thoughts and experiences. I’ve interviewed Rev Tim Ross (the man behind Twitter Communion) and you might be interested to read something of the interview here.

Simon, Fri 20 Aug, 01:34

Spot on, Craig. I agree that we don’t need Holy Communion to be Church. Online churches have been managing without it for years. The Gospel is still preached, the sick are still healed, the bereaved are still comforted and – Hallelujah – God is worshipped. Sacraments are nevertheless something many Christians also set store by. The arguments, to me, are about how we can put the icing on the cake.

I’m also the sort of person whose rebellious streak pops up at being told by some bossy person that I can’t have something for no good reason, whether or not I wanted it before. I didn’t know the Salvation Army didn’t have Holy Communion, by the way. I somehow thought they did but didn’t make a fuss over it.

Joyce Hackney, Sun 15 Aug, 18:09

Interesting answer, Joe. Good point. It’s absolutely true: eating always happens when we’re there to do the eating and it was the same for Jesus. He even ate in person with his friends after His resurrection. Your answer seemed like QED to me at first, but after reflecting on it for a couple of minutes a follow-on angle occurred to me.

We are not suggesting not eating, are we ? We are talking about whether the Holy Spirit blesses the bread we do eat and whether or not it matters who else is there at the time. Personally I don’t believe that if Holy Communion is important that God would deprive me of it just because I can’t get up and go where a priest is. Therefore either the bread can be blessed and eaten where I am, or the bread is unblessed which makes no difference to anyone or anything, or Holy Communion doesn’t matter all that much.

As for doing things for centuries, well yes, as a Church we’ve always taken tradition, authority, and Early Church practice into account. We have added to tradition over the years in the way we have practised but we have not fundamentally changed much if anything. The Early Church did not even have the New Testament as we know it. They are our ultimate model but since their days on Earth we have had the New Testament, the widespread use of paper, the printing press, the Bible in the language of the congregation, the ability of the congregation to own and read their own copies, church buildings, radio, recording facilities, TV, and now the internet.

All these things were unavailable to the Early Church. Over the centuries the wider Church has accepted them all. The changes have not all been taken on board easily or lightly nor should they be. Some of them were opposed before they were embraced. Just because a proposed practice is new it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be added in time after due discussion.

Joyce Hackney, Wed 11 Aug, 21:16

Flippin heck. You don’t need to have communion to be church anyway. The Salvation Army manage just fine. I’m fed up of all this arguing over sacraments. Can’t we just get on with the job of spreading the kingdom?

Craig Gilman, Wed 11 Aug, 20:31

The model we have for the communion service is that of Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper; he had not risen or ascended but was present at the table. Thus our custom of being physically in the presence of the consecrator has been so for centuries. Healing was occasionally done at a distance, but eating was always done right there with the meal.

Joe, Mon 9 Aug, 21:40

I’ve not studied theology well enough to know whether there is scriptural evidence that a miracle happens to the bread and wine at the consecration ceremony, or whether it is a made-up legend. I have personally never believed that it matters one way or the other, but reading comments here suggests that there are many who do. Supposing that a change really does come over the elements when the priest touches them and says the words that Jesus said, I have a question.

Jesus performed miracles when He was on earth whether or not He was physically present: can bread and wine therefore not undergo the miracle of consecration without the physical presence of a priest? We pray for miracles all the time and they happen. Jesus showed by the raising of Lazarus that the fact He had not been physically when Lazarus died made no difference to His power to change organic matter.

We use the physical gesture of the laying-on of hands when we can but we don’t hesitate to pray for healing and so on when we are alone or on the phone, or over the internet. We expect the Holy Spirit to do His work. It seems illogical, if not blasphemous, to me to believe that bread and wine restrict the power of God to effect changes upon them when sick bodies do not.

Joyce Hackney, Sun 8 Aug, 19:18

Communion has both a communal aspect and an individual aspect – we do communion together, but we receive it individually. The reception is of a physical nature, but of course it is a spiritual experience. The doing is more of a thought process where we join together in prayer for the coming of the Spirit upon the elements. Whether they and we are changed is key.

Joe, Sun 8 Aug, 05:32

I scribbled some thoughts on my blog.

@msmiriamm, Sun 8 Aug, 03:43

As a member of an internet church, while I can understand the aspiration for the Eucharist for those who cannot get to a bricks and mortar Church, and do not have the elements brought to them at home as their links to B&M Church are not maintained, I would feel uncomfortable with such a service.

I share Prayer Worship online, which can take a number of forms, but the Eucharist is not appropriate in my view.

Perhaps I am not comfortable straying from the norms of the Church of England, perhaps I am blinkered or old fashioned, but I cannot see how the consecration of the elements would be valid without the physical presence of the Priest and the words and actions involved in the act of consecration.

If the Church were to move towards this and authorise it, perhaps I will see it differently, but at the moment I feel that we have enough to do in mission and outreach without making a further stick to break our back with.

Ernest, Sun 8 Aug, 02:58

i-church and The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life are my main churches. Pam the pastor said on the Beehive that you were particularly interested in hearing from people in this position. I used to attend the Church of Fools services when they were online six or seven years ago. I enjoyed it. The atmosphere was enthusiastic and uplifting. It is a source of lasting pride and frequent boasting for me as a middle-aged, fairly conventional lady that I was once chucked out of a COF service after being mistaken for a vandal. (I wished a Welshman good morning.) How cool is that? I was sad when the COF ended.

For most of my life I have never been able to go anywhere, even when I was at school, without some degree of physical discomfort. In church I always found this a distraction. I believed that during worship I should be concentrating and paying attention – something that didn’t matter to me all that much in school : ) – and felt somewhat guilty that I was worrying more about dropping a hymn book or the chalice, or whether my aches and pains would stop me getting up and down, or where I was in the line at the altar, than what was going on in the service. In the last couple of years accidents have rendered me almost totally housebound for the time being. It takes three of us plus assistance from the barstaff to get me to and from a pub for lunch once or twice a year.

Now I can be as comfortable as I like during services. I can go to church every day somewhere on the internet if I want to. I might even prefer online worship now to attending a bricks and mortar church. I love the daily service on Radio 4 for the music and its intimacy of preaching. I enjoy the interactivity of i-church and SLangCath. I like watching services when B and M have them online. Would that they all could be rolled into one.

What I do not want is having Communion at home brought to me specially just because some words have been said over it. I don’t mind receiving Holy Communion in hospital with reserved elements because I’m one of many there and it’s obviously time-saving. In sixty years of attending churches I have never caught on to the superiority of consecration. In the NT Jesus always gave me the impression that He saw consecration of objects and ceremonial practices, as delineated in the OT, as of low or no importance. Why consecrated bread and wine should be especially different I can’t see. I don’t get why they should be consecrated at all, actually.

Eating bread at my computer, when I know that others with whom I already have some contact are doing so, connects me much more than kneeling alongside somebody I might not even know or than getting it alone at home because the Church has deemed it ‘consecrated’ can ever do, surely?

Joyce Hackney, Sun 8 Aug, 00:05

The BBC dealt with this donkey’s years ago. On Sunday mornings the TV audience was invited to have a piece of bread and a glass of wine at the ready, plus a candle if they liked to have one. Prayers sent in by the viewers were read out. Then the Communion took place, with as many members of the audience as wanted to taking the bread and wine they had at home. I don’t recall hearing of any controversy about this procedure at all. It might be interesting to talk to the producers and ask them how they got around any possible objections. Their experience might be helpful to us.

Personally I don’t see anything strange about the idea that all over the world Christians are remembering together that they are one in Jesus by eating some bread and having a sip of wine. It is after all, only food. If there are Christians who think there is something sacred or magical about Communion bread and wine then there is no need to take part if it makes them feel as though they are committing some kind of sacrilege.

When Jesus did what He did in the incident we know as ‘The Last Supper’ recorded in the NT, He was not doing anything out of the ordinary. It was His words that were different and special on that occasion. The practice of handing round bread and sipping wine was,and still is for all I know, something that happened in Jewish households after every meal. Jesus must have participated in it many times when He ate in friends’ houses. Can’t we all simply do what the disciples did daily in their own homes and when they ate together without fussing over the mumbo jumbo aspect?

Joyce Hackney, Sat 7 Aug, 22:29

This is an interesting question. I’m not a theologian but here are my thoughts:

I can understand the official church’s reservations on this, and it needs thinking about carefully because communion is such an important part of Christian worship. I was taught that a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of an inner grace’, and I think the debate here would be about the details of the outward sign.

I think the main issue would be about whether the priest can consecrate bread and wine that is not physically in front of him or her. I might expect people to have different opinions depending on their view of the eucharist: for people who consider it mainly a memorial of christ’s sacrifice for us I can see no reason at all why it couldn’t happen online as suggested by Tim Ross. However for people with a more mystical view of it, such as the Roman Catholic position that by consecration it physically becomes the body and blood of Christ, might find it a little more difficult. So we’d have to consider what it is about the process of consecration that is important: is it the presence of an ordained minister? Or the words that are spoken? Both of those could be fulfilled online. Or the physical handling of the bread and blood?

If the consecration issue could be overcome I think the fact that the people are not physically present in the same place is less of a worry as, having experienced the community feel of i-church, I think a virtual meeting would be valid. It may be that some of the people who are online don’t have their full attention on the matter, but I’m certain that distractions are also a problem in traditional churches so I don’t think that’s unique to virtual services.

I suspect that this would work best in the context of a community that is already established and where a significant proportion of the congregation already know each other, and can welcome visitors, such as i-church, rather than a one-off coming together of people who don’t know each other. I’m not on Twitter so couldn’t comment on its suitability. 

Are there perhaps precedents in the taking of previously consecrated bread and wine to housebound people? They would presumably still be considered as part of the church community even though they are not physically present at communion with everyone else. And each congregation considers themselves to be in communion with other congregations around the world they will never physically meet.

Perhaps while the official churches are considering their position it might be possible to compromise on allowing this to happen but calling it something other than communion.

IMR, Sat 7 Aug, 19:29

I think this depends very much on one’s theology of sacrament, and indeed of liturgy.

Is Communion sacramental because someone says the magic words? Or do the words, the liturgy, make us more aware of the nature of something which is already sacramental? Is the world sacramental, and we recognise some of it and then go about our daily lives forgetting that everything is so holy simply because to hold that awareness all the time would threaten our sanity? Or is it possible for our human actions to raise something to holiness? If we ask God’s blessing on something, does God respond because we have asked? Or by asking to we recognise what already is?

A very powerful experience for me was, after not being in church for a number of years, visiting Jewish friends for Passover Seder. Of course there was wine and unleavened bread; I’d experienced these things before (for some of those years I hadn’t been attending church, I’d been keeping Jewish law and considering conversion to Judaism). But when the matzah was broken I heard, very clearly, in my head, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ I may have been the only person at the table who was remembering Christ at that moment, but I was still gathered with people who were engaging with God through their tradition. I don’t know if a theologian could call that Communion, but I’m also not sure what else to call it.

I think granary bread from the oven, Hovis loaf from the supermarket, and any other bread you care to show me are all provided by God. There is one bread and it is Christ’s body whether or not we recognise it as such. I think any context where we take steps as a group to make that recognition explicit is Communion.

I think that is probably much harder to do without the immersive experience of physically attending a service at a church—we human beings are very susceptible to distraction, and good liturgy will reduce that distraction. I think it’s probably very hard to create really good liturgy via Twitter. But I’m sure that liturgy that happens in a physical building isn’t always perfect, either; if a fire engine goes by with sirens blaring at the right moment then there are bits of liturgy I can’t even hear, but I don’t then think that Communion has been somehow spoiled or invalidated. God has more power than the siren does, even if my attention falters.

The online resources for the Daily Office have been a huge part of my life for the last year and a half. For the first several months of that, I was working on Sunday mornings and couldn’t get to daily prayer at any local church because of academic and work commitments (really, how many people can turn up for Morning Prayer at 9.15am?), and now there is nowhere within easy walking distance where it is offered (about once a week I walk to a weekday Morning Prayer in a neighbouring parish, but I have joint problems and can’t always make it). Having these resources available was important, and remains so. When I was first making a tentative approach, figuring it was better to pray something than worry about having exactly the right prayers, I was certainly not going to spend money on a hard copy of Common Worship Daily Prayer, but finding the material online meant I could engage with it on my own terms. Am I really joining in the prayers of the universal Church, sitting at my computer before breakfast? Do we really pray with one heart and mind? I don’t know, but I like to think so—and I needed to think so.

I’m more proficient with a prayer book now (but still use the website if I have any phone reception), and I’m in a position to get to church every Sunday. But others are not, and may not have the love of psalmody that drew me to the Daily Office.

I dislike the division of the world into ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. Twitter isn’t imaginary; twitter is a method of communication between real people. Yes, the signal-to-noise ratio can be quite low at times, just as it is in a room full of people talking, but it is nonetheless very, very real. Maybe people would participate in a ‘virtual’ communion who would never be seen going to church; maybe people would participate in a ‘virtual’ communion who don’t feel they can ask their local clergy to visit. Do we really think God won’t deign to be present to them because it isn’t our sort of liturgy?

I find it apt that Communion and communication share the same root.

Song, Sat 7 Aug, 14:56

Communion cannot reasonably be done via the net. It has to be physical, tangible, and in the physical presence of others. A festival, a feast, is something that only works when there are others around you, in real time, sharing the contact, the very physicality of that moment when you together are ‘one heart, one mind, one body’. It is about realising the wholeness of the body of Christ… it’s a body thing, something that is of its nature very organic, not a cartoon thing, or a virtual thing. There are many great ways that the community can interact via the net but a virtual Eucharist is not one of them.

Alexis, Sat 7 Aug, 04:04

This episode has been unfortunate.

The merits of the proposed Twitter Communion are, manifestly, highly unproven. That said, there should be no objection in principle to exploring theologically such an avenue.

However, what has happened is that we have an unfortunate situation whereby one man has gone publically ahead – acting entirely unilaterally – and pursued an action, to which the Methodist Church ought to have been much quicker off the mark in responding very clearly that this is not acceptable in terms of current Methodist understanding.

It is the tardiness of the Connexional Team’s response which has allowed the Methodist Church to be brought, de facto, into some degree of disrepute because of this. I think the key lesson in all this is that modern developments in social media etc present a situation in which the central officers of any Church (not just the Methodist) need to be primed and ready to respond quicker than ever before when challenging public developments occur.

Central Church authorities can never fully militate against individuals taking unilateral initiatives (and nor necessarily should they); but they can organize themselves, so as to be better prepared to make a helpful and speedy response in consequence of such actions.

Steven Cooper, Sat 7 Aug, 00:24

Evan stole the words out of my (virtual) mouth. It’s about the sacramental nature of the sacraments. It renders the priestly function completely redundant. There’s also the point of two or three being gathered… one on a train in London, one in a deli in New York, one in a kitchen in Herefordshire, is not to me a gathering. There’s something missing if you don’t pray together and then share the peace first. Lots, actually. The point is missing.

Trisha, Sat 7 Aug, 00:12

I quite like that you know – someone in Kings Heath is eating Mother’s Pride from Sainsbury’s, someone in Herefordshire is eating homemade granary bread straight from the oven, someone in Israel is eating unleavened bread, someone in New York is eating bagel – and yet we’re all eating one bread. I think that could work.

Jo Ind, Fri 6 Aug, 21:45

As far as I can tell, Jo, twitterers were expected to eat bread and drink wine at their computer while the words of consecration were delivered in a series of tweets. That’s what Tim seems to be saying on his blog: ‘... those receiving bread and wine do so at the same time as but are not located in the same place as the celebrant - they take their own bread and wine after the (broadcast) communion prayer.’

Simon, Fri 6 Aug, 21:26

How does it work? How can you eat the bread and drink the wine? If you don’t eat the bread and drink the wine in what sense is it communion?

Jo Ind, Fri 6 Aug, 21:16

fwiw, i posted a few random thoughts the other day…

Mark, Fri 6 Aug, 21:13

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