Theology Unmuted

by Clive Marsh.

We are using a whole new language. (‘Are you on mute?’, ‘Send me a link’, ‘Are you the host?’) Digital natives (those who’ve lived with computers since birth) are simply saying ‘welcome to our world!’ (the new real world?). Those not au fait, or even wanting to be au fait, with such technology are saying ‘but I’m now not part of the “we”’ you’ve just referred to. So when this is all over, I won’t be within what you’re calling “the new normal”.’ And I won’t even mention the question of ‘Zoom Communion’. I’ll just say it’s at times like this I’m glad I’m not a presbyter. No one can buttonhole me (even virtually) and ask why on earth we can’t ‘do Communion’ across the WWW and expect me to be able to do anything about it.

‘Zoom Communion’ is, though, just the tip of a very large iceberg of issues raised by the digital world for the ways in which the church conducts itself, undertakes its mission, and in which theology takes shape. I can quite see why those who actively explore ‘digital theology’ become exasperated with a church which seems to go at a snail’s pace when, from their perspective, ‘things have to change (and quickly)’. I can also sense (and sometimes share) the alarm of what might happen if too many changes happened too rapidly, and too substantially.

There can be little doubt that when our lockdown ends, or as its strictures are gradually relaxed, when social distancing is eased, and when we take stock of what has been happening in recent weeks, digital theology will have more allies, or sympathizers: ‘you know, that Zoom thing really is good. It’s got me thinking about the different ways our theology of conferring could happen.’ ‘Pastoral care could be thought of differently, you know, than we’ve been doing it for years.’ ‘More people might be willing to join in with meetings, so we could have a more diverse group.’ ‘Class meetings could make a comeback.’

That’s only the positive stuff, of course. There are counter-arguments too. Lots of people I know are ‘Zoomed out’ already through all meetings and one-to-ones going online. Plenty are missing seeing others (really seeing), not to mention the extroverts who need their hugs. I’ve been wondering myself whether I’ll get things wrong ‘after lockdown’ – or at least behave awkwardly – by hugging people I’ve never hugged in my life before (and can’t honestly remember whether I have) simply because I’ll be so pleased to see them. It will take a while to adjust after the initial re-assessment of social relations (actual and virtual). But we will, I hope, start to ask harder questions, and in fresh ways, such as: when do we need to meet in person? What is best done online, not just for money-saving reasons, but also for the sake of resisting climate change, and to save time? And these practical questions are caught up within a bigger range of issues of direct theological import, not least about creation, Sabbath, and what ‘church’ is anyway.

Behind those hidden, theological framework kinds of questions other, even more basic, stuff is buzzing around too. What is ‘really real’ anyway? The terms ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ have become fuzzy, but have helpfully pressed us to say what is ‘real’. ‘Fake’ has also intervened as an overused, but still important, term. ‘Virtual’ is not the same as ‘fake’. But the realm of the ‘fictional’, the ‘made-up’ is tangled up in there too. This has always been the case in the worlds of faith, belief and theology. We do make things up (even some of our God stories) but that’s only because it’s sometimes hard to get at what’s true and real (really real), as what’s real and true has never simply been about ‘what happens’ or what we can prove (scientifically).

I recall that one of the first pieces I ever wrote which had to do with the Internet (20 years ago? I can’t even remember) was prompted by claims that it would give us a whole new understanding of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen some of the thoughts I put on paper back then re-emerging in articles and blogposts which have appeared in recent weeks. The Holy Spirit is really real, even whilst not visible, and yet seems very active as people connect ‘virtually’.

A new insight brought to my attention in the lockdown is how inclusive some new more informal forms of church are proving for those on the autism spectrum. People can be involved (e.g. doing a craft or art activity at home amongst family members) in a ‘bigger congregation’ without necessarily having to look at the camera, and without the stress (for them or for other family-members) of ‘going to church’.

All I hope, in the post-lockdown phase of the church’s life, is that we don’t get polarized, and that we do really reflect carefully and appropriately critically on the experiences that we’ve been having. For some, it will be about ‘getting back to normal’ (for which read ‘proper worship’). But what if the online worship has sometimes felt more ‘real’ than some of our past Sunday activity? What if we find that online life has added a new depth to what we go back to experiencing on Sunday (or Monday, or Wednesday, or whenever our face-to-face worship happens)? There will, in other words, need to be fresh considerations about what is real, and what helps us connect with the Really Real (I’m sure someone must have used that term for God before) in all our post-lockdown theological debate – whether or not the word ‘theology’ itself is used.

12 thoughts on “Theology Unmuted”

  1. Thanks, Clive.

    I find it fascinating that in certain circumstances the church considers that the Holy Spirit works (and seems to be constrained to work) through physical touch. An example might be the so-called Toronto blessing, that strange phenomenon which spread through physical contact — which made me suspicious that it was really a thing of God rather than a psychological thing (not that psychology and God are necessarily mutually exclusive, of course). But more mainstream examples would be confirmation and ordination, and I wonder why the Spirit might be constrained to the physical laying on of hands. Is it that God actually works through human contact (in the perspective of an incarnational religion) as a way of celebrating the worth of humanity? If so, is the question of virtual gathering/conferring/communing really one of whether a gathering which is impossible for humans without mediation through technology really counts as a human gathering or not?

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  2. Thank you for this. I do hope it starts a chain of sharing thinking about how, going forward, we make use of the ways we have had to change in our practice and in our thinking. Many of us are finding new people, as well as church members who can no longer get out, have popped in to zoomed services, prayer meetings and Bible reading groups. These are an easier invitation to accept for many so called ‘nominal Christians’. 25% of those in my group over the last few weeks have not been regular Church goers ever (admittedly numbers are small as being part of a very small group, but even so its interesting). And when its so difficult to bring about change generally, one upshot of crisis is that it does allow for what previously seemed impossible (in change theory interventions at a time of crisis often have the most impact). I worry when I sense a drive to ‘get back to normal’ without reflecting on what we have witnessed and am keen to see a sharing of thoughts about what we are experiencing (and not in anyway thinking that IT is a panacea). This is the first open forum I have seen so far which starts a dialogue on this – so very welcome.

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  3. Fascinating. I used to say much the same sort of thing about radio and television worship when I was involved. Frank Pagden at Radio Leeds got into hot water before the WWW became a reality for instituting Communion of the Air. How can unconsecrated bread and wine, with no ordained person present, possibly be real Eucharist?

    Now in this strange time when ‘reality’ has become a more elastic concept, many ministers feel unthreatened by the new understanding of the Ministry of The Word and Sacraments, and we are all having to follow where housebound people have always led in accepting that one can worship validly at a distance. God is God of time and space, and lives in my house too, so I was able to enjoy Easter Sunday worship with The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Gareth Malone.

    Though I too shall probably hug a few surprised people when this is all over!

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  4. Thank you. These are all really important questions and I hope we don’t miss the opportunity to reflect on them….either because we’re still in lockdown mode and discussion feels premature, or because it is starting to end and we’re suddenly so caught up in the “return” that we don’t find space to contemplate.

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  5. Thank you Clive,
    I had an enquiry about virtual baptism last week. If both our sacraments could be done over the internet (which I am not proposing, just yet) that could solve the apparent shortage of ordained ministers!

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  6. This is something we should take very seriously. We have been Zooming services since Maundy Thursday and last week had over 80 screens – which meant more than 100 people including partners. Over 100 people in the congregation for every service since Easter Wow!

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    1. I don’t want this to turn into a “I had more people watching my online service than you” discussion, but we have had far more people watching our English and Welsh services than we would ever have physically in church, and that has been analysed by one of our techie people who can digitally see how many are ‘unique’ viewings and how many are people tuning in for a second viewing of the same service. We have been musing on what this says about the unchurched and the de-churched viewers, and a recent Guardian report suggests that there is a huge rise in people accessing spiritual content since lockdown began. This then must lead us to wonder how we cater effectively and imaginatively for these people after we are set free again.

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  7. Many thanks Clive. I’ve certainly been pondering online outreach and what we might do to reach out to those with questions when we can go back into our buildings. It would be good to have some theological reflection on a number of issues raised by the current situation, online Communion just being one of them. The comments here are the nearest I’ve seen yet. What I’ve seen on social media tends to be a knee-jerk reaction or people holding to a particular view – Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with people holding a particular view if that’s the conclusion they’ve reached having given it some TR.

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  8. Not sure polarisation may be correct as we may see a mixed economical solution. The traditional churches may wish to return to the physical building whereas the digital group may continue with their Zoom etc. It may also offer a real blessing of a pragmatic blends of worship (real, proper or otherwise). I feel that this is a significant turning point for the church which it needs to grasp.

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  9. Thank you, Clive for this piece.

    When we are allowed back into our buildings, please can we recognise that we need to be open to accepting different ways of being together? My sister, who is disabled and mostly housebound, is part of a Zoom group and has met with the people she knew and loved from 10 years ago when she was still able to travel to the building. For the first time in 10 years she has equal access. (I saw the comment about those with autism also)

    My problem is different. I have been struggling a long time with Services which are mostly stuffy and tied down to the Lectionary. The hymns have become even more restricted as the preachers stick to StF and are afraid to even include H&P or MHB let alone Songs of Fellowship or, God forbid, YouTube! I grew up in a small Methodist Church where the hymns were played with gusto. My grandmother, back in the 1950s and 60s used to say ‘ I like hymns with a bit of GO in them’. We had the short form of Communion at the end of the Service so we did not have to sit through the same liturgy month after month after month as we do now.

    For these lockdown weeks I have ‘travelled’ and have found a Service (incidentally near my ‘home’ Church) where I am engaged, and where I can sing along with gusto as they have modern ‘band’ songs. I am almost dreading going back to the building if I will be tied down again to what we had before. This is a big chance to learn.

    By the way (I resisted typing BTW) I am in my 70’s and have been using computers for many years as have the majority of my generation!!

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