Over the next week, the Methodist Church in Great Britain is holding its conference in Southport. One item on the agenda is Communion Mediated Through Social Media. The Report is Here. This story was picked up (with a quote or two from me) in Christianity Today recently - and David Wilkinson and I have done a brief video on the subject before the report was available for scrutiny:
The report broadly proposes rejecting such celebrations of the central liturgical act of the Church. The reasons are threefold – community, presidency and virtuality. But the key controversial section of the report for many is the query about whether you can have social presence online. The committee who wrote the final report is saying it wants to explore this further.
As part of the preparation of the report, I was asked to submit some thoughts on the subject as a representative of CODEC. So I have decided since I retain the copyright and intellectual property rights on the piece I wrote and because there is not much left of my comments in the final report, that I would make it more available.
So here it is…
Can we ‘do’ Communion Mediated by Social Media” – or as the original memorial asked:"he practice of celebrating Holy Communion with dispersed communities via live, interactive media such as the Internet or video-conferencing"
My point is not that Holy Communion mediated by social media cannot be a valid celebration, or a significant corporate act of worship, but simply that within Methodist doctrine on Holy Communion it cannot be done – presbyteral Presidency stops us performing multi-local communion. It’s all about procedure and church order (the only reason we hold to presbyteral presidency) and not about theology at all. The theology both of community across multiple locations and of social presence across multiple locations and multiple modes of embodiment (or not) has been well rehearsed over the years and certainly well within reach of contemporary conversations about a Mission-shaped Church.
We need to hold in mind that the Faith and Order Committee has severely limited the remit of the report by moving away from the original Memorial (a broad definition of translocational Holy Communion) to a narrower idea of social media mediated communion, indeed even to Communion on Twitter.
The original memorial from the South East District asked the following question:
The South East District Synod requested the Conference to instruct the Faith and Order Committee to form a policy regarding the practice of celebrating Holy Communion with dispersed communities via live, interactive media such as the Internet or video-conferencing.
In this form of remote communion, a minister in one location would be permitted to preside over a celebration of Holy Communion with a gathered group of fellowshipping believers consisting of groups or individuals residing in disparate locations who provide their own elements to be blessed by the person presiding
The attached document represents some of my initial thoughts.
The key question is the validity of social presence online. The report has this rather crazy (IMHO) sentence (para 29):
However, social presence is only fully possible in a physical, embodied encounter in which people establish a relationship in numerous ways through verbal and non-verbal communication.
Sociologically, pyschologically, anthropologically, theologically, digitally, relationally - that sentence cannot make sense. Letter-writing? Friendships? Long-distance relationships? Faith? Families connected by blood rather than by distance? This is just so wrong.
This is the key problem with the report that if the section on social presence being limited to embodied presence is passed, then it would seem to be both counter-biblical and counter-theological. Remember that Paul said he could be present in Spirit not body - proper, influential, social disembodied presence (Colossians 2:5, 1 Corinthians 5:3) and Jesus said he was with us always (Matthew 28:20).
Indeed, if we argue that there can be no experience of social presence without the direct physical presence of the being with whom we are in social engagement, then I wonder whether we blow apart the whole concept of religion in any case. A reductio ad absurdum argument - but isn't that what the current report suggests?