This past Sunday (22 March 2020) was my first experiment at virtual worship. As the leader, it felt odd to stand in an empty church, and read all the words. I don’t know what the experience was like on the other end (and I haven’t got the courage to go watch myself!). Preaching was a very different experience. Usually, it feels like a dialog, as I follow the reactions on the faces of the people present. Without that, I was much more dependent on my manuscript.
But it left me wondering how the church may be changed by this crisis. I fully understand the theology that the eucharist is the synaxis (the gathering). But if this is our new reality (this virus is very good at mutating, so who knows how long and how often ‘social isolation’ will be required), what can we do to recover the sense of the people gathered? I know the church is not that building, and the people are the church in the world.
But Paul’s theology is that we are the new, messianic humanity, and by extension, the new Temple in the world. When he says to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your Body is the Temple of God?” the ‘your’ is plural and the Body is singular. It is the gathering that is infused with the Spirit and the contact point between divine and human in the world.
One wonders what Paul might have done with the internet. It certainly would have made it easier to visit those far-flung communities, and he probably wouldn’t have been beaten nearly so often. But if we are one body because we share one loaf, how do we signify that reality under these conditions?
I have no doubt that the day will come, probably in a matter of months, when we will be together again as the Body of Christ, but I also wonder just how our social fabric will be irreversibly changed by this crisis. I think it’s been waiting out there for us as our economy and society has become ever more globalized.
A great part of the reactionary sentiment in our politics at the moment is in response to this globalization. For people who live in the cities and benefit from the globalization of finance, globalization looks like a good thing. But for those who live in the rust cities and towns, and whose farms are being bought up by international conglomerates, globalization is terrifying. Watch for the xenophobia that will say if we just stayed to ourselves, none of this would have happened.
And there is a tiny grain of truth there. What if our food supply systems were local? Remember Victory Gardens? We wouldn’t generate nearly as much pollution shipping grapes from Chile in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere. Local farmers would not be under pressure of giant multinational corporations. The rich would certainly not get as rich, but it might push the benefit down the food chain.
But how do we foster a sense of community without getting parochial in a pejorative sense? Can we find a way of fostering face-to-face community while locked away in our homes? And if so, what about the eucharist? Paul’s communities were probably pretty small and gathered in private homes on most occasions, and only came together as a whole church on rare occasions. Do we return to the idea of interconnected house churches? or can we find some way of holding communities together with the eucharist over the internet?
It’s an interesting time to be a theologian.