A tiff is in progress over at the Methodist Church — terra incognita for me, I assure you — about “virtual communion.”
Andy Langford, a well-regarded pastor from North Carolina, recently announced plans to create a “virtual campus” of religious services, including Holy Communion. As envisaged, communicants at home could prepare bread and wine, and consume them after the pastor blessed the victuals remotely, declaring them, per the Christian liturgy, to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Not surprisingly, the Methodist Council of Bishops said: Wait a second. It seems unlikely that virtual communion will be implemented any time soon, as many Methodist leaders believe that Holy Communion is a rite celebrated “within a physically gathered community.”
Methodism is one of the so-called mainline Protestant denominations that loses an appreciable number of members each year. It’s understandable that someone might reach into a bag of tricks to broaden the audience. Virtual communion is the kind of razzmatazz that nondenominational, evangelical Christians have been using to swell their ranks, while their mainstream counterparts fade on the vines.
In a lengthy position paper, Langford points out that Methodism’s co-founder, John Wesley, was a radical religious innovator in the 18th century. And Langford rebuffs the obvious critique of the keyboard communion. “A common preconception is that people may simply sit in front of a computer screen in their pajamas and are simply too lazy to travel to a sanctuary,” he writes. “We, however, envision individuals taking this opportunity seriously.”
This is the kind of razzmatazz that nondenominational Christians have been using to swell their ranks.
Digital technology and religion have long since consummated their embrace. The old-fashioned church newsletter is now online. The phone tree is now a listserv. You can e-mail a prayer to be re-typed and put in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The pope is tweeting, for heaven’s sake.
By odd coincidence, when I started writing this column, @Pontifex tweeted to his 3.2 million followers: “The Sacraments are Jesus Christ’s presence in us. So it is important for us to go to Confession and receive Holy Communion.”
And he didn’t mean via webcam.
Organized religion has enough problems without people like me spitballing every change in ritual and dogma. Some Catholics are still griping about the death of the Latin Mass. Mossback Episcopalians have been grousing about changes to the poetical Book of Common Prayer forever. Yes, I wish the gender police hadn’t monkeyed with James Russell Lowell’s wonderful anti-war hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
But perhaps this time the traditionalists have a point. While digital technologies like e-mail, e-chatting, and Skype can bring us together, they can also be profoundly alienating. Avatars, assumed identities, and spurious Facebook “profiles” serve as perfect hiding places, ensuring that no one ever need know us, if we don’t want them to. A New Yorker cartoonist got a huge laugh with the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” But no one knows that you’re human, either.
Christians believe that Jesus gathered his closest friends around him for a final Passover supper before his crucifixion. Holy Communion figuratively re-enacts that meal, the same way that Jews gather family and friends together every Passover to re-create a ritual now thousands of years old.
Among other things, Holy Communion can be a thanksgiving ritual; so you see where I am going with this. Odds are that today you are doing your best to enjoy Thanksgiving with your friends and family, cloaking yourself in the warmth of your loved ones. People go to great lengths to avoid a “virtual” Thanksgiving, traveling more on this holiday than any other time of the year.
I hope the Methodists and other denominations will think long and hard before relegating Holy Communion to the Internet. There is such a thing as real community, and church is one of the few remaining places where that is on offer. Let’s keep it that way.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.