By Kevin J. Moroney
For my own part, I have concluded that virtual attendance is real presence, thus virtual attendance truly constitutes an assembly of the baptized.
The above is a quote from my recent essay, “Two Ways of Common Praying.” I was affirming what many of us have experienced in our live-streamed services: the real presence of those virtually gathered: Us to them and them to us. With that said, and because theology is now a living thing as we grow into our new reality, I believe that a distinction does need to be made in order to bear witness to the reality of our separation as well as the reality of our virtual presence. The distinction I would make is that our gathering is real and it is impaired.
In his famous Tract 90, John Henry Newman wrote, “The presence of a material object … is a matter of degree … The stars are a million miles off, yet they impress ideas upon our souls through our sight.” When I illustrate this in a classroom, I call out the name of the unsuspecting professor in the next room. I then ask the students: in that moment when the professor heard me call their name, was I not, in a sense, truly present to them? The answer is always yes. And yet, the principle of degree also means that my presence to that professor is not the same as if I were able to look them in the eye and vice-versa. Presence is not binary. Degree means that there are different measures of presence.
It is a challenging balance to celebrate the reality of our gathering while also lamenting the reality of our separation. What other age could do what we are doing? But is it really the same as being together physically? To this we must answer, no. The reason it is not the same is the physicality at the heart of Christianity. Someone recently asked me why God created the world. I replied that love was the reason, and that love seeks expression, and that light and matter and life are all expressions of God’s love. Most if not all of the world’s religions could agree with that statement. However, in the Christian faith, physicality is made more intimate. God so loved the world that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 3:16 and 1:14). That all four Gospels attest to Christ’s bodily resurrection shows that the incarnation is irreversible. Thus, for Christians, physicality is valued at a higher level than other forms of presence, however real they may be. Sometimes, nothing less than physicality will do.
This may have implications for how we theologize about presence in our virtual Eucharists. It suggests that, barring any constitutional actions by appropriate authorities (for example, suspending the rubric that requires the celebrant to touch the elements), practices like virtual consecration with bread and wine on the table at home, or spiritual communion for those who are otherwise physically able to receive (BCP, p. 457), may need to cease, as a way of acknowledging that our virtual gatherings, though grace-given, are physically impaired. We do need to guard against establishing principles that accidentally make virtual liturgical gatherings the equivalent of physical liturgical gatherings. What is being said here is that presence is a matter of degree, and that there remains a primary place for physical presence, as an extension of the Incarnation.
And so we celebrate what we have, and we lament what we, for a time, are without.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Kevin J. Moroney is the associate professor of liturgics in the H. Boone Porter Chair, General Seminary