By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)
What I have written about the fleshiness of the Mystical Body in the first half of this essay implies that an effacement of Christian orthodoxy might lurk behind the phenomenon of online worship as it has multiplied in the wake of the pandemic. Not only has there been little theological reflection on it, but the way it is thought and practiced reveal that our understanding of the flesh and the cultic essence of the liturgy is questionable at best. While I largely stand by this harsh implication, I am nevertheless still inclined to suggest that the live-streaming and recording of worship itself can have some value if we are cautious about how it is done, and we are clear about what its purpose is. But before I try to defend the live-streaming of worship, I wish to first talk about our use of the internet today.
The presence of the internet in the daily life is now ubiquitous across most human societies. Yet, despite the degree to which the internet has encroached upon every corner of our lives to the point that many of us living in “developed nations” are unable to participate fully in our societies without using it, our use of this technology is shockingly undisciplined and susceptible to abuse. The internet is the prime medium through which we are assaulted with a stream of information and constantly badgered for assent and action, something which really has “reduced everything to desultory and hollow opinion,” as the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner put it.
One of the most persistent myths of late modernity’s pseudo-eschatological faith in “progress” is the idea that the advancement of technology will eventually solve all of our problems. It is not difficult to imagine, given that the mind of Anglophone Anglicanism is scarcely distinguishable from the prevailing trends of mainstream white culture, that the peculiar ways our Church has reacted to the present pandemic has simply presupposed these technological myths. But it is a strange myth to believe, given that it is precisely our modern technologies which have made possible the horrors of modern warfare, our age of ideologies, and the catastrophic environmental crisis.
In face of such naïve utopian fantasies we are presented with our present realities: giant social media companies and governmental organs mine our personal information to be abused at will for their own monetary profit; the internet has become the main tool through which massive propaganda and misinformation campaigns infect our minds; and we continue to pollute our planet in a suicidal fervor. The balkanization of our societies and the destruction of creation might be rooted in sins that long precede the ascendance of the internet in modern life, but the feverish radicalization and polarization of modern life has been accelerated substantially by the ubiquitous presence of the internet in our lives.
The necessity of communal bodily presence is, even beyond a theological examination of Christian anthropology, also an ethical question. The internet can never serve as a substitute for the corporeality of human life, because the face of the other is indispensable to the soul. There is no real alternative to us being present at the parish church and participating in the sacrifice of thanksgiving in our corporal whole: the truth of Christian practice involves the union of proper intent and physicality. This is especially so with our participation in the sacraments as visible signs of God’s grace, but it is no different when praying the Office and the Litany, and doing charitable work. We have all read and heard before those trite murmurings about how our churches are “just buildings” for years, and more recently we have heard some clerics and ministers argue that “virtual church” should become normative in the “post-pandemic world.” But whatever well-meaning intent might be behind such statements, they are all misguided and have not only lost all sensibility of the sacramentality of the Church, but have also lost touch with what makes us human.
If modern technology is so dangerous, then what kind of value could there be in the live-streaming of worship, and what positive purpose can it have? Primarily, I think we all need to have the sobriety to simply acknowledge that our physical distance causes a real separation that cannot be bridged by the screen. As I have noted earlier, isolation and limits to church gatherings will likely continue for a long time to come in many areas. This separation from our brothers and sisters is something we should have the honesty to mourn together instead of trying to construct a fanciful veneer of normality. If we were to accept this and refrain from entertaining the distorted idea that the face-to-face encounter is unnecessary and peripheral to corporate worship and the Christian life, then we might be able to engage with live-streamed worship in a more helpful way.
I yearn to be back in the beautiful slum parish I fell in love with last All Souls’ Day, a poor and humble little church that is a spiritual oasis for me and so many other Christians I have had the pleasure of befriending there. After Easter I have not followed their live stream much, largely because seeing them on the screen only exacerbated feelings of separation from them. But it is a joy for me to know that they are offering the divine liturgies with as much clarity and devotion as they did before the pandemic, and have continued their food ministry to the poor. It comforts me to know that the fire is not extinguished in that church. I cannot pray the Office, participate in the Eucharist, and cook in the kitchen with these beautiful people, because these things require my bodily presence. Intention alone is not enough, because I am not my soul. But I know that these people are glorifying God on our behalf, because we are all cleaved to one another in the Mystical Body, not just metaphorically but in reality, through the reception of the same Body and Blood of Christ. Though I am still undergoing this prolonged Eucharistic fast, my flesh is nevertheless still nourished mysteriously at that same altar by the very same priestly hands, for the homo eucharisticus is a true being in a way that the Hobbesian Leviathan never can be.
So, while I wait eagerly to return to them, praying for their health and good humour, I watch the live-streams from time to time to see the faces and hear the voices of these people I have grown so fond of. They are a comfort and inspiration when my prayer life is barely hanging on in this extended isolation. While it is true that without proper intention and disposition this can degenerate into spiritual voyeurism, scuttling something entirely simply because of the dangers it presents seems a little impatient. Seeking soothing balms is, admittedly, a sign of weakness, but is all search for comfort a sign of childishness? Who among us, beset by the fragility of our mortal flesh, is not weak? Who among us does not struggle daily against the mysterious gravity of sin? Is there any among us who can go on without signs of encouragement, perseverance, steadfast dignity, and duty?
In some ways, watching a live-stream of worship might be similar to a man in love longingly gazing upon a picture of his beloved, and perhaps that is the point. If no reasonable person could ever mistake the picture in their wallet for the beloved herself, or be so confused to think that the webcam chat on their phone or computer is equivalent to being next to the beloved in intimate embrace, how could any Christian be so confused as to think that watching a live-stream of worship can be a replacement for bodily participation in our churches? We can only be so confused if we have turned our faith into a superstition. What this means, then, is that while there can be the live-streaming of the liturgy, there can be no such thing as “live-stream liturgy”.
Nevertheless, it is not necessarily infantile to be tender hearted, to yearn for the company of our congregations and the comfort of the Holy Sacrament, and I hope Radner might agree that to demean a man in love for holding a picture of his beloved is a cruel thing to do — as long as the man is not so deluded to think that the picture is the beloved.
But a picture is all that it is, for the screen is no icon.
Paul (H. Matthew Lee) is a lay reader in the Diocese of Niagara of the Anglican Church of Canada, and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.