Methodists halt Twitter communion

A Methodist minister in Great Britain was planning a communion service with a twist. The worshipers would take part via Twitter. Just before the service was to take place, the minister organizing it was asked by senior Methodist officials to wait until the idea could be examined.

The Church Times reports:

The Revd Tim Ross announced plans to hold the online service last month (News, 23 July), but decided to cancel it after senior Methodist offi­cials asked for more time to consider whether a communion in cyberspace was appropriate.

Mr Ross wrote in a statement on his website: “Whilst I have not been absolutely forbidden to perform com­munion on Twitter, British Meth­odist Church authorities have strongly urged me to cancel it.”

The online service was replaced by a series of short prayers for Christian unity, which, Mr Ross said, “was the motivation for the project”.

The assistant secretary of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Ken Howcroft, said that the Church under­stood Mr Ross’s passion for the importance of communion and of using new media in mission; but the Church needed to “reflect and pray deeply in order to discern what developments are appropriate”.

In an article for the Methodist Recorder, Mr Ross said objections to the Twitter communion had been raised by the Methodist Church Faith and Order Committee, which said it was “not a valid communion”. The idea of “remote communion”, where participants receive the bread and wine at the same time, but in different places, “conflicts with the ethos of the Conference report ‘His Presence Makes the Feast’ (2003) which talks about ‘embodied wor­ship’”

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Clearly there's a different sacramental slant at play with the Methodists - or at least this particular Methodist - when Ross says: “The issue boils down to two questions: Is remote communion a valid com munion? Is the Christian community on the internet a valid, gathered Christian community? If the answer to both these questions is ‘Yes’, then a communion service performed by such a community of believers must be valid and may be performed.”

The Methodist report "His Presence Makes the Feast," cited in the Church Times story, has a different perspective. It emphasize the presence, in real life, of the community of the faithful especially during Communion, as essential for the Christian life:

204 Another contemporary ecumenical theme, now embraced by many Methodists but not an issue in the time of the Wesleys, is what is often referred to as ‘embodied’ worship. In language familiar to Methodists this would be called ‘the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight’ (HP 333). Those who are participants in Holy Communion are not disembodied spirits indifferent to sight and sound - unaffected by the incarnation or by the classic drama of colour and movement of the liturgy. The liturgical movement - an integrated parallel with the ecumenical movement - has encouraged Christians to think about the layout of their churches. The arrangement of the worship space is a key part of Holy Communion - of word and sacrament. The cycle of the Christian year is an annual recapitulation of the saving acts of God in Christ proclaimed in story, music, colour, movement, light, and symbol.
Comments (9)

What were they proposing to do? Sit around their computers and handhelds, each with a shot glass of grape juice and a Ritz cracker?

Given the impossibility of people on the internet receiving bread and wine/grape juice at a distance, there would still be a spiritual blessing. Without the outward signs, there could still be a eucharist. The question of validity of sacraments reflects a hierarchical view of the church where the ordained ministry guarantees that the church is really a church. Another view would be that the the people gathering, perhaps even in the internet, would be the primary sacrament. This would be veering closer to a Quaker understanding that outward signs are unnecessary.

Gary Paul Gilbert


There are detriments, as well as benefits, to some of this new technology. It's bad enough that Twitter inhibits in-depth exchange by reducing "conversation" to 140-character "tweets" while people are at far more than arm's length from each other. (One thinks of "Newspeak" in Orwell's "1984" -- "the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year," to foil deep personal thought and social interaction.) The beauty of the sacraments and liturgy is rooted in the beauty of the Incarnation: the embodiment of the divine, so that human contact and connection with the divine are made possible and palpable -- hence the church as "the body of Christ." That sense of physicality and presence is missing from "communion online." Smell, taste and touch are absent in cyberspace. Someone may tell me that he/she loves me over the Internet, but it's no substitute for a kiss and a hug in person; I may eat a meal on Skype while someone eats in front of their computer's camera, but it's not quite the same as meeting at the same table in real time and real space to break bread together.

Gregory Orloff

I am not sure that being next to a person is more incarnational. At least with email I have found I may have some really serious discussions and arguments with someone while when I am next to the same person we may stick to safe topics. Sunday morning conversation in parish halls may be more polite than profound.

Who can say for sure the degree to which one is present in social interaction? Two people may share the same dinner table but both of them are on their cell phones.

There is a danger of superstition if one assumes that interaction in church is always superior.


Gary Paul Gilbert

I mentor two EfM groups online and I find that both have more depth of relationship than many other groups I have experienced. In small towns it is hard to discuss much in depth because of the web of relationships that may be affected. As to communion - I have been part of "virtual sacraments" -- I am not sure about how that works for me or not. Doing something all at the same time even though separated by miles has power-- YMMV

I agree with Gregory (sorry, Gary Paul); as a student of Patristics I can guarantee you that Athanasius would be horrified by any notion of communion at a distance. The Incarnation (captial 'I') was key to the development of Christology and Trinitarian thought in the 4th c. CE. John 1:14 'kata sarx' (the Word became flesh), influenced both the 'De Incarnatione' and the 'Contra Arianos'.

Also Dionysius the Areopagite, wrote extensively on the Body of Christ as the assembled people on earth, around the table sharing in the Eucharist. His "Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" was a huge influence on the development of the theology of Richard Hooker's "Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity".

Also, to your point about struggle, there's the argument of Tyconius (of N Africa) whose "Book of Rules" (more like keys) provided Augustine with inspiration for his realization in the 'De Doctrina Christiana' that there is a bi-partite nature of the Church, with saints and sinners together. Tyconius was a Donatist and he was turfed-out by the Donatists over his belief in the mixed nature of the Church, over against tradition Donatist thinking that they were the pure church.

The incarnational nature of human beings, the fact that we profess that God took on our flesh, coupled with the messiness of human relations sometimes, with our inperfections, all contribute to the growth of the Body of Christ. It's much easier to dismiss someone from a distance on twitter or a blog, less so in person.

Respectfully,

Andrew Staples

p.s., Check out the Iona Community hymn "Jesus calls us here to meet Him", it's very powerful - the last verse's last line always gets me: "Share the feast for saints and sinners hosted by our Lord and King".

Andrew Staples

Andrew, Maybe if Athanasius had been able to phone around to find out what others were thinking, he would not have been anywhere near as dogmatic as he became. Athanasius contrum mundum is not an approach that could speak to a world of religious pluralism, where people of different backgrounds communicate through difference rather than enforced imperial consensus. I know that the man didn't write the Athanasian Creed but he probably would have co-signed the superstitious view that people earn their salvation through pretending or actually believing a list of incomprehensible doctrines.


Gary Paul Gilbert

I don't see why a "spiritual communion" couldn't be shared virtually.

But the sacraments involve the senses: the Presence of the experience. (The wine, and even the host has a taste and feel!) The sound of the hymns/psalms/prayers, the sight of vestments, windows, sanctuary space---and hopefully, the scent of incense!

...and all five senses, as reflected back from the sight, sound, scent and touch (maybe not taste O_o) of our brothers & sisters.

No, Holy Communion needs MORE direct, intimate sense-experience: not less (IMO, of course)

JC Fisher

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