Way out there in the wonderful world of “blogosphere” there is a “friendly debate” being waged these days regarding “simulated”, or the “virtual Church” experience, substituting, or replacing, as a viable internet based alternative, to what is known as “traditional church“. Apparently, regular ‘walk in the building’ kind of church, is not meeting the felt “needs” of culture today. “So what’s the big idea of cyber church?” Well simply this: supposedly a person lives as a “Christian”, joins in “worship”, and functions in daily life, living the faith ‘fully’ – except that he does this all alone at home in front of a screen. Alone. All alone. Oh, except for the thousands of nameless and faceless “friends” that he mingles with in the online narthex.
You know, something like this:
or maybe like this…
Sorry I had to do that to you.
Painful isn’t it? But as it’s often been said, “You have to see it to believe it.”
For the Orthodox such a concept can hardly even be conceived, let alone realized or embraced. While the Orthodox Church certainly embraces technology, and skillfully uses the internet, and spreads the Gospel using new and improved technologies, we can never imagine a “virtual” online, cyber-church “membership” or worship. Certainly we offer online experiences where a person can pray and light a candle for a quick devotion – but to substitute commitment to the local church, and it’s sacramental and community life is simply impossible. For us membership in The Church can only be about reality, never simulation! For us there is only the tangible, not virtual. For us, there is “The Body”, the Body is Christ, and Christ is incarnate “enfleshed”. In the fullness of time He was incarnate of a Virgin named Mary, and now He is incarnated in us by the Holy Spirit. To say there is a virtual church is to suggest that there is a virtual, or somewhat semi- apparent Jesus, which is to say that there is no real body, no real blood, no real sacrifice and ultimately no real redemption.
In Orthodoxy we are saved in community. We live in community. We worship together, physically, in one place, in community. We commune and eat meals together. We receive the mysteries, the sacraments, in community. And one day, we will die and depart this life – all in the confines of community. In our lives we receive real and tangible gifts of holy wine, bread, oil, and water placed upon, and in our bodies for the sanctification of our souls. So tell me – please: “How can a computer cyber- sim – virtual church provide this?”
How can a pixellated, internet connection, and Avatar characters in simulated church settings deliver tangible, real and organic gifts? How can the Body, be the Body when it never is physically gathered together in one place? How can we know and defend the faith given once for all, without a Bishop who through apostolic succession rightly divides the Word of Truth?
How does this “baptism”, by “internet campus pastor Brian“, compare to the baptisms given by hand John the Baptist, the holy apostles, the early church?
Where does this long distance nonsense end?
How much more can we trivialize and lower the sacred acts and the holiness of God? We take the immortal and eternal things and turn them into a trip to 7-11 to get a slurpee, and a burrito. In fact, if I weren’t a Christian, videos and acts like this would definitely dissuade me from becoming a Christian.
I am a simple man. Some would say, too simple, and many would say “too naive” as well. But for me it is simple, “Why would I, or anyone, desire to be alone, to be isolated by myself, in front of a screen with a bunch of ‘friends’ whom I have never met?” Or to be “baptized” online by some strange man, i.e. Pastor Troy?, who doesn’t even know me? What can I possibly gain by myself, versus what I can gain when I join with my family, here on earth, and joined with our family in heaven in a real temple around a real altar, singing together, and eating a sacred meal given to us, commanded by Jesus that we partake of together?
He says, “Take, eat, this Is My Body… Take and drink this Is My Blood… take your hand, place it into My side, do not be afraid it is I…” This my friends is not virtual, or cyber, or simulated… but real. Flesh, bone, tangible, distinctively present. As incarnate followers of Christ our calling is to community, and community in the Church begins with leaving our homes as individuals, and gathering together as community, becoming more together, than we can ever be alone. And when we gather we are never alone. For when we come together we are surrounded by the saints (living and departed), the angels, and archangels who worship with us. We gather around the altar, the table of Oblation, where the very, Body and Blood of Christ is consecrated, and made physically present, by the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon it, changing it. And we receive this “medicine of immortality” (St. Ignatius Bishop of Antioch 107AD) together from a common cup, with a common spoon – and together we partake of an uncommon gift of life – the Eucharistic meal. We confess our sins to Christ Himself in private confession, and our Priest, standing with us announces the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus by placing his hands upon our heads. When we are sick and needy, we come and are anointed with Holy Chrism, Oil, for the healing of our souls and bodies. When we sin, we are sprinkled with water from a Hyssop branch, signifying the cleansing and washing away of our sins. Ours is a grungy, wet, slippery, incense laden kind of faith. Made of the stuff of life. Of the earth. Just as our Savior was.
So how can this happen online? By avoiding one another in person, and living in isolation, we miss the blessed opportunity to love one another, to bear one another, and to learn to forgive and live with one another. Sim Church (i.e. simulated church), Cyber Church, Virtual Church, Online Worship however you want to define it seems to be the latest trend (or temptation) in mankind’s ever spiraling descent into the very things that Satan desires most: isolationism and detachmentt from one another, and from the Body of Christ, and the Head…Christ Himself.
Let me be clear: Technology is not evil, it is not wicked, it is not bad – it is neutral, it does good or evil, based on what mankind does with it. Second, the Church must use the tools given to it in each age to advance the cause of the Gospel. Third, whenever a technology begins to isolate, detach, and sever the organic Body of Christ into parts, pieces, and individual members doing their own thing, on their own time – in their own way. The Church refutes and rejects it as being heresy. We follow the teachings and practice of the Apostles, who followed Christ. We follow the Great Tradition, the faith handed down to us, and we do not deviate from it. Satan loves it when the church gets”creative” and “original”, and splits and severs itself into a thousands pieces. That has been his plan all along: “Did God really say…?”
We are damned in isolation. We are saved in community.
Can a person experience connection and fellowship with another person online? Yes, perhaps. Can a person feel that they are part of a movement or a group online. Yes, in a way. But can a person be fully alive in the Body, can a person commune at the Altar, can a person on their own work out their salvation in isolation… the Church says No. Never. Virtual Church is the product of a self-centered, selfish culture given to rampant individualism; have it your way, anyway that you want. In virtual church you simply dial-up the kind of message you want to hear, ring up the style of music that you want, in fact, you can even create a sexy, buff, good-looking avatar to represent you in cyber worship. Who knows whom you might meet right?
But these are my words. These are my thoughts. I confess my own inadequacies and weaknesses. I confess my own shortcomings with spiritual knowledge and wisdom so…
In my next post I will let a saint of the Church, one of the earliest Christians from Christ’s own era and the third Bishop of the great city of Antioch where Christians were first called Christians – I will let him speak. Ignatius of Antioch from 1900 years ago – and he will remind us:
1. What is the church?
2. Where is the church?
3. Why the church can not be “the church” online.
Until then – what do you think? Can virtual church – be the Church?