“Community is lost in virtual communion” was the title of an editorial that appeared in the Beacon Journal last week written by Alex Beam of the Boston Globe. It concerns a Methodist minister in North Carolina who wants to start a “virtual campus” of religious services via computer which would include Holy Communion, one of two sacraments, the other being baptism, that the Methodists recognize. Adherents would be able to have a house Church of sorts, gathering together on line to pray under the leadership of a pastor.
The article was against this idea. I must admit that I am not that much against it. Not for Catholics mind you, but for much of the Protestant world I do not think it that far off track. Once one lets go of the catholic ideal in the small “c” sense (that they may all be one John 17:21), how can one really argue against it as long as certain precautions are met. The word catholic means universal. For Catholics, it means one Church for all peoples, all times, everywhere. There a ton of implications with that, far too many to go into here but which include such as unity in worship, leadership, belief, and etc.
But what if you are starting point is a division? (Remember, I am taking this from a Catholic position, my Protestant brothers and sisters will take a very different view.) For example, the minister cited above makes the argument that Methodism’s cofounder, John Wesley, was a radical religious innovator in the 18th century. Part of that innovation was to break from established Church and begin something new (or old, if one believes they were returning to something original in Christ’s mission.) A new Church was formed with its own belief system and hierarchy. What gave them the authority to do so? Well, one argument is that the Bible did. The Holy Spirit did. The teachings of Jesus did.
There was in interesting religious (non-denominational Protestant) talk show on the radio a few years ago (the particulars escape me now) concerning the problem of people not showing up for Protestant services. A man called in who said he and few other families were no longer satisfied with the Protestant churches in his area and so, after taking classes in the Bible, they decided to start their own Church. They gather at each other’s homes on Sunday morning, sing, read Scriptures, and have a sermon that is crafted just for them. The radio host admitted that he could not argue with him. They were getting back to the roots of Christianity (in their view.) Where did they get their authority to do this? The same place that John Wesley did.
The on-line Church is just the next phase of this I would think. Why not? The biggest question would be why bother? Perhaps it would be nice not to have to write your own sermon, study the Bible, or come up with your own hymns. But instead PayPaling this minister, why not invite your two neighbors over and start your own Church? It seems a natural evolution of the roots of the movement.
Unless your theology is really about universal community and sacraments and Apostolic succession (as the Catholic Church holds it) and human touch and voice and unity as a corporate body connected in worship, leadership, and belief. Then there is a problem.