Friday, August 20, 2010

Remote communion has Methodist church in a twitter

Poor old Tim Ross. The Methodist minister, who had organised the first ever Twitter communion service, had to back down and cancel it after getting a call from the enforcement arm of the Methodist church. He said that while he "hadn't been absolutely forbidden" to perform the rite, he had been "strongly urged" to do so. (Always Hope notes in passing that the Methodists can now expect a few calls from C of E Bishops, who will be dying to know how to exert that level of control over their clergy).

I hadn't really followed this incident, and only looked into it after encountering Tim on Twitter this week. Initially, I had imagined it to be an insubstantial idea, something novel just for the sake of a quick headline, but the fact is that there's nothing particularly controversial about it at all. Essentially, the proposal was to tweet the communion service (ie. broadcast the liturgy by text-based messages), and then, at the appropriate moment, for participants to take bread and wine simultaneously, in their own locations. A bit unusual, perhaps, but hardly a threat to the theological fabric.

A huge amount of hot air (metaphorically, as most of it is in type) has now been generated by the hordes who have leaped to condemn this idea. What is it about columnists, bloggers, and all those who make it their business to "comment", that the default position has to be "this must stop"? A little more research and reflection often generates something less emotional, but more interesting.

Let's take the Twitter communion as an example. The objection seems to be that communion is an act of fellowship (among other things) and should be celebrated by Christians in gathered proximity. Fair enough. But is it really justified to go straight from there and condemn the idea as wicked, heretical, or stupid (all of which have been said)? Ideally, yes, communion will be celebrated by a group of people gathered together in the same room (I don't think, correct me if wrong, that Tim is proposing to abolish this). But sometimes, for a whole host of reasons which I won't list (it's Friday evening, work them out for yourself), that just isn't possible or isn't happening for people. Why not provide an alternative environment for a small number of people to take communion who otherwise wouldn't be able to?

You can read Tim's reasoned justification of the idea here. But I back him because the church needs people to experiment, particularly in the light of our changing ways of doing things (see my earlier post here). Some experiments won't work, but that's OK - for every successful pioneer there are probably dozens of heroic failures. The Methodist Church knows all this - that's why it has endorsed Fresh Expressions - but sometimes it can be hard to break the mould.


Tim Ross said...

You've hit the nail on the head here, Charlie. It may have been controversial for some, but I was hardly nailing 95 theses onto Twitter.
However, one factor that may have had something to do with the pressure to cancel was the fact that Anglicans & Methodists share a covenant towards greater unity. It may be that the C of E would be uncomfortable endorsing remote or dispersed communion, in which case, if it was adopted by the Methodist Church, that could pose a problem for unity.
It would be interesting to know what the Anglican position is on the matter - if they have one.
One serious question is whether Methodists and Anglicans would regard as acceptable celebrating communion for those who would otherwise go without.
The availability and affordability of technology means that parishioners in remote hamlets or enduring interregnums need never be deprived of Eucharist. I suspect that for some clergy in both denominations there is an implied devaluation of the priestly role in a streamed communion service in which communicants supply their own bread and wine.

Charlie said...

Thanks for your response, Tim. I'm actually quite surprised to hear that it was the Anglican/Methodist thing that was a problem, because the Church of England doesn't speak with one voice on this.
The main objection might come from the more Anglo-Catholic wing, who would probably argue that the communion isn't valid because the elements people are taking were not consecrated by the President (unless you can consecrate electronically?). Ironically, though, those same people would probably not recognise the validity of Methodist orders anyway, which makes it all a bit academic. There really are much bigger obstacles to unity than the way we use Twitter!