Online Christianity: To be or not to be?
Today, many religious leaders propose replacing actual participation in public worship with online broadcast. Is this normal?
Man without Eucharist
The world we live in is changing rapidly. Many social institutions, habits and traditions can pass away very quickly along with tens of thousands of people. The world is being quarantined, Europe has already closed its doors. Deserted streets, the smell of bleach and cleaning products, people in protective suits – this is not an apocalyptic future but an almost familiar, modern reality. Factories, plants, cities, regions, countries and ... religious institutions have aligned with quarantined schools and educational institutions.
In many European countries, religious organizations are quarantined. In some places, though, temples remained open, in others they closed until better times. The first to make a positive decision about quarantine was the Vatican.
On March 8, 2020, the Roman Catholic Church of Italy issued a decree according to which all public services were banned in the country because of the coronavirus epidemic. On March 10, the Vatican was closed to tourists, on March 13, all churches were closed in Rome, and on March 15, it became known that all services of the Holy Week would be held without believers.
Later, representatives of the Orthodox Churches backed the idea of canceling mass services (there are no other types though). Greek authorities banned all worship services in the country, allowing believers only to bury their near ones but only in a narrow, family circle. The Cypriot Orthodox Church urged the laity to refrain from participating in liturgies for three weeks, while Patriarch Bartholomew canceled all services in the Patriarchate of Constantinople altogether. Some representatives of other Orthodox Churches stopped liturgies or introduced rigorous requirements on the participation of believers in public worship. The Romanian Church offered the authorities a compromise – to conduct outdoor services. Moreover, we emphasize that almost all restrictive measures were taken at the request of the authorities.
Naturally, such actions from secular and ecclesiastical authorities aroused discontent with many Orthodox Christians, both clergy and laity. Some chose not to obey. Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira served the liturgy in the church with open doors (i.e. without restricting access for ordinary believers). However, the hierarch was arrested in the end and a case was brought against him about disobedience to the authorities.
The same fate awaited the 88-year-old Catholic priest who celebrated the Mass. Moreover, the Italian police interrupted masses even if believers stood outdoors, not in the temple. The believers were also dispersed in other places.
And if the discontent of the Orthodox is quite expected and understandable, then the protests expressed by the Catholic clergy look like a challenge to the policy of conciliation, which has already become common to the Roman Church. For example, the Bishop of Astana, Ahanasius Schneider, said that the current quarantine situation due to the coronavirus is a serious threat to the Church, as it resembles the first centuries of persecution of Christianity. He emphasized that even the Third Reich did not close churches.
At the same time, the Pope, Patriarch Bartholomew, and the Synods of some Orthodox Churches unanimously urge believers to attend divine services online – on the Internet, on television or on the radio. Moreover, Ukrainian Catholics and Greek Catholics offer their laity to participate in “spiritual communion”. Representatives of the OCU also joined online broadcasts (which is not surprising), whose “synod” suggested performing other rites via the Internet too. Some Catholic hierarchs are seriously considering the possibility of confession over the phone or coming up with a simplified way of absolving sins without any confession at all. There are also cases when priests of the Roman Catholic Church already allow confession for all interested drivers without having to leave a car or celebrate masses in front of photographs of their parishioners.
Reality of Virtuality
Even at the dawn of his power, Adolf Hitler emphasized the incredible role of cinema in the manipulation of mass consciousness. Under the Third Reich, a special propaganda department was created, headed by one of the Fuhrer Goebbels’ closest assistants. The words once said by this person are known and relevant even today: “The superiority of a visual image over an auditory one lies in the fact that the auditory image is converted into the visual one with the help of individual imagination, which cannot be controlled: everyone will still see their own way. Therefore, you should immediately show it the way it is supposed to be so that everyone sees the same thing."
Later, with the advent of television, the possibility of manipulating the mass consciousness acquired unprecedented proportions. Now one’s message or idea could be conveyed to millions of people at the same time. The one who owned television owned the crowd; they could change history, propose any ideology, destroy the unwanted, justify any atrocities.
The consciousness of modern man, especially with the invention of social networks, giving the illusion of real communication, is gradually switching to the Internet.
The situation only worsened when the Internet was invented, because it enabled to reformat not a single nation or country but all of humanity. Moreover, the person himself, all his interests, fears, desires, etc. can be translated online, into the virtual world. The consciousness of modern man, especially with the invention of social networks, giving the illusion of real communication, is gradually switching to the Internet. Modern society is so attached to it that it simply does not imagine its existence in other conditions. The Internet has been added to vital things such as air, water, food, and sleep. Moreover, it can be true that in this hierarchy of needs it takes the first place (refusal to sleep or playing online games due to social networks addiction is a telling example of this).
It seems that from now on there is a serious danger that spiritual life and religious beliefs will move into the virtual world. Online masses and liturgies, virtual confession and, possibly, the Eucharist – all this will soon become part of human existence. Theological rationale can be created to match this “virtual spirituality”, let alone medical and hygienic arguments. From a community of individuals united by the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Church will turn into a society of disconnected nicknames united by the Internet.
Not to receive the Holy Communion and take it easy?
Curious enough, recommending a virtual liturgy to replace a real liturgy, the clergy of some religious organizations warns that this will not cause any canonical implications and "should not seriously affect the conscience of our flock."
But the problem is that at the moment non-participation in the service did not cause any “canonical implications” whatsoever. For example, according to Canon 80 of the VI Ecumenical Council, if a person misses three liturgies without good reason or, while participating in the liturgy (Apostolic Canon 9), does not receive the Holy Communion, then he should be excommunicated. Who is observing these canons now?
We baptize everyone, but we do not demand that they participate in Divine Liturgy. Hence – the number of baptized does not match the number of celebrants. One very precise phrase belongs to the writer Nikolai Leskov: "Rus was baptized but not enlightened."
Unfortunately, for modern man it has long been the norm not to participate in the liturgy. Most of those who consider themselves Christians (Orthodox or Catholics) simply stay home on Sunday. There is only a handful present at Sunday worship (according to some reports, this is about 3 percent of the total number of Orthodox).
Unfortunately, for modern man it has long been the norm not to participate in Divine Liturgy.
To consider online broadcasts as “normal” will only aggravate this state of things. After all, it turns out that besides “I don’t want” there can be other reasons – more “justified”. For example, hygienic, epidemiological, political, etc. Moreover, non-participation in the liturgy for a “good reason”, as stated in the decree of the Synod of the Church of Cyprus, should not cause “embarrassment of conscience”. In other words, if earlier a person, while staying at home and clicking on the online broadcast of the liturgy, realized that it was wrong and not the way it should be, now he is recommended not to think about it, not to be embarrassed and not to worry at all. The Church is moving online voluntarily, eliminating all conscience-related issues.
Furthermore, this is not about sermons, not about lectures, not about something else of little significance, but about the Sacraments. The absence of the liturgy is a norm for a non-practicing person, but the same “norm” is being tried on practicing believers. Without any canonical implications. Drop curtain.
Reality of the Body and Blood and reality of the Church
The nature of the Church, Her character, does not imply virtual participation in the Sacraments. Christ, offering the Apostles His Body and Blood, not only brought them together but also used terms that did not imply a symbolic (i.e. virtual) interpretation and alienated from Him many Jews who were confused by this "somatic literalism". As the Russian philosopher Aleksey Khomiakov aptly noted, the temple is the walls erected around the Sacrament of Eucharist. Living participation in the Eucharist for Christians of the first centuries was more valuable than life. They gathered in houses, in catacombs, under cover of night. They yearned for Divine Liturgy even risking their lives and could not even imagine that a time would come when, instead of live participation in worship, one can simply click on the button.
Our faith is the belief in the incarnate God. The Body and Blood of Christ is not an illusion but a reality. The Apostle John the Theologian emphasizes: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (Epistle 1 John: 1-3).
Living participation in the Eucharist for Christians of the first centuries was more valuable than life.
What they saw, what they felt ... Christ speaks of real communion with Him at the Last Supper: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’.” (Matthew 26: 26-28). IS means to be, not IMAGINE.
That is why St. Cyril of Alexandria, in the interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes: “The Savior teaches the eleven [disciples] the sacrament of salvation. After all, since a little later Christ had to, having risen with His own flesh, ascend to the Father, in order to have His bodily presence (for without the presence of Christ it is impossible for man to be saved and get rid of death and sin, if there is no Life with us), He gave to us his Body and Blood (Matt. 26:28), so that through them the power of corruption would be crushed, He would inspire our souls with the Holy Spirit, we would become partakers of sanctification and be called heavenly and spiritual people.”
In other words, the Eucharist does not foresee any virtual participation. St. Theophylact of Bulgaria writes: “Saying ‘This is My Body’, He shows that the bread sanctified on the altar is the very Body of Christ and not His image, for He did not say ‘This is the image’ but ‘This is My Body’.”
One cannot be a Christian online; one cannot confess and partake virtually. It is impossible, after all, to transfer one's spiritual life to the Internet. No excuse can relieve a believer from the necessity to participate in the Eucharist. We do not mean that broadcasting should be banned. No. We just want to say that a person should always understand that this is abnormal and cannot replace living presence in a temple. And today's concessions made by the Church should be seen as condescension to weakness rather than a norm without “canonical implications”. Moreover, according to Archbishop Theodosius of Boyarka, one had better listen to the liturgy from the speakers standing near the walls of the temple than at home on the Internet.
Our Church is the Church of the living, not virtual, God. If we forget about it, then we will eventually kill both faith and life.