Zoom ecclesiology: the Church scattered and gathered
Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes explores the forms covenant, fellowship and body are taking virtually
When the present Covid-19 crisis is over, I look forward to finding articles and even books on the subject of ‘Zoom Ecclesiology’. There is already of course, the practical topic of Cyber-Church, but perhaps Zoom Ecclesiology will reflect more deeply about the nature of a church, scattered in many places and in many internet devices. By using the word ‘Zoom’ I don’t mean, of course, to imply that this is the only digital networking platform available; I’m using the phrase ‘Zoom Ecclesiology’ as a joking attempt to focus on something important!
For those like me in the Baptist tradition, three key words of ecclesiology that were shaped by the English Reformation are: covenant, fellowship and body. I want to explore the form that these are taking virtually, in our experience today of lockdowns, quarantines and self-isolation, and with our use of such networking programmes as Zoom.
So first, Covenant. Covenant is a distinctive term for Baptists and others within the English dissenting tradition such as Congregationalists, now part of the United Reformed Church. It has shaped the idea of the church since the early days of Separatists in the 16th century. Churches, we have believed, are gathered by covenant, whether or not this takes the form of a written document.
Covenant is an agreement in two dimensions: a vertical commitment to God in Christ in the power of the Spirit, and a horizontal commitment to each other. One early Baptist, John Smyth, wrote in 1606 that ‘A visible communion of Saints is of two, three or more Saints joyned together by covenant with God & themselves....’ The idea that God had made an eternal covenant of grace for the salvation of humankind was, of course, central to all theology of the Reformation; what was distinctive about dissenting ecclesiology was that it made this soteriology basic to the constitution of the church; a congregation, gathering together in covenant agreement, made actual in time snd space the eternal covenant of God for the redeeming of all creation.
And the key idea is that the one who makes and mediates this covenant is the risen Christ. In covenant we do not just choose to gather together, as one option among others; we believe that we are being gathered together by Christ. Gathering is not a mere voluntary principle, as those in other ecclesial traditions tend to picture it, but a matter of obedience, of discipleship. This does not mean, by the way, that ‘church’ is confined to a local congregation; covenantal ecclesiology includes the belief that Christ gathers congregations together into a larger body – in fact, the church catholic.
Now, in days of lockdown, we are still being gathered by Christ. It’s a matter of covenant responsibility to each other, of being a disciple, to gather in whatever way we can. This is the covenant principle. A zoom ecclesiology based on covenant means that we don’t just choose to use social media, if we have it, to gather – whether by laptop, tablet or phone. We are being called by Christ to be faithful to each other. Of course, there will always be times when other responsibilities and demands of love, especially in the family, make this impossible for us at any particular moment. Illness or other crises in life can also make it difficult to express our covenant-belonging in this particular way. There can be no law here; we must be sensitive to the needs of others and Christ truly understands our own situation. But we do have a principle to shape our responses, and it is that of covenant relationship.
If we have members who have no means of digital communication, or who cannot use it, we have the covenant obligation to find an alternative medium. One way might be to record a service on DVD, and put that into the post – and if necessary, purchase a portable DVD player and post that as well, following it up with a technical-advice call on the house-phone. A zoom ecclesiology means a theology of accessibility. It’s working out what covenant responsibility means.
We are now in, or will be shortly in, a period of mixed format for doing church, when some members of the congregation will feel it safe to gather in a building, but others will still prefer to gather at home, using the internet. This makes it all the more important for members of a congregation to be faithful to each other in meeting for worship by whatever media it can use.
This means, I suggest, a commitment regardless of the efficiency or the professionalism of the product. I mean that once we are into the media game, choice often takes over. We look for the most attractive product, perhaps the most entertaining material. We may ask – who’s offering the best YouTube worship-service or televised service? Who’s got the best music, the best videos, the best preachers? The local church product may inevitably look less attractive than other offerings freely available to us into which large costs and huge resources have been poured. But I believe that whatever the form of presentation of a local church, we are committed to be involved, committed to be there with the fellow-believers with whom we have been drawn into covenant. I believe it’s not a matter of choice, it’s not a voluntary principle — it’s covenant commitment to God and others.
If we now turn our minds to the second term, “fellowship”, it is easy to shrink the idea into meeting together in one place (church or chapel) for worship or more socially for tea, coffee and conversation—all of which is valuable in itself, while difficult to achieve now. But I want to say that our fellowship is more than either local or even human.
In prayer and worship we are being drawn more deeply into the eternal fellowship, the koinonia of the triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—a communion of inexhaustible life and love, that we can also think about in such other-gendered pictures as Mother, Wisdom and Energy, or “Source, Guide and Goal of all that is.” In that fellowship, embraced in the flowing currents of love and justice in God, is a vast community: God is making room for all within God’s own self. I mean people of all ages, in all places, present and past. There are people there who are inside and outside the visible church. The Trinity, we might say, is God’s own Zoom programme. It is the largest social network there can be, a web far greater than the internet. To use a traditional phrase, our fellowship is in “the Communion of Saints”. This theology of fellowship links with that of covenant: our vision of God and the world must stretch to the idea that God has diverse forms of covenantal relationship with all people, and indeed with the whole organic creation.
Now, this is—of course—an encouragement to us. We are actually never alone, however self-isolated we are, but held in God’s social media. When we pray for others, we are adding our love to God’s own love for them. Intercessory prayer is not presenting God with a list of things to be done that God might otherwise forget about. God is already loving those in need, and loving—though with pain in God’s heart—those who are oppressing others. With endless love, God is persuading all to open themselves to a more flourishing life, and working with them in hidden ways at the depths of their being. Now as we pray for others, God is communicating our care and concern to them because they are held in God’s network of relations. God is making our love for them a part of God’s own love. By God’s own desire, uncreated love needs created love for the universe to flourish. God and we together may work transformation. So our prayers under lockdown should be more than local, as they tend to become. We should have the confidence to have the widest vision.
This fellowship also calls us to make an effort to open up the circle of our fellowship to other people’s social circles. This period when many more people are using the internet offers an opportunity to share links to our particular fellowship, to invite others to connect. This may be offering a link to our worship-services, but it could also be to other kinds of online events that may be more accessible to those seeking support and meaning in these times. I mean a kind of open house—an open ‘God’s house’.
Whenever we have this kind of encounter, in the church, on the streets outside, in chat-rooms, it means being genuinely interested in the stories other people have to tell us about their lives. This is not just a ploy to make useful contacts for the church. The divine fellowship, the divine Zoom, means that God is already related to people whether they know it or not: they are already in God’s social network. Fellowship is wider than our particular covenant with God in Christ. Our own precious circle of fellowship overlaps and intersects with a myriad other circles, and God is at the centre of them all. There are many ways into this wider fellowship, not just digital media; we can enter it through telephone calls, letters and cards and—when permitted—the spoken word of greeting. There is a universe of fellowship to be discovered.
We are therefore going to learn a great deal more about what our own faith means as we hear the stories of others. We shall learn more about what God is doing in the world, and we shall learn more about our Christ who is out there in the world. You could call this widening of fellowship mission, but it is of course God’s mission, missio dei, not ours.
3. The Body
In the New Testament, the phrase “the body of Christ” is not just a figure of speech, or a metaphor. Today we might say say of medical staff that they are “a fine body of women and men”, and that’s a helpful image. But “body of Christ” means even more than this; it means that Christ is using human bodies and even materials of the natural world to become visible in our world, to offer himself to be met and touched as people could do during his earthly life on the dusty roads of Galilee or in the streets of its towns.
This is why “body of Christ” in the New Testament has three meanings: it is the glorious risen body of Christ, the communion bread and the church. These are not three different meanings. They fuse together: the risen body of Christ becomes present through the breaking of bread in the community of believers. Christ is risen into the body of the whole world, but we can find a special focus of his body in the gathering of those who confess his name, tell his story and practise his sacraments.
So as we look around a congregation in a church building, the face of Christ takes form and shape as we look at the many faces of those gathered there. Like an identikit picture, the features of Christ come together through the many faces, and the face of Christ stands out and can be seen, not in one person alone, but in fellowship together.
Yet we often can’t see each others’ faces when we are gathered in a building like a chapel. Here our gathering online through technology like “Zoom” gives a special opportunity for ‘re-membering’ (putting together) the body of Christ. The screen offers a new possibility for the face of Christ to be ‘re-membered’ in the faces on display there, combined with the voices of those who are engaging with us by phone. There are, of course, those members who cannot use social media: we need to put photographs of them on the screen to join the montage of faces, to see the face of Christ properly.
Now, I am aware that this re-membering of the body of Christ visually is not without complications. It is possible with a programme like Zoom for a participant to switch off his or her own video, so that they can still see and hear a worship service, but become invisible to others. Some like to do this to multi-task, to answer email or enjoy some refreshment without being seen. I suggest that there should be a commitment to remain visually present to each other, as we would be if we were gathered in one place.
But then there is another factor to keep in mind. With Zoom it is possible to select the face of a participant and to make it full screen, even if they are not leading in worship. Someone can closely observe someone else, perhaps a man a woman in whom he is interested, and subject her to what feminist thinkers call a “male gaze”, which is even more intense than would be possible in a normal church gathering. This is to dominate another, to make her an object. The technology must be developed for the host to be able to block this facility, so that only the person leading is full-screen, except for a recognised and permitted time of socialising. With these qualifications, however, Zoom offers not only an ecclesiology, but a Christology of personal presence.
When we cannot embrace each other, or link hands, it is more difficult to experience “touching” the body of Christ. But sharing the Lord’s Supper online can be an important way of putting together the features of Christ and of touching his body. It is part of a Baptist ecclesiology for the one who is called to be the minister of the church to preside at the table of the Lord, to break the bread and pour the wine. She or her represents the church universal on the local scene. But for Baptists, this does not prevent others sharing in this moment. It is also part of our Baptist tradition for a church meeting to assign another to preside at the table if the pastor is not physically present. So in the unique situation of a lockdown, the church meeting (meeting virtually) can give that authority to members of scattered households.
Breaking the bread does not have to be done at a distance. Members who are part of the covenanted fellowship can have bread and wine or juice with them, and can join with the ordained minister in co-consecration, using the “words of institution”, or – as I would prefer to say – the words of consecration. All members can say with the minister and—above all—with Christ, “This is my body, this is my blood.” So word and action can come together in each place. The presence of Christ can be known more deeply through the broken bread and through the great cloud of witnesses who surround us on the screen, through the phone, or through their pictures.
The body of Christ is known through the bread, and through the community of believers at the same time. Christ is remembered and re-membered among us, and so we are drawn further into the relationships of love that are the Trinity—or, as I have suggested, God’s “Zoom network”.
I want to underline that this is a physical action: Christ is being embodied again through our online fellowship. We often think of the internet as a ‘disembodied’ medium of communication, just a matter of the mind. But this is not so. The internet is highly physical: there are, for example, silicon chips, computers, servers, keyboards, mice, screens, speakers. Through all this material taken from the natural world, Christ can be embodied, and Christ can become flesh. It is the humility of the risen Christ to make himself accessible, visible and touchable in this way. As we see and hear others, our bodies are involved, and are all part of the body of Christ.
If, and as, we move into a time of mixtures of meetings, some of the congregation in a church building, some still self-isolating, others having been house-bound long before Covid-19, we should seek to actualize a Zoom ecclesiology in this situation. For example, we can have the video, voices or pictures of those who are at home up on a screen in front of those who are gathered in the building, as fellow-participants in worship. As well as recordings and podcasts a service might be transmitted in “real time”, and members of the congregation gathered in one locality might use mobile phones or tablets to make personal connections with the scattered community. It may be that having had a period of lockdown will give us the vision and the skills to worship in a way that makes even more real our covenant and fellowship in the body of Christ.
Image | Grant Whitty | Unsplash
The Revd Professor Paul S. Fiddes is Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Oxford; and Principal Emeritus & Senior Research Fellow, Regents’ Park College, University of Oxford.
Listen to Paul speak on this subject in a webinar earlier this year.
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