Spiritual Communion: The Virtual Body of Christ

Guest Blogger: The Rev. Ian Lynch

Some of us have long ago settled the question of whether on-line Holy Communion is legitimate. Over a decade ago, some of us answered the question of virtual communion at Koinonia Congregational Church of Second Life. Second Life is similar to massive multi-player online games, where the user creates an avatar and enters a virtual world. Except that Second Life is a vast sandbox where the users create the world. Koinonia Church was created as an intentionally inclusive space. We were clear that the only thing that would get you removed from that space was bad behavior, and we tried to be lenient.  Since one’s “second life” could be anything one wanted to represent from a reflection of one’s “first life” to anything imaginable (we had a dragon and a hobbit among our consistent worshippers), we concluded that all avatars were as worthy as the person who created that collection of pixels. Since we believed that this is not our table but God’s, where Jesus invites all to come and be filled, we decided we were not gatekeepers, but rather beacons beckoning the spiritually hungry to nourishment for their souls. And so we maintained the solemnity of the sacrament by emphasizing the common unity that we all share as guests at God’s table and allowed the practical concerns of what to use for elements or who did the consecrating to take a back seat. 

Will some traditions have a problem with this? Of course. There will always be purists who are afraid that that giving up control will lead to disaster. Some of those voices are being raised today, even in the midst of extraordinary times demanding innovative responses. But that is a top-down approach in a world that has become increasingly bottom-up. One undeniable result of the Internet revolution is that power has shifted toward the user. Individual choice and access are ever expanding. The more any institution chooses to limit practices to single choices, the more irrelevant it becomes today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the elimination of tradition or ritual. In fact, I’m very concerned about how to make ancient stories relevant to contemporary audiences. In this moment, that most assuredly involves on-line Holy Communion. 

If you believe that the sacrament is only valid if done “correctly” and are struggling to figure out how to practice communion in virtual space, that is a good problem. It is good to examine the implications of our beliefs. Some years ago I came to the realization that since, as a Protestant, I did not believe that a priest has special ability through apostolic succession (sorry for the jargon, you can Google it if you care to know) then even the laying on of hands at my ordination did not set me apart in some way that meant that only I, and other ordained ministers, could make bread and juice holy. It occurred to me that according to my theology, Christ was already present at every worship service, not in me, but in the congregation, that is, the Body of Christ. So I decided that the liturgical prayer of consecration belonged in the voice of the congregation. Together, we call on God to make the common elements sacred for us in their use in communion. By extension, it doesn’t matter whether we gather in one physical space or, perhaps, even in one specific time. What matters is that we acknowledge that God is not only present in all times and all places, but is also very eager to break bread with us. 

Protestants also took confession out of the hands of the priests, believing that individuals can seek God’s forgiveness directly. We took this stand without taking away the need for confession before coming to the table. Unfortunately, some of us also put up barriers like requiring baptism, confirmation, or even church membership. Those are conversations for another time. Suffice to say that in my tradition, we invite all persons to the table without vetting. But there is an added question presented by virtual spaces, do we need to know who the person is? That might seem like an unnecessary concern, until you consider bots, the threat of “zoombombing”, or other ways people might show up with bad intent. Do we limit access to the unrestricted grace of God because someone may show up and cause problems? I hope that you agree that the answer is obvious. In Second Life, we had to deal with what we called griefers. I officiated a same sex wedding in Second Life, where the reception was attacked by a griefer making it rain some strange object on all of us. We knew that something like that might happen,  but we took the risk, rather than put our light under a bushel. Likewise, I think we need to risk inviting everyone to the table, because that is what God does. Remember that Jesus, knowing what Judas was about to do, still invited him to dip his hand in the same cup. 

One final word about anonymity. One of the high points of my time in ministry in Second Life was telling a transgender person that I believed they were loved by God. The avatar was female and the person in First Life was assigned male at birth, living in Spain, where they could not find a priest to affirm them. Sometimes anonymity provides an opportunity to risk being the person we wish we could be in our physical existence. Maybe one gift we can find in the horror of this pandemic is that our on-line selves can represent our better selves. And if we accept the gifts of God at the table of grace, then we can find hope that our better selves are our full-time selves. In this time of isolation, let us celebrate every means that brings us together celebrating our common union as the beloved community of children of God.

Ian Lynch is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, serving Old South Church in Kirtland, Ohio. He has long enjoyed using technology to connect and share. He has six years of two minute Bible commentary on his You Tube channel, called Bible Bytes He is Pandion Halasy in Second Life and in his first life he is a husband, father, and avid (even competitive)birdwatcher.