Ecclesia Virtualis

The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 8

“Our churches also teach that one holy church is to continue forever. This church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” – Augsburg Confession VII

The Covid-19 crisis has catapulted the church into the internet age of live-stream, Zoom, and audio/video services – the virtual printing press of our time. Unable to gather in groups due to health concerns, congregations are resorting to virtual gatherings as a placeholder for corporate worship. It’s the next best thing to being there. Or is it?

We intuitively know that virtual interactions are not the same as actual ones. We may find our soulmate online, but sooner or later we need to get together for coffee or dinner in person. Mom recently acquired Skype capability at the age of ninety-one. You know you’ve entered a new age when your writing is suddenly interrupted by a Skype call from Mom. Living two thousand miles away, I like being able to see her as well as talk with her, but we both recognize it’s no substitute for a visit. My doctor is doing “tele-consults,” which is fine by me since I hate going to the doctor. As Luther famously said, “To live medically is to live wretchedly.” No one would say that a live-stream concert is the same as a front and center seat. So what about about virtual Word and Sacrament?

I think most of us who confess the Christian faith from a Lutheran theological framework centered in the incarnate Word would automatically rule out any notion of a virtual Lord’s Supper. This is not our understanding of the role of consecration, the office of the holy ministry, or the church. It’s no at least three times over. But what about a virtual service of the Word? Is it possible? Is virtual preaching actually preaching? Is virtual church really church?

This question came up with my elders in a recent Zoom meeting. I’m coming to like Zoom meetings. You don’t have to travel, and you can catch up on email and writing when things get boring. Just keep looking at the camera and nod knowingly once in a while. We were discussing what we need to be doing for worship while we cannot gather. I had been doing audio services, where I chanted or spoke a liturgy of the Word and people could follow along. One of my elders made an interesting point. “Don’t make it like church,” he said. “We’re not at church; we’re at home.” I think he’s on to something. Home isn’t church; church isn’t home. I don’t preach at home, though my wife may beg to differ. And I don’t do personal devotions at church.

We decided to offer a simple liturgy of the Word for use in the home, based on our hymnal liturgies, which could be done by someone living alone, or as a household. I provide the propers for the day and record a reading of the Gospel and a sermon. There is no live-stream of an empty church. We did do a live Easter Alleluia Shoutout on Easter Sunday where we all got online and said “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” to each other, which wound up sounding like a very bad cell phone connection. Digital doesn’t do overtalk very well. But it was nice to see each other’s faces, at least virtually.

At the time of the apostles, face-to-face communication was the gold standard. You had to see the whites of a man’s eyes to ascertain he was being truthful, and anyone who spoke from notes undermined his own authority. When you’re under house arrest, like the apostle Paul was on several occasions, being present in the flesh wasn’t possible, though being present in the spirit was (1 Cor. 5:3). Letters had to suffice. Letters could be forged, however, and so they had to be authenticated with large-lettered signatures and plenty of name dropping. When the letter arrived by courier, it was read out loud to the gathered assembly not copied and distributed individually. “Faith comes by hearing,” as the apostle Paul wrote. (Let the reader take note.)

In Luther’s day, the printing press was all the rage. Luther didn’t seem to care much for it, being a quill pen and ink kind of guy, but the printers needed material and Luther could crank out the copy. Though the printing press fueled the Reformation, Luther nonetheless insisted on the primacy of the “mouthed Word” (mundlich Wort). The church was to be a “mouthhouse of forgiveness.” In spite of his translating the Bible into vernacular German, Luther held that the written Word was not as effective as the oral, preached Word. You can set a book aside, but it’s hard to shut a preacher up. Preaching is an incarnational event of the Holy Spirit, who works both at the mouth of the preacher and in the ears of the hearers. In writing, an author assumes a reader who isn’t actually, as much as a reader imagines an author who isn’t there. When they meet in real life at book signings and readings, they are often disappointed. People said that Paul was much more impressive in print than he was in person (2 Cor. 10:10).

The internet is the printing press of our day. We communicate by electronic text – email, text messages – or technology-mediated audio and visual. The television age has given way to the internet age with information and entertainment on demand. While the church can make use of the tools of virtual communication, it can never have the true koinonia, fellowship, that makes the church the Body of Christ. Fellowship in Christ is not an abstract or individualistic concept. There is no such thing as virtual fellowship, either a pot-luck or Word and Sacrament.

The Lutheran churches were once at the forefront of media communication in service of the gospel. The Lutheran Hour broadcast Bible messages on the radio long before there were celebrity evangelists. It produced a television show, “This is the Life,” that ran for forty years, portraying the Christian faith in modern life using name actors. But the one thing we Lutherans never attempted was to have church at home via television or radio. There was the Lutheran equivalent of the Catholic “Mass of Shut-ins” that broadcast a service from a local congregation so that people who could not get to church could at least see and hear from a distance. But no one ever said that this was church in any real way; pastors always brought the Word and Sacraent from the gathering to those who could not gather.

The church is both an ecclesia visibilis, a visible gathering around the preached Word and administered Sacrament, and an ecclesia abscondita, the hidden union of all believers of every time and place through faith in Christ. But it is never an ecclesia virtuale, a virtual church, just as there is no virtual Christ, virtual Cross, or virtual death and resurrection. A good test is this: Can the church exist without the medium – whether written letter, printing press, or live-stream? That church is the Body of Christ, against which the gates of Hades cannot prevail.


©2020 William M. Cwirla