The virtual reality church segment on BBC Radio Sunday piqued my interest. While there is a
pastor and there are people, there is no church building as such and the congregation meets
in virtual reality or by watching it online. The pastor said that his work is particularly for those
who for whatever reason can’t get out of their homes but in this way they can experience and
participate in church, worship, and congregational life. The interviewer asked, ‘Is it a baptism if
a virtual person (an avatar) is baptised with virtual water?’. Your definition of baptism will guide
your answer here. The pastor said ‘yes’. (I say ‘no’.)
The Church, it seems to me, always engages with technology. Luther made use of the printing press – though I think it is more historically accurate to say that printers found Luther’s writings profitable (there was no copyright as we know it back then). Radio and TV have certainly presented Christian worship, songs, and messages and there have been varying versions of how one should
interact. Is it something one watches or is it something with which one can directly engage? Up until this virtual reality situation, I was aware of varying TV services – live broadcast or via a DVD – with bread and wine near the TV ready to be consumed when directed. I have read of Services of the Word being conducted in two places using conference call technology where everyone can see each other and participate though the priest was only in one venue. I wonder who was the first person to pray using the telephone for the person on the other end of a telephone call? Did anyone wonder whether the prayer was ‘ok’? Technology, geography, resources (usually the lack thereof), and the desire for efficiency are all pressures that impact how the church lives with the technology of the time. And in a consumerist, individualistic world, technology increasingly allows us to ‘shop’ where and how we wish – to have control in some way.
The thing that struck me most about the BBC segment was that the critical factor in the Virtual
Reality Church was experience – the actual experience – powerful to be sure for those involved – and not to be discounted for that. The pastor said that sceptics had changed their views once they had experienced VR Church. His logic was clear – since the experience is so powerful for people then VR Church is valid. For me, the tension remains between experience and meaning – and meaning needs words. Of course it will be words and our understanding of them that will determine how we feel about anything – technology in the church included – but I find myself wondering whether part of the issue is that we simply struggle with God’s ‘technology’ of words, water, bread and wine. They can seem so plain and so ‘unspiritual’ and our experiences of them, often, almost mundane.
If humanity, by nature, always thinks it knows best, does the Christian Church keep trying to
overlay our technology or structures or interpretation in front of God’s technology? If the Word
became flesh to dwell with us (who are flesh) and so that we may live forever with him, then
physical presence has got to be important – which then means that what we do needs to support us physically. Jesus was incarnate for a reason (we are incarnate – in the flesh). And the whole point of Jesus’ ascension – celebrated last Thursday – is that Jesus hasn’t left us and he has told us how he meets us – here and now – amazingly, still to wash our feet and serve us – through words, water, bread and wine. We call this presence ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘sacramental’ or physical. That is what the Church needs to concentrate on – going out – so that more and more people can come and encounter Jesus – Immanuel – God with us.