Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church

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Rector's Corner

On Sacraments and Social Distancing

  • The Rev. Dr. Bill Murray
  • May 13, 2020
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I remember the conversation well because I thought it was a stupid one. I had just started seminary in the Fall of 2003. Everyone in my class, like every starting seminarian, was convinced we would fix the church and finally get closer to what Jesus has in mind for his church. The class was Liturgy, Music, and Art. A new game had started called Second Life, an online game where people could created their own home, their own life, their own world. The game had currency exchanges, people bought and sold things, some even made a living on this virtual reality. There was even an Episcopal Church in this online world. The question before us was straightforward- Can you receive the sacrament of Holy Communion in real life if your avatar received it in Second Life? Said differently but clearly: could you take virtual communion online?

That strange conversation keeps coming back to me now. As many talk about virtual communion and receiving bread and wine online, those arguments bubble up again. For me, the idea is a half step away from the televangelists of my youth proclaiming "put your hand on the tv set and feel God's power!" Like any conversation in today's world, it takes on greater import and meaning now. So many people want to touch and be held, want the physical reminder of God's presence and grace, and yearn for a pastoral solution to a very real world problem. How can we experience a sacramental life when physically separated?

I have read lots of ideas and theories. People doing some amazing mental and theological gymnastics for how through prayers and a priest God can be present in bread and wine in a distant living room or how the intention of the recipient can count towards receiving God. Lots of discussions about how the church or clergy can make God present in a broken, fearful, and hungry world.

I think the problem comes from a lack of understanding sacramental theology. Thanks to my confirmation teacher, Judge Jim Russell, I memorized some 30 years ago that the definition a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." (Page 857 of The Book of Common Prayer, 1979) The official catechism of the church then lists the seven sacraments of the church. The part most Episcopalians and more than a few Christians forget is the last part of the question and answer:

Q.    Is God’s activity limited to these rites?

A.     God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us.

My frustration with the Second Life question is the same as my frustration with the current arguments within the church about online communion- they presume that God can only come to people through a priest and the church. We dare to limit God's grace to only sanctioned, human-centric rites. I miss communion and baptisms and weddings. But I do not assume that God is not present in a thousand other physical ways.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer explained it perfectly. Think of a time when a couple has a fight- one of those moments when hard things are said and even harder things are received, and the relationship is fractured. On the way home from work, one of them buys a box of fine chocolates, a favorite item of their spouse. Without saying anything, the chocolates are offered as a gift seeking forgiveness, a gift filled with reconciliation, a gift imbued with love. In that moment, the chocolates become a sacrament- an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

If we begin to understand this broader and expansive view of God's love breaking into the world, if we start to look for sacraments independent of a priest's hands and movements, if we embrace the reality that God doesn't need any of us and yet chooses to work through us to reveal grace, then we will see that communion, while precious, is far from the only way God can love us in this difficult time.

If you think of those moments of love and hope shared in your quarantined and separate world and NAME them as sacrament, you will see that the church is alive and well and physically present already. If you can name that God is at work, you will become that much more aware of God's incredible grace when we return to worship together- filled with a thousand stories of that grace. If you can start to name sacraments all around you, you will hopefully realize that God is very near, very much in control, and not remotely limited in an online, socially distant world.

Bill+