All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church. What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous. The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering. We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine. Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality. While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community. That community has become virtual, as of today.
This isn’t a permanent thing. Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing. As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services. Sermons would need to be stellar. Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)? My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering. Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community. What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up? Does the minister see you in virtual church? Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral? I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities. Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.
The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke. At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing. Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage. As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix. I did not use a computer until after seminary. Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones. If you were going to church you were going. To. Church. These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power. For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person. I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink. We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts. It was only a joke, then; really it was.