Saturday, October 05, 2013

Communing Digitally With Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton (#ELCA)

Today Elizabeth Eaton will be installed as the new presiding bishop of the ELCA. It is an historic day on any number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that on its 25th anniversary as a denomination, the ELCA will have a woman in its top position of leadership.

A lot has changed since Mark Hanson's installation for his second term as presiding bishop in 2007. For example, Twitter was launched the year previous, in July of 2006. Facebook opened to the public in September of 2006.

This year, on the other hand, anyone who was curious had the chance to follow a play-by-play on Twitter, Facebook, or via live video stream of the election process for Elizabeth Eaton.

You can even livestream the installation service at Rockefeller Chapel today at It starts at 1:30 p.m. CST, and goes until 5:30 p.m.

I was present in New Orleans just over a year ago when Bishop Hanson posted his first tweet live in front of an assembly of over 35,000 high school youth in the Superdome. He wrote:
I am so excited to be with 35,000 Spirit-filled youth praising God at the ELCA Youth Gathering. Tell me what you’re excited about!
So here I sit at a laptop on a rainy afternoon in Fayetteville, Arkansas, pondering whether to try and livestream a portion of the installation service. I had considered driving up to Chicago for the installation, but I'm already traveling next week for the ordination service of our new Pastor of New Communities in Illinois, so decided to stay home today.

Nevertheless, I'm hyper-aware of the significant of the day. I wish I could be there. So I wasn't surprised to read a post from a colleague of mine, who asked, "I can't be at Rockefeller Chapel today for Bishop Eaton's installation, but I do have a home communion kit at home. What do you think if I took communion from my kit simultaneously while they were distributing communion at the installation service?"

I understand the feeling behind this desire. My colleague wants to be there, like I want to be there, and receiving communion in conjunction with all those gathered seems like the next best thing.

Nevertheless, the question makes me more than a little squeamish. It's far to "enthusiastic" (in the theological sense of that term). I'm an early adopter of digital social media (or I like to think I'm an early adopter), so I don't have any opposition to raising the question and exploring options. I just have issues with the clerical privilege it represents, and the problematic issues it raises around the presence of Christ in the meal.
For those interested in this discussion, I'm especially taken with the way Douglas Estes approaches the topic in his recent SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Basically, Estes breaks down all the possible theological, logistical, and practical questions that might come up when trying to distribute communion via digitally mediated community (like a worship service in Second Life). He comes to it without anxiety, and simply asks, "What is faithful? What makes sense given Christian faith and the new media that presents itself?"

So here we are, asking this very practical question--and it is a very new question, because even six years ago nobody was livestreaming the installation of bishops, and only a very few very early adopters were experiencing Twitter or Facebook as the kind of community that was "thick" enough for them to feel like it was "real" community.

This is what is going to happen around a topic like this. Some people are going to get really uptight. Like Luther writing "hoc est corpus meum" with chalk on the table across from Zwingli and pounding his fist (or glass) at Marburg, some of us care quite a lot about the sacrament, and want to ensure a proper understanding and practice of it. Like Aquinas and his substance/accidents distinctions, many of us have invested quite a lot of philosophical and theological energy parsing precisely how and when Jesus is present in the bread and the wine.

Lutherans tend to emphasize the "in, with, and under" aspect of the meal, that Jesus really is present (Real Presence), rather than simply symbolically present.

As such, we tend to be rather uncomfortable with any practices that undermine the doctrine of real presence. The list of practices that can undermine real presence is quite a bit longer than you might imagine. In addition to simply misunderstanding communion as metaphorical or symbolic, many people tie who presides, what is said, what elements are used, who is allowed to receive, and more, into understandings of what constitutes the Eucharist.

Now, here comes a pastor who wants to commune in absentia, as it were. I have a gut reaction to this. I think it is kind of creepy, too enthusiastic. To commune alone is to commune alone, even if you are watching a communion liturgy on-line. But this is my gut reaction. I need to think about it rationally and theologically to get better perspective. So do we all. It is a question that will continue to come up, as witnessed by the recent debate on the practice among United Methodists.

So what does all of this have to do with the installation of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton? Well, to make it quite obvious, Elizabeth Eaton is going to be our first truly digital/virtual bishop. Most of us have met her digitally/virtually already, via some excellent television interviews, through the ELCA livestream many of us will watch today, even through her now defunct blog attempt (which she might want to remove or modify...hint hint).

Bishop Eaton, as our first digital/virtual bishop (she will also be a real presiding bishop, but much more of her ministry will be virtually mediated than Bishop Hanson, even with his rather large twitter following), is charting new territory on many levels. Some of this new territory she won't even get to choose. In the new media era, you simply are who you present yourself as in digitally mediated environments. You have to write yourself (or pin yourself, or stream yourself, or post yourself, or instagram yourself) into existence there. There's no other way.

How one cultivates this part of their ministry, especially someone who will have as influential a media footprint as Bishop Eaton has, matters quite a lot. We see it already today, her first day on the job, as she is installed. We are all going to be there, whatever there, is. 1500 people at Rockefeller Chapel. Thousands more via livestream (which my autocorrect repeatedly wants to change to lifestream), some of whom wonder whether it would be appropriate to break a piece of bread, and raise a glass of wine, and say to themselves, "This is Christ's body, given for me."

I for one, having heard the band play and the organ warm up, and watched the gathering assembly give each other hugs and chat and prepare for the installation, hear my dog whimpering, and realize he wants to get out for a run in the rain. So I will run, and pray for Elizabeth Eaton and all those assembling this day at her installation. I will in this way truly be present with them, because we believe that prayer (quite like wifi service) connects us one to another, and to God.

And I'll take my communion tomorrow morning, trusting in the catholicity of the church, which unites the local meal here tomorrow to the local meal there today. 

Blessings to you, Bishop Eaton. Blessings to you, former Bishop Hanson. Peace.

1 comment:

  1. Timely post, Clint. This is a hot hashtagged topic (#onlinecommunion) of conversation among our UMC friends. See this summary in Hufffpo:

    In my book (p.9), I reference Bosco Peters, an Anglican priest who was an early and vocal critic of online communion.

    I have publicly said that neither I nor the church social media advocates I hang out with are proponents of online communion. We are advocates of using technology to invite people to be more present (e.g., livestream of PB Eaton's installation, my wedding in 2011).

    And now I'm finding myself rethinking this issue yet again. But not today! Today I have to focus on other things.

    From the Me Being Picky Department: SimChurch is not a recent book. It was published in 2009, which makes it an ancient tome in the world of swiftly changing digital ministry. And for a really ancient tome in this world, check out Hammerman's Seeing God in Cyberspace.