There’s been a lot of discussion among Anglicans over the past few months about the nature of the communion we share, when we do it online. Taking a step back from the heat that debate has generated, I offer here a perspective on that discussion by looking at the ways in which we perceive what we call ‘reality’ anyway, and how that might relate to our communion in ‘virtual reality’.
Every celebration of communion is, from one perspective, essentially virtual. We say age-old words, and do certain actions, hallowed by tradition and stamped by the authority of our denomination, which we understand as making real something beyond the physical reality that we can touch and see. In the sacrament we are united – in a realm other than the simply physical – with the whole company of saints; with the risen and ascended Jesus; and with the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Every celebration of communion is also essentially tangible. The physical, simple act of consumption gives a very tangible sense of sacramental assurance. We are joined, by God’s grace, in a real, physical way with God, and with our fellow communicants. The physical substance of the sacramental act means that it doesn’t matter exactly what you think about what’s going on, or who you are, or who the priest is – all that is asked of you is to take, and eat.
But how this maps onto the new technological options that we now have for ‘interfacing’, or being present with one another, has been hotly contested in recent months. And much of the debate seems to me to be based on the way we have constructed a false binary between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’.
Virtual is not the opposite of real. This is fundamental to our experience of faith. Jesus let Thomas see and feel for himself – but also declared a blessing on those who believed without such tangible evidence. The doctrine of the Ascension holds this tension, of faith in the untouchable and yet credible, at the heart of our communal belief about Jesus’ ongoing presence.
In any case, the distinction often posed between ‘virtual’ online and ‘irl’ (in real life) activity doesn’t bear close examination. We all interact with people, spaces and objects in a wide variety of ways – visual, tactile, auditory, written. In each case, the experience I have is mediated through my organs of perception – skin, eyes, etc – and then through a process of interpretation in my brain. Science increasingly shows just how virtual even our most tangible experiences are. Our brains automatically rotate images so that we experience them the right way up. Amputees experience phantom itches on long-gone limbs. People just thinking about exercise experience measurable improvements in fitness. Placebos work. And we use all sorts of intervening assistive technologies – a pair of glasses, a hearing aid – to alter the input stimuli that we receive. We know that one of the oddly disturbing symptoms of Covid-19 is that it can alter our sense of taste and smell, demonstrating how fragile our perceptions of such phenomena are.
Virtual reality, one could say, is reality. The romantic, Enlightenment idea that there is such a thing as an objective, ‘real’ reality, separate from our own sense-perception and interpretation – is one we can gracefully let go. We are creatures of the virtual. As people of faith, our theology and traditions give us our own insight into that and can help us embrace it, rather than fight against it. Virtual is not the opposite of real – it’s how we experience real.
When I talk to my friends over dinner on Zoom, the experience is not quite the same, but it is still a real relationship that is being nurtured. I look forward to meeting my friends again in person – but our friendship is still real whilst it is mediated through the internet. So it seems to me that we can indeed experience communion through the interface of technology. It might seem a somewhat diminished experience without the tangibility that we value – a ‘now we see through a glass darkly’ experience, perhaps – but our seeing, our experiencing, and our communion – with God, with one another, with the whole company of saints – are nonetheless real. As real as anything else that we experience – as real, I would say, as ‘irl’ communion ever was.
Our communion is always a virtual reality.
At the house in Emmaus, when Jesus broke the bread,
His disciples realised his presence with them
Even as he vanished from their sight.
When Thomas declared he would not believe
Unless he could touch and feel the wounds of the crucifixion,
Jesus invited him to touch and see – and declared a blessing
On all those who would not see, and yet would believe.
At the Ascension, angels asked the disciples why the still looked up into the sky –
They should expect now to find Jesus in everyday places.
We celebrate our communion strangely in this season,
And yet our confidence and hope is in the God
Who is always both a virtual and a real presence:
In bread, in wine, in water, in the spaces between us.
The still centre at the heart of all our circling.
Come, living God,
Infuse our presence with your absence
And our absence with your presence.