A globe-crossing consecration

February 3, 2011

I've said before that celebrating communion via Twitter (to make "a statement that we're prepared to embrace the technological revolution") seems like an especially poor use of technology. But Lisa Nichols Hickman brings up a techno-sacramental innovation that's at least somewhat more compelling: using Skype to commune with Christians across the globe, especially in isolated and conflict-torn places.

The Conflict Kitchen is a public art project and restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves only food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. After visiting the restaurant, Nichols Hickman writes this:

One of the events [the Conflict Kitchen] highlight[s] is a live Skype meal between a group of strangers seated at tables in Pittsburgh and in Tehran.  Sharing the same meal and conversation across seven time zones, strangers became acquainted with each other over broken bread.  Even more importantly, they shared the same hope for peace.

And so I wondered, and ask the same of you, would it be blasphemous to Skype communion with Christians in a country across the globe?  Could Christians in Raleigh and Rwanda find encouragement from each other at the table? . . . .

Blasphemers might argue that Skyping communion is spectacle over Sacrament: webcams, language barriers and other details are impediments to the Word heard and act engaged. Technology aside, perhaps the real argument is the nature of communion within community.  Far from being exotic, maybe it is putting up with the mundane within a known community that makes real communion.  What would be sacrificed via Skype is real relationship.  Technology makes the sacrament sterile and simple to the point that communion becomes sentimental rather than an act of reconciliation.

But those who argue breakthrough might say that the Skyped communion is a first step beyond stereotypes and the capacity of nations to create 'others'.  Sitting down at the table, even through a webcam, creates the possibility for new community where bread is broken across national lines, language barriers, time zones and war decrees.  The other, joined with bread, becomes brother.

I'm not convinced; I can't get past the considerable gap between "gathered community" and "electronically connected people." But this does strike me as far more serious an idea that the Twitcharist example. The goal is nobler (global bridge-building vs. showing off the church's tech savvy). As for the medium, it's real-time verbal and visual communication--even face to face in some real sense--and so is vulnerable and present in a way following a Twitter feed is not.

In any case, using Skype to break bread with/"with" other Christians across national conflict lines has powerful possibilities--even if you have a celebrant at each end, or simply have a meal instead of communion.

What do you think?


Steve, I like this idea with

Steve, I like this idea with the caveat that the Skyped communion be repeated regularly between the same far-flung communicants so that they learn to see each other as sisters and brothers. I wouldn't like it if it were a one-off event. That smacks of spectacle.

Ongoing thoughts

What is fascinating about this conversation is how technology might serve as a bridge between generations.

While Skype may seem relevant for today's young adults and youth, the folks who might benefit most from this are older adults who have less mobility.

For example, as our prayers for Egypt rise this week - I think of numerous men and women from our church in their 70's and 80's in our church who served as missionaries in Egypt.

While a 'prayer service' over Skype would serve the purpose of connecting those long separated (mission workers and Egyptian friends), the sacrament of communion elevates the bond they share in Christ.

Maybe the first planned Skype communion should be for our elders.

in every time and place, with or without the webcam

One phrase I use regularly when inviting the congregation to the communion table is that here we break bread with followers of Christ "in every time and place."

Jesus said, "where two or three are gathered..." Nowadays, two or three are as likely to gather in an electronically-mediated environment, even in their own homes. My wife has called me to bed before using a dm on Twitter or a text message because it's quieter and more effective than shouting downstairs, and it doesn't wake our child.

For those whose lives and relationships include an on-line component, social networking software is a tool, nothing more. Communion via webcam,like electronic communication generally, may not be as intimate or personal as face-to-face, but there's no reason to think it blasphemous if we really believe the Eucharist unites Christians in every time and place even when the webcam is off.