What's Tony Thinking

B. Y. O. B. or Why To Drop Online Church


Yes, I know it means “bring your own booze.” But it could also mean, in today’s pandemic fog, “bring your own body.” Bring your body to church and other places where people gather in community, having taken intelligent precautions.

The Anglican priest and writer, Tish Harrison Warren, had a fine piece the other day arguing that the time has come for churches to drop on-line services, which most embraced during the most dangerous phase of the pandemic, doing so with remarkable dexterity and aplomb. Kudos all around.

But . . . Warren argues, rightly, that Christianity is an embodied — not a disembodied — faith. Here she is.

“For all of us — even those who aren’t churchgoers — bodies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization. They are humble (and humbling) gifts to be embraced. Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly — with heart, soul, mind and strength — and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness.” (emphasis added)

Christianity, while often subject to “spiritualizing” or otherworldly impulses, has always been an embodied faith. We proclaim a God who enters into our earthly condition, embraces our full humanity, even unto suffering and death. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” as the Gospel of John puts it (John 1: 14).

Our central sacraments, baptism and Communion, are embodied. Washing and water on one hand, and eating and bread and wine, on the other. We even proclaim “the resurrection of the body,” a stumbling block for many, but our way of affirming the body and embodied existence over against our religions and philosophies that denigrate the body and want to escape bodily limits and vulnerabilities for a purely “spiritual” reality (see: Platonism, Gnosticism and New Thought).

It could be that this time of digitized worship, a blessing for an interim, is also now a test. Will the church go with the increasingly digitized modern, or post-modern world, where more and more of our interactions are disembodied and distanced? Or will our embodied life together in sometimes (check that, “always”) messy community stand as a kind of protest against the isolating, distanced tendencies of a life lived on-line?

But, really, why make such a big deal about this? Why not just do both? There will be a lot of pressure on churches and clergy for that option. Warren has an answer.

“One might ask, why not have both? Why not meet in person (with Covid precautions in place) but also continue to offer the option of a live-streamed service? Because offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter.” (emphasis added)

Who could have imagined that this might be where churches would make their stand against the contemporary gods of convenience and consumerism? Both have been steadily influencing the church for a long-time and not for the good. You hear it in the way we hear (or say), this or that aspect of church “just doesn’t work for me!” Well, who made it all about you? The answer to “who made it all about you” is a pervasive but deceptive consumerism, which proclaims that it is “all about you!” and your choices, while subtly or not so subtly manipulating you to get on board with the latest products or technology, or else be left behind. You choice is not to have an I-phone or not, but which phone to get and in what color!

The other day I mentioned the very weird tech billionaire character in the movie, “Don’t Look Up.” He personified a kind of creepy, anti-body, “visionary” in the on-line, digitized world. If there’s a choice between Mark Zuckerberg and Wendell Berry, I know who I’m going with. But I also know how hard contemporary culture is making that, eliminating — ironically — the “choice” for down-to-earth, hands-in-dirt, embodied life.

But what about the people who can’t get to church any longer? As Warren points out, the church has been dealing with that for a long time and can do so again. The times I, along with a church deacon, took Communion and a shortened worship to those who were sick or shut-in were often memorable. The “shut-in” can’t and shouldn’t be neglected, not just for their sake, but for ours.

I think Warren is right. As tough as it will be to transition away from on-line (and she has some good practical suggestions for doing so) B. Y. O. B., as in body, is crucial for what it means to be church, to do church.




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