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Toward A New Theology of Presence?

by The Rev. Stephen L. White, Ph.D.

            It is in isolation that we become most fully aware of how much we depend upon our  connection to others and on their presence in our lives, and our presence in theirs. And it is perhaps when we most acutely experience the physical absence of others that we are most in need of, and aware of, God’s presence.

            In this unique and unprecedented time of near universal isolation and of social distancing, this time of anxiety about health and welfare in this moment of human history when technology allows for new forms of interaction and communication, both visual and auditory, we might do well to think about what it means to be present. Is actual physical proximity a necessary condition for presence? Can there be presence with no touch? Can we be truly present to one another across physical space? Perhaps a more challenging question is whether there is some way for Christ to be really and truly present in bread and wine to worshipers in separate locations sharing communion remotely.

            The first technological advances in communication were one-way – cinema, radio, and then television allowed hearers and viewers to receive sounds and images, but not to share their own sounds and images with the sender in real time. The telephone offered the immediacy of real-time interaction, but lacked the visual component and thus emphasized, rather than bridged, the physical distance between the speakers. It has only been in the second decade of the 21st century that we have had the ability to see and hear one another in groups in real time through sophisticated video conferencing technologies that are widely available to the public at no cost – not one-way or two-way communication, but multi-way live interactions.

            This last development – real-time video and audio interactions among several people at once at little or no cost – combined with the forced social isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that provides the both the impetus and the framework for some new ways of thinking about how worshiping communities can achieve presence in the deepest, spiritual sense, in the absence of physical proximity. We need a new theology of presence for these utterly new circumstances.

            Many Christian congregations are finding novel ways of praying “together” while not being together physically. Prayer services using Google Hangouts, Webex, Zoom, Jitsi, Skype, and other similar platforms have given the faithful who are quarantined or observing self-imposed social distancing a way to pray in community with others. The response to this new way of praying in community has been overwhelmingly positive. Through the two-way communication that such platforms offer, worshipers have experienced a true sense of the presence of others, albeit remotely, and this has been a source of great comfort and joy to participants. We cannot touch, but we can see and hear one another and we are all experiencing the same sights and sounds at the same time and entering into deep prayer not individually, but communally, not alone but together as one Christian body. Is this not presence? Isn’t it a real presence and not an artificial one?

            If – if – this new way of praying is, indeed, presence, in the deepest and truest sense, then we might ask “Why can’t we can do communion this way?” If a priest presides over a Eucharistic feast where they have the elements of bread and wine, and if each worshiper, in their own physical space has their own elements of bread and wine, and if all are connected through one of these new technologies where there is every aspect of “presence” except the physical one, and if the priest and the people have the intention of consecrating all those elements, then can Christ be fully and truly present not only in the bread and wine that is physically touched by the priest, but also in the bread and wine held by each participant, wherever they are physically? Can the Epiclesus – the calling upon the Holy Spirit that bread and wine “…may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant” – be efficacious across physical space? These are questions that perhaps few have asked until now because until recently there was less need and no way to accomplish it, but now they must be answered.

            I can hear the objections even before I finish writing these words. But I would suggest that perhaps many, if not all of these objections, are based in a liturgical theology that fails to take into account the new combined realities of forced isolation and technologies that offer new ways of mitigating, if not altogether eliminating, that isolation. I would further suggest that the unprecedented pastoral need of the isolated faithful for full communion with one another in the body and blood of Christ transcends previous notions of necessary conditions for the real presence of Christ in the elements. 

            I don’t think the question is whether or not we can pray and do communion this way. Rather, I think the question is whether God can hear us and do communion this way. And if that is the question, then the answer must certainly be a resounding “Yes!”

One bread, one body, one Lord of all
One cup of blessing which we bless
And we, though many, throughout the earth
We are one body in this one Lord

            I suspect that most lay people will have no trouble with this way of doing communion and would welcome the opportunity to benefit from the graces of sacramental worship now more than ever, especially if they were given to believe that it is permissible to do so. It will be those with training in liturgical theology and ecclesiastical authority who will struggle most with this idea, and that is as it should be for they are the guardians of a holy tradition. But the role of guardian also involves leading the people of God to where it is best for them to be and in this perilous and isolating time what better place can there be for the people of God than to be in full sacramental communion with one another?