Essay: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitization of the Church

NOTE: Since the writing of the article there has been some developments locally in Siberia. When writing about possible suspension of the regular worship services, I thought about it as a theoretical possibility, based on what was happening elsewhere. Well, now it is a reality for Siberian Lutherans also. The governor of the Novosibirsk region has issued an order to stop all religious gatherings beginning from Saturday, April 18. The last service with the Lord’s Supper was conducted in St Andrew’s parish in Novosibirsk on Friday evening, April 17. Siberian Lutherans are very fortunate as compared to the Russian Orthodox in that they were able to celebrate Easter service in an almost normal mode in most of the parishes of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC); Eastern Orthodox Easter is one week later this year. As it stands now, no laypeople may enter the church buildings and take part in any religious ceremonies. Of course, as Lutherans, we can’t conduct the Eucharist with no laypeople present. Mass is not a sacrifice, it is about eating and drinking. So what shall we do now? Local pastors including those who are Seminary instructors would divide the area of larger Novosibirsk into parts based on where they are located, and so they will visit parishioners in their homes and serve Holy Communion to them as they are able. Siberian Lutherans are determined to do their best not to leave their people without spiritual care. ~AS

This is a document which was prepared for the Russian speaking Lutheran context in view of the questions the people of the Church had related to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitalization of the Church

by Alexey Streltsov

Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov

In 2020 A.D., the Church of God throughout all the world encountered a special trial that especially fell in the time of Lent, and now it looks like it will continue also through the Easter season, and perhaps beyond.

The rapidly growing threat of a dangerous viral contagion (or a declaration of such threat) has put the usual conduct of regular church services in jeopardy. These problems may have to do either with specific parish circumstances (like the temporary termination of rent in the case of our Moscow SELC parish), or with regional regulations of the authorities (for example, in St. Petersburg, where SELC does not have any parishes, but where all gatherings of people are now prohibited).

Practically every day brings additional news. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. In this context, the churches are likely to react ad hoc by making decisions spontaneously, or at least without serious preliminary reflection.

The main question that confronts the churches at the present time is the following: What do we do in the case that it’s no longer possible to conduct services, or if most people can’t get to them because of unforeseen circumstances even if the services do continue?

In many cases, a workaround has been implemented by means of a temporary transfer of services to a digital format.

A few people are trying to conduct sacraments over the Internet. Such cases have become widely discussed and, as a rule, are getting a very negative reaction. Such cases, when people attempt to conduct Baptism and the Lord’s Supper over the Internet, are rare and extreme.

The more typical situation looks like this: a minister conducts a service (without Holy Communion) on the church premises. He can be alone in the church, or accompanied by one or several assistants. Whatever happens at the altar is recorded on a camcorder, and is instantly displayed online via social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, or Vkontakte. It might be that there are a few other people in the church besides the liturgist, but it’s not that relevant here.

Parishioners are invited to participate in the services right from their homes by connecting to the live broadcast. In some cases, it is impossible to view a service online due to technical problems or some other reasons. In such cases, parishioners may watch it at some other time by clicking a link.

Are such decisions concerning the temporary “digitization” of the Church correct? It depends on how one understands the Church herself, that is, what the Church actually is. According to the universally recognized definition of the Church among Lutherans, which is given in the 7th Article of the Augsburg Confession, the Church is the gathering of the faithful, among whom the Word of God is preached purely and the Holy Sacraments are distributed rightly, according to the ordinances of God’s Word. This gathering happens in a specific location where people are physically present in one and the same place. The early Church, both in the New Testament and in the texts of the earliest Church authors, habitually used the language of gathering “for the same” or for the “common-union” ( ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸepi to auto in Greek), which meant gathering for the Divine Service.

According to traditional ecclesiastical understanding and theology, characterized first and foremost by faith in God incarnate, the created things do matter. Body, things bodily, things fleshy do matter. Specific place matters.

At all times, God has acted salvifically through specific people, specific circumstances, and specific places. Before the Incarnation, the special place of God’s presence was Israel, and within Israel: Jerusalem, and then the Temple, within which there was the Holy place, and, finally, the Holy of Holies, where as it was proclaimed in divine revelation that Yahweh (the Lord) was present between the horns of the altar.

Now, there is no single place in the geographical sense for the faithful to receive the grace of God. Nevertheless, in every case, it is a particular and concrete place, that is, that place where the Word is pronounced and the Sacraments are distributed. This is what the priests of the church speak and do. There are specific places in Novosibirsk and Tuim, Novokuznetsk and Chita, and so forth, to speak of SELC parishes. In each of those places, there is a pulpit and an altar. And in each case, one and the same Church is gathered. The Church, which is one, is present in this place in her fullness, although there are different individuals within each gathering. This fullness, this completeness, this catholicity of the Church is due to the complete presence of Christ, whom the priest proclaims in preaching, and whom he administers in Holy Communion.

So, what happens during an attempt to transfer Church and the church gathering to a digital mode? At a minimum, there is a loss of significance of particularity of place in people’s perception, a loss of the concreteness of liturgical space, and a detriment of understanding by the faithful of the way of God’s presence in the world.

From the earliest times, the Church fought Gnostic influences in her midst, that is, those attempts at “spiritualization” of the Christian faith. In the early Church, Gnostics and Manichaeans claimed the presence of a “divine spark” within them that made services unnecessary. Gnostics ridiculed the Eucharist. In the early Medieval times, there were influences of Neoplatonism, in which a man was invited to ascend to God in his soul, instead of meeting Him in the means of salvation as the incarnate God who came to earth and bound Himself to His presence in particular places for the salvation of the people—although God, by nature, is omnipresent, and not subject to spatial limitations. Another danger of this spiritualization at the time was represented by the excesses of monastic asceticism. The monks fled to the desert in order to gain a special insight, and to sense the divine presence in their lives by way of strict spiritual discipline.

The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli proposed spiritualization at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. Bodily things were of little importance for Zwingli: “The flesh is of no help at all,” he said, and God is spirit, and He acts as He wills and where He wills. This was understood by the Zwinglians as an action detached from the physical realm. In this case, any possible connection between the heavenly and the earthly is no more than the association between reality and symbolic representation of this reality, which is inherently conditional according to Zwingli. In other words, the heavenly things can happen in the absence of any earthly representation, while the earthly things have no inherent significance. “The flesh is of no help at all.” Martin Luther considered this “spiritualistic” teaching of Zwingli to be the fruit of the devil.

Today’s temptation comes from the world of digital technology.

When we disrupt liturgical space, when we deprive specific sacred place of its sacred nature, when we try to represent the Divine Service as a kind of theater or circus, or as a function that can be reduced to the sound vibrations of the air, or to a footage sequence, we consciously or unconsciously change our perception of what the Church is.

Modern digital technologies are a great blessing that the Church has at her disposal. Radio and TV programs, films, TV Channels, multiple resources on the Internet—all those are an aid in the work of the Church’s evangelism in the wide sense.

The question, however, is whether it is done along with the traditional service, or instead of the traditional service. This is a very important question.

If it is impossible to conduct a service, then it can’t be done. One cannot perform something instead of a common liturgy and just call it “liturgy” anyway. If at least “two or three” cannot gather in one place, then Christ cannot be there in the sense in which He promised to be present in a Eucharistic gathering.

Therefore, in this case, one cannot pretend that everything is (almost like) normal, and that it is possible by a slight adjustment to conduct services in a digital mode as though everything were just fine.

A digital service becomes a surrogate of the church service. A danger of such Internet services is that people would come up with a valid question: “Was it a viable option after all?” And if it were a fine opportunity to pursue, what would prevent anyone from to continuing to do it in the future?

A number of areas of human activity are already being transferred, or will be transferred, whether fully or partially, into a digital mode. Perhaps, the COVID-19 situation will serve as a trigger for these further changes. The Church, however, cannot be subject to digitization due to her non-digital nature.

The ancient Pythagoreans thought that the whole world could be reduced to numbers, and described by numbers. Modern proponents of the Internet-church suppose that in the absence of traditional services, one could, in principle, get by with some online broadcasting. The danger here is that such actions would throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case, the baby being the bodily, creaturely dimension of the Church.

When there are no church services in the Church, it is an egregious thing. This is a crisis (the Greek word “crisis” means judgment). It is not just a minor warning sign, it is a loud bell calling us to repentance and to correction of our lives. The meaning of Lent is to show us that we won’t survive without God. God forbid us from being spiritually complacent! Rather, being bereft of an opportunity to attend regular church services, let us experience true spiritual hunger for the Divine Service, for the gathering of faithful brothers and sisters, where we might have a living connection with God through the gifts that God himself has appointed for usage in a particular place. God grant us to forsake false spiritual satiety and any sense that God owes something to us, and that the Church owes something to us!

As a faithful bride to her Lord, the Church acts according to her calling. She can’t simply stop being the Church. She can’t act in an unchurchly way. That would be an obvious contradiction, an impossibility.

God, however, promised not to leave His faithful. Even in the absence (temporary absence!) of church services, He will not leave the faithful!

If it is permitted for you to move about, get in touch with your priest and request communion to be administered to you. He will come. You will get Word and Sacrament in a home-service format.

If, for whatever reason, that is not possible, there will always be the prescribed readings according to the Church’s calendar, as well as home prayers.

You could ask the priest to send a text of a sermon. The reading of such a sermon (whether privately, or read aloud by the head of the household) would be instructive for the soul.

If you are currently conducting readings of Scripture and joint prayers in the family setting, then you may keep on doing the same, perhaps, with some additions in view of the absence of the main services. If not, now is the time to learn such spiritual discipline and prayer practice!

This time of quarantine, this time of external limitations, may continue for a while. Perhaps, it will last longer than we hoped for. However, it will not last forever. And at first opportunity, the doors of the Church will be opened once again, and the priests will conduct services just as they were doing before!

Fr. Alexey Streltsov
Judica, 2020.

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Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov is Rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Sibera (Russia), a theological institute of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). An earlier version of this essay was first published on Gottesdienst, where it is also available in Russian.

For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.