In 1580, Edmund Spenser posed the rhetorical question, “Why a God’s name, may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom in our own language?” This is the same question being asked by many advocates for digital church today. Not much, it would seem, has changed.
To my mind, the rise of digital church is the most significant ecclesiological development since the publication of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church by Martin Luther in 1520. Like the early Reformers, advocates of digital church are not seeking to redefine the nature of ‘church’. Instead, our desire is to reform that which already is.
Given the seismic shift in society as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a window of opportunity for the church to embrace digital technology as a key missiological tool. There is a praxic-conversation that needs to be had. And now is the time. In order to facilitate that, it is to the Reformation that we must return; not to the antiquated arguments concerning the influence of ancient philosophers on the development of ideas; not to the polemical debates concerning the extent of magisterial power in relation to the church; not to the arrogant and shameful denunciations of those who refused to agree and/or submit, but to the passionate, envisioned, thrilling task of emergence that the Reformers were undertaking.
As we shall see, there are so many similarities between the epoch of the early Reformation and the one in which we are currently living. The questions in both eras are heavily reminiscent of each other. Whilst the answers may (or may not) be different, the process of emergence is remarkably similar.
Developing a context
The Reformation marked a crisis that impacted on both the structures of contemporary authority as well as adherence to past traditions. Quite simply, the institution of the church was in crisis and it no longer served the purpose for which it was originally founded.
Furthermore, for over two hundred years prior to the Reformation, European society had experienced enormous instability and change, giving rise to enormous religious fervour and expectation. This, in turn, gave rise to heightened levels of anxiety. Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, explored this in some depth, noting three forms of anxiety in particular. First, there was “ontic anxiety”, a preoccupation with death. Second, there was anxiety about personal guilt. Third, there was a spiritual anxiety of emptiness and loss of meaning.
Similar to the Reformation period, the 21st-century is one in which we live with heightened levels of anxiety. The threat of global terror, ecological disaster, work-related stress, dysfunctional families, civil wars, increasing levels of violence in society, financial worries caused by increasing levels of debt are signs of the times. Not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic or the Black Lives Matter movement, the impact of which we will not be able to truly measure for quite some years to come.
In his article, ‘Confessing Christ in a Post Christendom Context’ (2000), Douglas Hall suggests that the Church is hesitant to enter into the anxiety that shapes our societies, that it is somehow paralysed and thereby prevented from speaking into the spirit of the age. As Tillich concluded (The Courage to Be, p.55), “The contents of the tradition, however excellent, however praised, however loved once, lose their power to give content today.”
It is this agenda, to provide a methodology that reaches into the ontic anxiety of the age, that drives the agenda for digital church. Let us now consider just a few shared values between the early-Reformation and the movement towards embracing digital church.
The Kingdom of God
The Kingdom of God as a political Kingdom was a central feature as much for the early Reformation period as it is for the church today.
In his book, A Generous Orthodoxy (p.174), McLaren argues for the discoverable omnipresence of God for all those who are willing to seek: “There’s mystery and poetry in everything, really, if we have eyes to see, ears to hear: in botany, in biology, in history, in architecture, in medicine, in mathematics, even in astronomy.” This accords with the Reformer’s agenda. George, in Theology of the Reformers (p.23), summarizes their position when he comments that, “The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life…the entire Christian life was to be suffused with praise and thanksgiving to God.” God was sovereign over all his creation and all aspects of the created order. The Reformers were as prepared in their day as digital church proponents are in ours to challenge the preconceived notions that many in our churches hold about inclusion. At this time, as in the 16th-century, there is a call for a radical reconsideration of where the activity of God is to be witnessed, who are the recipients of grace and the implications of this on traditional Church practice.
The core value of building Jesus-community is shared by both the early-Reformers and proponents of digital church.
In Intelligent Church (p.27), Chalke and Watkis pose this very important question: “Why is it that so many people feel they don’t belong in our churches? This is an important question and if we are serious about answering it and attempting to solve the problem it addresses, we must have the courage to look more honestly at the messages we send.” Pivotal to creating an authentic place where people can feel they ‘belong’, is the notion of developing a pastoral community.
The experience of many who are utilizing digital technologies for church is that pastoral care is equally effective – sometimes more so – than through in-building activity. The opportunity to relate in a more anonymous fashion is attractive to those who wish to explore their life issues in a manner that makes them feel comfortable and ‘in control’. The ability to share deeply with a stranger enables many individuals to reach out to the church in ways previously not possible for them. The ability to build community across geographical regions, even continents, allows for a depth of life-sharing that is fresh and penetrative. Digital church enables pastoral care to happen in profound ways; anonymously (if required), in the home, deeply, and in broad communion with believers from around the world.
When it is done well, digital church values a participatory Christianity rather than a proprietary one and welcomes the priesthood of every believer. A review of early-Reformation attitudes convinces us that this is a shared core value between the two ecclesiological eras. This emphasis on participative practice as a core value of both the early-Reformation and digital church is expressed in a number of different ways.
Common belief is that the issue of vernacular theology had been rampant only since the early-Reformation. The truth, however, is that the history of vernacular theology in Europe long pre-dated the Reformation period.
In England, during the early- and middle period of ‘the Dark Ages’, English poetry was a powerful force for cultural treatises. One need only reflect on the enduring grace of such artistic works as the Epic of Beowulf to know that to be true. Theology, too, was increasingly expressed in the vernacular.
Such popular yearnings for vernacular theology inevitably influenced ecclesiological practice. In 1215, at Lateran IV, the Catholic Church had recognised the need for cathedrals to hire confessors and preachers to address worshippers in the vernacular. Mystical theology was another key mode, and so was hagiography. The lives of the saints brought to the laity theological truth in their own language and reflected their own earthy experiences. The ploughman in the field may not have been able to understand the intricacies of Aquinas but they could appreciate the hand of God in the lives of ordinary folk who, through divine guidance, achieved extraordinary things. Wycliffite Bibles had begun circulating in England from about 1380 and, during the next century, their influence was immeasurable. There continued to be sermons in English and participation in the performance of miracle plays could be understood in the light of basic Scriptural knowledge. This same pastoral intent motivated the ministry of Tyndale in the 1520s.
Clearly, such a movement could only gain an unstoppable power through new technologies and methods of communication. The printing press had provided that. As Matheson noted in The Rhetoric of the Reformation (p.20), the development of new technologies, “implies ‘a new type of space in which social reality is reconstructed’…The book becomes the decisive metaphor through which the self is conceived.” Remove the word ‘book’ and replace it with ‘Internet’ and Matheson’s idea could be a critique of contemporary society.
At the heart of the power of vernacular theology was the prodigious production of pamphlets. As Matheson noted (p.21), “Dreams of truth, justice, freedom could be launched on a flood of cheap paper and smudgy print. In their immediacy, evocativeness, concreteness and stridency these pamphlets caught the contemporary imagination.” The pamphlet, like the internet today, was both the medium and the message. Its simplicity, roughness and unfinished form spoke powerfully of the passion of lay theology; not always brilliantly thought-out but always hallmarked by energy that more than compensated for any inherent lack of beauty. Ideas about religion and government, scripture and cultural reform, danced alongside each other in the pamphlet, weaving a story of discontent and the pursuit of change although rarely if ever encouraging revolution. Pamphlets were the propaganda of the Reformation. Certainly, pamphlets were not a one-way conversation. They were a dialogue with the people, written by the people.
Pamphlets served as the voice of the people, inspiring reform from below. A great achievement of the pamphlet, as Matheson noted (p.49), is that it was able to “recover the playfulness of religious discourse. Its closeness to the dance, song, poetry, and ritual of oral culture enabled it to touch people in new depth.” In the same way that emerging theologies today seek to be playful in dissonance, the pamphlet spoke for the powerless majority against the authority-structures of society, diagnosing problems, lampooning behaviours and creating a new landscape of understanding. The pamphlet spoke to the hearts as well as the minds of ordinary folk and awakened them to all sorts of possibilities. Who could deny that the same is true of the internet today? That being the case, should not the church prioritize engagement in this new media, exploring and exploiting all its possibilities for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God?
Leading as a Body
It is hard to imagine an era when there was absolutely no lay participation in worship whatsoever. Nevertheless, that was the truth for the early-Reformation period, as Russell has noted (p.33), “Laypeople had been shut out from effective government in the church for centuries: by 1200, they had lost any role in liturgy or government in the church.”
There was no method for redressing this inequality, since “the church had no institution to hear popular complaints or redress grievances…The church also refused to take the demands of laypeople for a more active role in the redemption of society seriously. Instead of accepting the challenge, the clergy retreated behind a wall of canon law” (Russell, p.49). With regards to the development of digital church, particularly when it comes to considering the validity of sacramental activity online, it would be regrettable at best, scandalous at worst, if the church were to make a similar retreat in coming months and years. It would be calamitous if the church is not prepared to adapt to the new cultures by simply stating that, “the canons do not allow for such activity”.
Claiming the heritage
Like the early Reformers, digital theologians and practitioners are concerned to discover the non-negotiables of faith, stripping away the baggage that weighs the church down, in order to provide missiological shape for contemporary ecclesiology. In the same way, Luther desired to subordinate structure to Spirit.
My argument is that the same agenda faces the church, and advocates of digital church, as the heroes of the early Reformation; to move beyond ecclesiological definition as it had previously been circumscribed – describing what is – to a new ecclesiological definition of what must be. Advocates of digital church understand that ecclesiology is about more than arid, academic debate. It is about destiny.
Ultimately, for advocates of digital church, as for the Reformers, ecclesiology is about relationship. Ecclesiology is about a dialogue in which the sacred ministers to the secular and the secular ministers to the sacred.
Digital Church — the New Reformation
As Chalke and Watkis noted (p.29), “The real problem for Christian mission in the West is not the absence of spiritual hunger in our postmodern society but rather the inability to engage with this longing. Even when we do recognise this hunger, often we aren’t willing or able to respond in terms other than those dictated by existing traditions and structures.” The contemporary debate surrounding the parameters of digital church seems not far removed from the problem facing the early Reformers. To be sure, the Reformers were critical of medieval Catholicism as embodying a mode of being that hindered the development of personal piety rather than encouraging it. However, that did not amount to a rejection of the historic expression of faith. This is crucial, since the Reformers have often been represented as being all too willing to abandon the past in pursuit of a brave, new future. They knew, as advocates of digital church do, that historic paths of faith are littered with pearls that are neglected at our own peril.
Matheson (p.2) has concluded that, “The various Reformations – Catholic and Protestant – constituted, then, a fascinating battle for the mind and heart of those who were hurting and those who were thinking.” That is most certainly an apt description of the current debate concerning digital church.
The challenge that faces us is to paint a new ecclesiological landscape without creating the schism or the institutionalized de-spiritization that became characteristic of the Reformation era in the decades following 1525.
Erasmus pleaded with the church leaders of his day: “Concord binds in a sweet bond, discord disrupts even those who are joined by blood. The one builds cities, the other demolishes; the one creates wealth, the other dissipates. Discord turns men into beasts. Concord unites souls after death with God. I do not exhort you, I do not pray you, I implore you, seek peace.” We must hold together Erasmus’ plea for unity with McLaren’s call for a generous orthodoxy (p.74): “I’m recommending that we acknowledge that Christians…bring their distinctive and wonderful gifts to the table, so we can all enjoy the feast of generous orthodoxy — and spread that same feast for the whole world.”
The bond of fellowship is crucial and proponents of ‘traditional church’, as well as proponents of digital church, must be careful not to define themselves against existing incarnations of the Bride of Christ but, rather, in sympathy with. There is, after all, only one Lord, one Church and one Baptism.