Internet Worship Is Like Eating Straw
Martin Luther called The Epistle of James ‘a strawy epistle’ because he thought that it had ‘nothing of an evangelic kind’. He wrote: "St. John's Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul's Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and St. Peter's Epistle - these are the books which show to thee Christ . . . Therefore, St. James' Epistle is a perfect straw-epistle compared with them . . ." (Basic Theology, article "The Canon"). James’ teaching, he thought, undermined his own understanding of justification by faith alone because it offered advice about conduct. It was applied moral theology. It could be interpreted as salvation by works. This was antithetical to the great reformer because works were very much part of the medieval Roman Catholicism with its penances and pilgrimages against which he was protesting and struggling. James’ letter was not for him the proclamation of Christian Gospel. It was not without merit he thought, but deficient in personal Christ centred content.
Internet worship is like eating straw. The Church of Scotland has received plaudits for adapting to internet ministry during the Covid-19 crisis. Prince William congratulated the Church for this development. Internet ministries have been available for some time however throughout the world. Even so, there were positive results such as numbers in excess of normal congregations taking in broadcast worship services. Some broadcast lock down services were poorly presented. Few ministers have the communication skills of television broadcasters. Internet services were very helpful in keeping people in touch with each other and partially preserving the sense of belonging and community that Christians congregations at their best represent. The internet is indeed a net. It casts wide and long and gathers in. The internet is a helpful evangelical tool to reach beyond the membership of congregations. But it is not and cannot ever be the full Christian experience. There is no incarnation, nothing physical, no togetherness. No human life can live by Zoom alone.
Where is the sound of the hymns being sung, one with another in church on Sunday mornings? Where is the awesome atmosphere of talking to God in prayer? Or in heartfelt intercession for others? Where is the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit allied to our human energy and strength? Where is the living preaching of the Bible Word with the tone, the timbre, the cadences and emphases? Where is the power of Benediction? How can there be virtual baptism, virtual Holy Communion? Is not Christ’s incarnation incomplete with these compromises? Is this not the ancient heresy of docetism? That God did not become fully incarnate after all. Internet worship is no substitute for the real thing. How does the Church of Scotland feel about virtual offerings?
Jonathan Sumption QC wrote in ‘The Telegraph’ on 28th July 2020 ‘Physical proximity to other people is not some sort of optional extra which can be ironed out of our culture. It is fundamental to our humanity. Conversation round a table, friendship, love and tears, children at play, most educational activity, depend on physical proximity. Our whole transport infrastructure, the buildings in which we work, play and eat out, depend on our being close together. With social distancing, physical cooperation becomes impossible. The social dimension of work all but disappears. The House of Commons, a great national forum in the crowded chamber, is reduced to a poor phone-in programme in a half-empty space. With social distancing there is no crowd around the bar, no singing at weddings, no orchestras or choirs, no theatre, no sport, no live audiences – in short, no collective activities, only the dismal solitude of the electronic screen. We have surrendered our liberty to the virus. Are we to surrender our humanity as well?’
He does not mention Christian worship but everything he says applies. The Body of Christ in the world cannot be just like an internet projection. There is nothing to compare to the great cathedrals with their organs and choirs in full voice. ‘Songs of Praise’ may be a cliché but it well reflects inspirational congregational singing. And even in small, quiet and humble places, the strains of a few voices are also meaningful, haunting indeed to those who participate and those who hear. Online relationships are not real relationships. Some indeed do not survive the meeting in the flesh. No-one can become a true Christian in isolation. Christians meeting together recognise one another and that is important in this unbelieving age. Congregational life is far from perfect but it is real. Virtual congregations are idealised and the blessings and tensions of actual community life cannot be presented with authenticity.
Internet worship is like eating straw. It does not feed well. It is not a full or hearty diet. There may be modest nutrition but in the end it is deeply unsatisfying, lacking in the sense and reality of communion and communication with the Living Lord of the Church. O to be able to stand with others and sing again:
The Lord’s my shepherd
The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.
My soul He doth restore again,
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
E’en for His own name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear no ill;
For Thou art with me, and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.
My table Thou hast furnished
In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.
Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me,
And in God’s house forevermore
My dwelling-place shall be.
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch; like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
The Lord hath promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.