Social Media and the Virtual Church

There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed on social media, regarding virtual church services. Are the issues themselves the cause? Or are there other things surfacing in our common life?


There is a monumental twitter and facebook spat going on at the moment, having to do with whether and where it is or isn’t right to celebrate the Eucharist outside a church. It’s raised other questions too, about the validity, for want of a better word, of streaming worship and whether church buildings should remain open, and if so for whom. There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed, to the extent that I find myself wondering whether the issues themselves are the cause, or whether other things are surfacing in our common life of which, until now, we were not aware.

The controversy seems to be largely focused on church people, ordained and lay, some of them highly placed. Perhaps it has extended itself more widely in the social media scene, and it is only because of my fairly limited following that I’m not aware of whether other people are concerned about these questions, whether they feel they have a particular interest in them. I think I can safely hazard a guess that most of my non-churchgoing friends are fairly indifferent to them.  So where does that leave those of us who, willingly or not, have been caught up in this fracas?

Where it leaves us has to do with what it is about these questions that really matters to the individual and how the whole question of public worship needs to be thought about theologically. It would take a book to answer the second question, even if it were to be limited to the contextual circumstances of a pandemic. But I think there are other more pressing pastoral issues at stake right now. These have to do with feeling very disorientated and afraid in these unprecedented times, and with the attendant anxieties which that fear brings to the area of public ministry, to its relevance and place in our lives. In this respect, it feels that those of us who are ordained are coming adrift from our moorings. It would not be fair to blame bishops or other church leaders for this sense of dislocation because many of them are probably feeling the same way.

Be that as it may, our passionate attachment to the issue of public worship and its attendant questions may also have to do with fearing the loss of a certain kind of purpose, of calling, perhaps. Ordained people are feeling vulnerable, especially those who do not have other paths along which they can minister, such as the continuation of food banks, homeless shelters and other permitted good works. Church buildings witness to the abiding presence of God in our midst in practical, as well as spiritual, ways. We all belong to our buildings, as our buildings belong to us. We also belong to one another in the context of social media.

I am not a parish priest, but I can imagine only too well how at a loss many priests must feel when they have only the internet and the phone to rely on for exercising pastoral and liturgical ministry. The tone of the exchanges on social media does not seem to acknowledge the challenges they face, still less express the affirmation which they must be needing. There is very little kindness in it all. If we were to begin to outdo one another in human kindness, we might find that questions of liturgical practice under lockdown would resolve themselves. Would the Church then look significantly different after Covid?

Quite a bit has been written about the Church’s structural future, but we also need to think about what that structure will embrace, and what it will convey to the world. Will the Church consist of people who are so anchored in God’s love that whatever they do or say will convey God’s love for them and for those they serve?

Right now, we are like the frightened disciples, huddled in the upper room when the risen Christ appears to them. They are busy arguing about the truth of the reports they have heard, as we are busy arguing about how public worship is to be conducted under lockdown. They are unstable and afraid, as we all are right now. Christ breathes peace into their individual fears, as he breathes into ours. He makes it possible for love to take hold of them again.

To be effective in ministry, wherever that takes you, is to know God’s love, to love God in return and to love his people. It also should inform how we conduct discussions online.

On ‘Liking’ Exodus


I decided early on in the lockdown that this would be an ideal time to embark on a sustained reading of the Old Testament, a part of the bible that I have rather neglected, apart from a few choice books and passages. It happens that the Church lectionary, whose bible readings I use every morning, is taking us on a journey through Exodus, kindly omitting the lists, genealogies and other more cumbersome sections and sticking to the interesting bits.

This morning we got to the part where the people, in the absence of Moses, who was busy up a mountain, are constructing a golden calf for themselves by melting down all their valuables. They then proceed to ‘worship’ it. When Moses comes back down the mountain he is furious with Aaron, the priest who he had left in charge and who tries to explain to him that a riot was about to break out, so he had to give people something to keep them busy (collecting the gold and making the calf) and which might help channel their aggression into something more creative and positive – ‘worship’, presumably. God is even more furious than Moses and commands that the calf should be melted down and the people made to eat it. End of today’s reading.

History is all very well, but not all history improves the mind of the one reading it, especially biblical history read in the wrong way, with the wrong pair of glasses on, as it were. Allowing for this, we still have this story in the bible and it invites quite a bit of thought about God, specifically, whether the God of the Old Testament, who it appears was quite happy to poison the population in a fit of jealous pique, and the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, are the same person. Some of us put off thinking about this for as long as possible. Others, in the past, have thought a great deal about it and decided that the OT God is not the same God as the one Jesus worshipped as Father. These thinkers have, for the most part, been written off as heretics.

Be that as it may, it’s tempting to dismiss the question as irrelevant, or even to dismiss God altogether and, given his Old Testament reputation, many people have decided to do just that. But this is also where we can miss the real point of the golden calf story. I don’t think we are being invited to ponder the existence of God here, or even what kind of God he might be.

What we are being invited to reflect on is ‘idolatry’ and its cognate, ‘worship’. Again, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of idolatry as being of interest only to a pious religious minority. But this is not quite the case. Idolatry is very much with us as a deeply destructive inclination which surfaces in the human heart from time to time and takes the form of various kinds of addiction. Addiction fulfils, for a while at least, a need.

One addiction that I, for one, am falling victim to during this pandemic is the hold that social media is starting to have on me. It is a ‘hold’ because I cannot, given the present set of circumstances, see a way of dropping out of it altogether. I need the people out there, even if for most of the time they probably don’t need me. I need the conversation platform which both these amazing facilities offer us. What I don’t need, and certainly don’t like, is how easy it is to unconsciously transfer one’s present mood, be it of anxiety, irritation, boredom, or impatience onto the medium via whatever conversation channel gets me going. I try to think before I tweet and I generally do, which is why I seldom say much. But if you don’t say much, you don’t get much back.

This suggests that neither twitter or facebook, or any other social medium, are conversation partners in the real sense. If you neither give nor receive, being on social media amounts to voyeurism. On the other hand, if you engage full bloodedly you can very quickly find yourself tilting at windmills, with the thread either vanishing into thin air or becoming too stressful to continue with, allowing for all the clever things you can do to mitigate the situation, like ‘muting’ and ‘blocking’. At the end of the day, both of these scenarios are idolatrous because they have failed to meet the need for genuine human exchange, for genuine conversation.

Idolatry is about throwing away one’s soul. Perhaps idolatry creeps up on us because in times of great stress or emotional need, we forget we have a soul. A ‘soul’ is that aspect of a human being that reflects the light and goodness of God, something that is purposed for conversation and relationship with that God. This returns me to Exodus and the anger of God in the face of the people’s idolatry. Idolatry is not just disengaged voyeurism. It requires our passions and intelligence. It requires our souls. It seduces and as a seducer it brooks no competition.

The people were happy to give away their souls in return for a brief period of respite from boredom, anxiety, discomfort and even hardship. They were happy to forget who and what they really were, a people called to be in a proactive relationship with God, not as passive spectators, but as worshippers.

To worship God is to engage full bloodedly with the realities that are going on around us and to try to see them through the eyes of that same loving God. I would say that this puts an altogether different picture on our present predicament, in the context of covid and lockdown, and on how we might relate to one another through social media. There is a way to ‘worship’ fruitfully through social media by engaging the heart and mind with those who need reassurance and kindness, not with a clever retort shot off the cuff in a moment of irritation in which we only bare our own fear and insecurities, but in a gentle ‘like’ or affirming comment. Let’s have the humility and grace to acknowledge, in this time of trouble, how much we all need those ‘likes’ and comments. We know what they really mean to us, so let’s be the first to give them.