If we are the Body, why aren’t our Bishops Skyping?

Receiving New Members via Skype

As the church continues to embrace the digital world through tele-pastors who are projected across several sites, digital bibles that are immersive media experiences, and other ways…the primary theological pushback is this: how can a digital church be the Incarnate Christ for the world?

One step closer to the digital/incarnate divide was taken this week by an Episcopal church in Panama City that received in a new member through Skype:

However, Aaron’s deployment meant he could not be present for Bishop Duncan’s visitation on January 16th. “What about receiving into the Episcopal Church that day via Skype?” I asked. “I’m not sure that’s ever been done before,” said Bishop Duncan. “So . . . ” I replied. And after a bit of conversation, Bishop Duncan graciously agreed to receive Aaron into the Episcopal Church via Skype.

At the 10:30 service on January 16th, Holly Kuster was confirmed, along with 14 others, into the Episcopal Church…Around the same time, Aaron Kuster made his way to the base chapel in Qatar. There, he found an Episcopal Prayer Book and waited.

Special note: this is also my good friend Joseph’s diocese and here’s his blog writeup of this.

I’m fascinated by this, especially as it wasn’t just a local church but a Bishop that embraced technology as a way to unite a body of Christ across the distance.

In the book Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks, Friesen writes about the primary role of the church: relationships.

The church exists in relationship, by relationship, and for relationship. We exist to connect people with God, one another, and with creation in continuity with the capacious narrative of Scripture…the local church exists as a local expression of the reality of God’s networked kingdom.

Friesen, 109

Hence, the action of the reception of a new member via Skype seems theologically plausible as it is an extension of the relationship Christ has with the Body. If we continue to better understand the church as a networked hub, then digital expressions of otherwise altar-bound actions will become more commonplace.

Questions remain about how this extends to other rituals. Can communion, a celebration of Incarnation, ever be digital? Can the elements be consecrated in a worship context across the globe? What is the horizon where beyond lies insufficient relationality?


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  1. Kirk VanGilder says

    You know Bishop Peggy Johnson of our own UMC has used YouTube on a number of occasions to record video in both ASL and spoken English for greetings and messages in connection to her area.

    She’s also savvy with videophones and the like from her 25+ years in Deaf ministry prior to becoming Bishop. She’s no stranger to this kind of thing at all.

    That said, there’s still something important about actually “being there” and the human touch of laying on of hands that occurs in our Christian rituals. And Peggy’s probably someone who would acknowledge and honor that importance as her first preference. But when those things can’t happen for some reason or other, I’m sure she’d be quick to think of this sort of work around.

  2. Lisa Beth White says

    Dr. Bryan Stone raised the question of digital communion quite a few times in an ecclesiology course recently. By the end of term the class seemed to come to the consensus that digital presence is not the same as tangible presence, that actually being in the same room together for the sacraments is critical. I believe there needs to be more research on digital accountability groups such as covenant groups or 12 step recovery groups. I still haven’t decided myself about technology and the sacraments.

    I have two concerns with UMC bishops embracing technology as a way to unite the body of Christ, unrelated to the sacraments. First, when I read your blog title, I immediately thought you were referring to Bishops’ meetings. Can our Bishops model mutuality in their relationships as a way of witness to the body of Christ for the church? Meaning, can the Bishops use technology as a way of moving past the US-centric model that currently exists, with many meetings held in the US, all General Boards and Agencies headquartered in the US and all General Conferences held in the US? This situation can result in significant difficulty for our Bishops, board members and delegates from outside the US who must obtain travel documents and travel longer distances to attend meetings. Questions around finances can also be raised in regard to US based meetings, on many levels.

    A second concern is that of access to technology. Who has access to technology? Who has access to electricity to run that technology? My children can Skype, but my parents struggle to keep up with technology’s rapid changes. My urban dwelling friends in South Africa have consistent electricity 95% of the time and access to all the latest technology, but missionaries in rural African contexts do not. How can our Bishops use technology to push the church to share resources in such a way as to be responsible with our resources and develop our relationships with United Methodists across the globe and yet not assume “everyone” has the same access to technology as we do?

  3. says

    1)Thanks for the h/t. I want to reply to the comments (some of them) and your thoughts (with a proposition of something for you to hack given your framing this in light of being Incarnational)…and I guess they’re kind of linked.

    2)Had this man been being confirmed, this couldn’t have happened; the BCP clearly says that at Confirmation the bishop places his or her hands on the candidate. Given the practice of my bishop, this man was likely confirmed by a bishop as either an ELCA Lutheran or a Roman Catholic; +Philip only receive those who have been confirmed by bishops in apostolic succession. I think Kirk is right about the human touch factor and being there.

    3)I don’t think that Skype and sacramental actions necessarily work well together. Take this video of a Skype “Baptism” (and I put those quotation marks the way they are intentionally). I think there are all kinds of ecclesiastical issues with this video from a UMC. The pastor doesn’t just abridge the official ritual of the church (so much for common prayer), he slices and dices it. He skips the thanksgiving over the water and then he doesn’t ask the question about evil, injustice, and oppression. He doesn’t actually perform the “baptism” in my mind.

    There are needs to claim and use safe touches that are human and incarnational and are about being in relationship, by relationship, and for relationship. This was a special circumstance that I’m right now strongly supporting because it wasn’t a stand-in for actual relationality, and I think it really did unite. The baptism seems very off to me for a lot of reasons. It wasn’t communal or part of a regular worship service, and it was planned at a time that the pastor wasn’t available. While she died four days later it was unexpected, not a chronic thing where there was a push to get baptized before death.

    Finally, I don’t know about UM bishops using technology for much, but in our ordination system, we have to be approved to go to seminary and then have to check in yearly with our Commission on Ministry (which I don’t entirely explain in my blog). Some diocese fly people home for those meetings, others tell people they have to be there and that the seminarians have to pay their own way. Since we all have computers the diocese has on its own come up with Skyping because it makes so much more sense. They all sit together and can see us and vice versa… and it’s free.

    Can’t wait to read your response.


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