Dispatches from the present
A year ago, media outlets around the world reported President Trump’s call for “packed churches” and a reopened U.S. economy by Easter. That, of course, didn’t happen. Every Sunday since, the Episcopal Church, of which I am a part, has been diligent in keeping our doors and buildings closed. Many congregations have taken to the internet for their weekly observances. Some prerecord their services. Some gather via Zoom for real-time prayers. Others have evolved new patterns of worship. As a retired priest, I lead Sunday services in a small congregation and, this past year, have been uploading a weekly YouTube video for them.
Recently, during a Zoom meeting with some fellow clergy, a priest raised a question that startled me. She asked if she was allowed to preside at Holy Communion if she was accompanied only by someone via Zoom. She maintained that, just because the other person was not physically present, that did not mean the person was not there.
In the Anglican tradition, a priest or a bishop is not allowed to preside at the Mass if no one else is present. Every edition of the Book of Common Prayer, since the first in 1549, has either stated this explicitly or assumed it. So, asking whether a priest can preside at the Mass accompanied only by someone on Zoom raises an interesting metaphysical question. Namely, what is the difference between the (human) presence encountered in Zoom and corporeal presence, and is this a difference of degree or of kind?
The conversation this question sparked was illuminating. The most common response framed “presence” in terms of subjective feelings experienced when we encounter someone virtually. “I feel like you’re with me,” said one priest. Another chimed in with, “When we speak with each other on Zoom, I feel like we’re connected to each other.” Others tried to sidestep the question by arguing that, even if “Zoom presence” is not the same as physical presence, we are always accompanied at the Mass by “angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.”
Seldom, if ever, have I been called conservative. And I am far from a Luddite. I am an early adopter. Before the World Wide Web was a thing, I was already communicating electronically internationally with colleagues and family. But I was, apparently, the only person in the conversation who did not think that a Zoom presence equates with a physical presence.
“You do realize,” I asked, “that I am not there with you, don’t you?” Admittedly not my most charitable moment. “I mean, you do know, don’t you, that you are sitting in that room all by yourself, right?”
Years ago, while teaching a class at a university, I used to assign my students a thought experiment. “Go home tonight,” the assignment read. “Get a chair and sit down in front of your oven. Watch it for an hour. Then answer this question: ‘What, precisely, have I been doing?’ And, in case you don’t know the answer, let me tell you. You have spent your time watching an appliance. But—and this is what I hope you will understand—had you spent that hour watching a television, you still would have spent your time watching an appliance. What you have not done is watch something real. At best, you have watched the television—an appliance—display something that might be real. But, because you were not there in person to experience whatever that something was, you can never know for certain whether or not it was real.”
My students, I suspect, thought me mad.
During the pandemic lockdown, my biweekly therapy sessions have also moved online. I raised with my therapist the question of Zoom presence—whether it was a difference of degree or of kind. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she seemed uncertain about the answer. While she and I could converse using this awkward medium, I pointed out, it was nothing like being with one another in person. After all, human beings are embodied creatures. I text and email with my adult children and friends daily, and occasionally meet up, maintaining appropriate social distance. Yet none of that begins to replace the immediacy and connection of an embrace or a kiss, or a meal shared together.
For the last year, much of the world has been living in a version of Plato’s cave. Bound and fettered in our homes, we have spent hour upon hour staring forward at phantom images on a screen. It is a strange world, this cave in which we live, and move, and have our being. Even before the lockdown began a year ago, much of our social lives were conducted in and through screens. Now, the fluidity between our perception of reality and the existence of a real human presence has become the norm. When all this is over, will our basic humanity—how we behave with others, how we understand ourselves—have changed without our even noticing?
Soon the church will return to in-person gatherings. The community I serve is planning an outdoor Mass on Easter morning. But the church to which we return will not be the one we abandoned a year ago. Singing, the exchange of the Peace, the simple act of placing a piece of bread into another person’s hand, sharing the common cup: all these simple yet essential elements of worship have been denied to us for more than a year. And sadly, even as we return to our buildings, they will remain elusive for some time to come. Christianity is an incarnational faith. Sacraments—bread, wine, oil, water, touch—speak as much to the body as they do to the spirit. Lacking the physical elements, we are no longer what we were. What else might we have lost along the way?