April 19–20, CODEC hosted a symposium, “The Virtual Body of Christ? Sacrament & Liturgy in Digital Spaces” in Durham. As the title suggests, many of the keynotes and discussion revolved around theological and practical issues that are raised when considering church practices—especially sacraments—online.
The first part of the Symposium was designed for CODEC’s MA students. (Enrollment for next year is open!) Thursday afternoon, Dr. Karen O’Donnell introduced students to digital sacraments and liturgy, placing the sacraments in historical context. This was followed by student presentations summarising their MA dissertation topics, which were excellent.
In the evening was the first keynote lecture of the Symposium, delivered by CODEC’s special guest, Dr. Jana Bennett from the University of Dayton, Ohio. Here and in a session the following morning, Bennett summarised and expanded on the subject of her 2012 book, Aquinas on the Web? Doing Theology in an Internet Age. According to Bennett, digital theology is an affirmation that encounters with Christ can/will happen in digital contexts. She further emphasises that online religious practices are indicative of theology, a kind of theologising that is important and worthy of consideration.
In the second session on Friday, Rev. Pam Smith, priest-in-charge of i-church.org, presented “Insights from Online Ministry.” Smith offered insights and observation from many years of working with those participating in one of the early and long-running online church gatherings.
In the afternoon, Prof. Paul Fiddes of Oxford University presented on “Sacraments in a Virtual World,” explaining and addressing key parts of a brief (but popular) earlier paper he wrote on the subject, as well as outlining the implications of his sacramental theology for considering online sacramental practices. In short, insofar as God’s creation is sacramental—including the materials that form the digital world (pixels, photons, etc.)—and because any online eucharist refers to the physical sacrament which, in fact, does occur in a local church, the eucharist may be received online (but could not replace the local sacrament en totu). In contrast, baptism, according to Fiddes, as a once-for-all event, could not possibly be done virtually in the way he outlined in the case of the Eucharist.
The final session of the day was a panel discussion featuring Dr. Jana Bennett, Dr. Debbie Herring, and Prof. Thomas Schlag, considering “Digital futures of Sacrament and Liturgy.” The discussion was wide ranging, from issues of religious education of children and video games to the impact of the digital world on the hermeneutics of Scripture.
Recordings of the Symposium should be available in due course, and when they are, links will be posted here.