For those of us in the Baptist way of being church, three key words of ecclesiology are: covenant, fellowship and body. I want to explore the form that these are taking virtually, in our experience today of lock-downs, quarantines and self-isolation, and with our use of such networking programmes as Zoom.
This is a special word for Baptists, and it has been since our earliest days. Churches, we have believed, are gathered by covenant, whether written down or not. Covenant is an agreement in two dimensions: a vertical commitment to God in Christ in the power of the Spirit, and a horizontal commitment to each other. In our gathering together we make actual in time and space the eternal covenant of God for the redeeming of all creation. The one who makes and mediates this covenant is the risen Christ. So, in covenant we do not just choose to gather together, as one option among others; we believe that we are being gathered by Christ. Gathering is not a merely voluntary matter, but a question of obedience and discipleship.
In days of lock-down, we are still being gathered by Christ. It is a matter of covenant responsibility to each other to gather in whatever way we can. A zoom ecclesiology based on covenant relationship means that we don’t just choose to use social media, if we have it, to gather – whether by laptop, tablet or phone. We are being called by Christ to be faithful to each other. And if we have members who have no means of digital communication, or who cannot use it, we are under the compulsion of covenant to find an alternative.
We will shortly be in a period of mixed format for doing church, when some members of the congregation will feel it safe to gather in a building, but others will still prefer to gather at home, using the internet. This makes it all the more important for members of a congregation to be faithful to each other in meeting for worship by whatever media it can use. This means, I suggest, a commitment regardless of the efficiency or the professionalism of the product. I mean that once we are into the media game, choice often takes over. We look for the most attractive product, perhaps the most entertaining material. We may ask – who’s offering the best YouTube worship-service or televised service? Who’s got the best music, the best videos, the best preachers? The local church product may inevitably look less attractive than other offerings freely available to us into which large costs and huge resources have been poured. But I believe that whatever the form of presentation of a local church, we are committed to be involved, committed to be there with the fellow-believers with whom we have been drawn into covenant. I believe it’s not a matter of choice, it’s not a voluntary principle — it’s covenant commitment to God and others.
If we now turn our minds to the second term, “fellowship”, it is easy to shrink the idea into meeting together in one place (church or chapel) for worship or more socially for tea, coffee and conversation—all of which is valuable in itself, while difficult to achieve now. But I want to say that our fellowship is more than either local or even human.
In prayer and worship we are being drawn more deeply into the eternal fellowship, the koinonia of the triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—a communion of inexhaustible life and love. In that fellowship, embraced in the flowing currents of love and justice in God, is a vast community: God is making room for all within God’s own self. I mean people of all ages, in all places, present and past. There are people there who are inside and outside the visible church. The Trinity, we might say, is God’s own Zoom programme. It is the largest social network there can be, a web far greater than the internet.
Now, this is—of course—an encouragement to us. We are actually never alone, however self-isolated we are, but held in God’s social media. When we pray for others, we are adding our love to God’s own love for them. As we pray for others, God is communicating our care and concern to them because they are held in God’s network of relations. God is making our love for them a part of God’s own love. So our prayers under lock-down should be more than local, as they tend to become. We should have the confidence to have the widest vision.
This fellowship also calls us to make an effort to open up the circle of our fellowship to other people’s social circles. This period when many more people are using the internet offers an opportunity to share links to our particular fellowship, to invite others to connect. In this connection we must be open to hearing the stories of others, and then we will learn a great deal more about what our own faith means. We shall learn more about what God is doing in the world, and we shall learn more about our Christ who is out there in the world. You could call this widening of fellowship mission, but it is of course God’s mission, missio dei, not ours.
In the New Testament, the phrase “the body of Christ” is not just a figure of speech, or a metaphor. Today we might say of medical staff that they are “a fine body of women and men”, and that’s a helpful image. But “body of Christ” means even more than this; it means that Christ is using human bodies and even materials of the natural world to become visible in our world, to offer himself to be met and touched as people could do during his earthly life on the dusty roads of Galilee or in the streets of its towns.
This is why “body of Christ” in the New Testament has three meanings: it is the glorious risen body of Christ, the communion bread and the church. These are not three different meanings. They fuse together: the risen body of Christ becomes present through the breaking of bread in the community of believers. So, as we look around a congregation in a church building, the face of Christ takes form and shape as we look at the many faces of those gathered there. Like an identikit picture, the features of Christ come together through the many faces, and the face of Christ stands out and can be seen, not in one person alone, but in fellowship together.
Yet we often can’t see each other’s faces when we are gathered in a building like a chapel. Here our gathering online through technology like “Zoom” gives a special opportunity for ‘re-membering’ (putting together) the body of Christ. The screen offers a new possibility for the face of Christ to be ‘re-membered’ in the faces on display there, combined with the voices of those who are engaging with us by phone. There are, of course, those members who cannot use social media: we need to put photographs of them on the screen to join the montage of faces, to see the face of Christ properly.
When we cannot embrace each other, or link hands, it is more difficult to experience “touching” the body of Christ. But sharing the Lord’s Supper online can be an important way of putting together the features of Christ and of touching his body. Breaking the bread does not have to be done at a distance. Members who are part of the covenanted fellowship can have bread and wine or juice with them, and can join with the ordained minister in co-consecration, using the “words of institution”, or – as I would prefer to say – the words of consecration. All members can say with the minister and—above all—with Christ, “This is my body, this is my blood.” So, word and action can come together in each place. The presence of Christ can be known more deeply through the broken bread and through the great cloud of witnesses who surround us on the screen, through the phone, or through their pictures.
If, and as, we move into a time of mixtures of meetings, some of the congregation in a church building, some still self-isolating, others having been house-bound long before Covid-19, we should seek to actualize a Zoom ecclesiology in this situation. For example, we can have the video, voices or pictures of those who are at home up on a screen in front of those who are gathered in the building, as fellow-participants in worship. It may be that having had a period of lock-down will give us the vision and the skills to worship in a way that makes even more real our covenant and fellowship in the body of Christ.
About the Author
Paul Fiddes is a British Baptist theologian and novelist. He holds the Title of Distinction of Professor of Systematic Theology in the University of Oxford and was formerly Principal of Regent’s Park College and Chairman of the Theology Faculty.