On Wednesday afternoon as reported elsewhere on Premier and in various news bulletins, Lord Braid, one of Scotland's senior judges, gave a ruling on a case about whether the Scottish Government overstepped its powers in closing church buildings in Scotland during the pandemic. The case was brought by various protestant leaders from denominations including the Baptist Church and was heard simultaneously with a case from th Catholic Church in Scotland.
We need to remember that the petitioners (those bringing the case) argued strongly that their right to worship was curtailed by the forced closure of buildings. The understanding of worship relates to physical gatherings, the celebration of communion and the sacrament of baptism and that the lack of these physical elements to online worship effectively means the Scottish Government stopped the practice of (their brand of) religion in Scotland, which was beyond their powers to do so.
Later in the ruling (in paragraph 61 in particular), Lord Braid says: "I accept the evidence of the petitioners and of the additional party that worship in their faiths cannot properly take place on-line, by means of internet platforms." I'm intrigued by the phrase "in their faiths" - in other words in the form of faith declared by the petitioners and the Catholic Church. This "opinion" is despite being shown evidence from other churches that online worship is a valid continuation of the worship of the church. Lord Braid believes these are "work-arounds" or "alternatives to worship". Lord Braid maintains, contrary to just about every digital theologian in the world, that online worship "does not amount to collective worship".
Indeed, I think he is theologically wrong. Jesus himself in John 4 argues that worship is not about place but about intent. Moreover, to argue that we are not connected to the worship of global church (the global body of Christ), nor the Church Militant in heaven, or to the throne room of heaven itself (Rev 4-5) undermines the very texts upon which our faith is built. Are we really saying that we can only worship God when we are gathered, the few of us, in a building shut off from the rest of the world? Are our private prayers and worship null and void? Are the prayers of those isolated from Christian fellowship null and void?
John 4: 21-24: a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” [BibleGateway]
Indeed, communion and baptism become the core physical things that cannot be done online - despite thousands of churches celebrating online communion throughout the pandemic. Of course, many churches disagree with Lord Braid on this. For many who are housebound, disabled, long-term ill, geographically distanced from their church building, online communion is the norm not the exception. Remember that the establishment of Communion is in Paul's commendation to the Church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11) and in the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper. The breaking of bread in the Bible is never portrayed as something which is limited to a church building. It is frequently enacted in upper rooms, in homes, at meal tables wherever they might be. It seems to be a shift towards ultra-sacramentality that limits this act to that which can only be performed in a physical place and not online.
Of course, for many sacramentalists, the priest is the effective means of consecration or memorial. In other words, many denominations reject online communion because the priest has to break physical portions of bread/wafers with their own hands. But this is about priestly consecration which other churches do not hold to and which is not known in the Biblical accounts of communion. For the Catholic Church, the priest stands "in persona Christi" - since Christ breaks the bread in the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday, so only a priest may do this in the person of Christ himself. Many other denominations do not follow this line. Lay presidency has long been part of such churches or family communions, or house group communions. A space where people celebrate more informally. This too is a valid form of Christian worship practiced throughout the history of the Church.
So the big question is whether the Petitioners (and it appears Lord Braid's) idea of worship as being necessarily physical is true.
Evidently, for the bulk of the Church across the world, online worship has become a staple part of pandemic culture. It has provided a place of meeting, a focus of prayer, an opportunity to hear the word of God, and for many a place to celebration the sharing of bread and wine. Many churches, including the Church of Scotland, the Church of England and the Church in Wales, along with Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and different Orthodox bodies have worshipped God online throughout the pandemic, voluntarily closing down their buildings. For them, online worship has become a pioneering place of encounter with God and with lots of new people who have peeped into online worship and who like what they see.
Online worship has been a way of protecting our communities - voluntarily refusing to meet in large groups in order to protect the most vulnerable. It's been part of our Christian service to the nation, part of our social justice response to the pandemic.
But at the same time, online worship is essentially physically gathers community. Human beings cannot gather other than physically. We are fleshy beings. Take away the flesh, the physicality, and we die. When I sit in a zoom meeting, I am in my flesh. True I cover it with appropriate clothing rather than pyjamas. But I am enfleshed still. And note I am still in the meeting. As Nancy Baym points out, we are still present to one another as physical people but in different geographical locations.
We are also still in the same meeting.
We are gathered together (episynagogē in the Greek) and so still in complete compliance with the injunction not to stop meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). We are co-present with one another even though we are not proximally present and to some extent this unites us with the wider church in worshipping God - we join with the global and heavenly church, with the heavens, with all creation lifting our praise to God. For this we do not need to be physically present in a building.
Well, that's my view.
But is this the real point Lord Braid is getting at (in paragraph 63). I am entitled to my view and the petitioners are entitled to theirs. Is Lord Braid saying that for the petitioners online worship is not valid. Well, I think he is saying it is more generally not valid - it is worship-lite. The petitioners though are prevented from practising "their religion". So perhaps it is a personal opinion? But it is "worship" that has been prevented not "their understanding of worship". So is it a general statement on worship regardless of the different practical and theological approaches across Church traditions to what worship is?
Is Lord Braid really telling all of us who support online worship that we are not worshipping God right and if so what jurisdiction does he have to make that statement?
Such an argument is dealt with the discussion of the Human Rights legislation. What matters is the rights of the petitioners to practice religion in their terms. Even if the rest of the Church believes that online worship is valid is, as Lord Braid puts it, "irrelevant". What matters is the beliefs of the petitioners of this case. Their rights have been disproportionately violated.
Note that in the final paragraphs of the ruling, Lord Braid states that he has not ruled that churches should re-open, not least because they are due to be allowed to re-open on March 26th (in fact, churches in Scotland can open from today!). He has ruled that the Scottish Government's decision broke the Human Rights of the petitioners in a disproportionate manner.
The problem is that in coming to that decision, he seems to have thrown out the baby with the bath water! Or rather he has decided to make a theological ruling on online worship which may very well be a disproportionate limitation of the human rights of those who believe something very very contrary to that position. Indeed, in the ruling, Lord Blair makes it clear the fact that there are those who disagree with online worship is irrelevant. Many of us believe it is part and parcel of contemporary religion and have the right to practice what we preach!