Religion News service had me at the headline on this report from the other side of the pond: "Church of Scotland to consider online baptisms, Communion."
I think that's part of my problem with this very, very short news story.
Now, when you hear the phrase "online Communion," what image do you get in your mind's eye? At the very least, is has to be a rather Protestant image in that it involves worship taking place in a digital, online, visual environment -- with the person on the other side of this liturgical encounter actually consuming analog bread and wine (or something).
Where do the Communion elements come from? Are they shipped to the online flock members, perhaps through a liturgical variation on Amazon Prime? Do the worshippers provide their own elements (raising the previously "or something" issue).
These are questions that any journalist would ask, right? I mean, don't we need to define our terms?
This brings me to the totally new sacramental concept -- at least for me, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- that is included in this report. What, precisely, is a rite of "online baptism"? Here is the context:
CANTERBURY, England (RNS) -- The Church of Scotland will launch a two-year investigation into the possibility of introducing online baptisms, Communion and other Christian sacraments.
The church, known as The Kirk, has seen its rolls fall by almost one-third between 2004 and 2015, to just under 364,000 members. Some 750 commissioners from congregations across Scotland and other parts of the world are scheduled to meet in Edinburgh May 21-27 for its annual General Assembly.
The church’s Legal Questions Committee, which is responsible for advising the General Assembly, the church’s lawmaking body, is pushing for “a wide-ranging review of practice and procedure which is impacted by the use of new technology in church life.” It adds: “Now is the time to open up a wide range of discussion on these contemporary developments.”
Brace yourselves, folks. Here comes the rather striking understatement in this story that made my head spin.
Baptism, one of the key Christian sacraments, normally demands the physical presence of the person undergoing the rite.
Uh, that would be a big 10-4, based on the content of my church-history classes in college and graduate school. What does the word "normally" mean in that sentence? The story then adds:
Section 9.6 of the General Assembly’s Blue Book points out that there are no easy answers to some of the questions being asked, “but, in a world where the fastest growing communities are being fostered online, the committee believes that now is the time to open up a wide range discussion on these contemporary developments.”
Please know that, yes, I confess that I have theological questions. However, I am writing this post because I have journalistic questions about this issue and this story.
What does an "online baptism" look like? Yes, I could joke and ask if it involves "beam me up" technology from Star Trek. But, seriously, what are the options here?
I asked some online friends, mostly journalists who are quite tech friendly, what this rite might involve. One Anglican wondered, I will assume in jest, if it might involve the liturgical use of a 3D printer.
Probably not. So let me ask the noble assembly of GetReligion readers the same question: What is an "online baptism"?
The bottom line here: If you were writing a story about a proposal for an online rite of this kind, wouldn't you include a sentence of two describing what happens during this liturgical maneuver? Has anyone proposed a set of prayers and rubrics for such a rite? Maybe the story could include a quote from that?
Picture all of this in your mind. I can see a clergy person on the sanctuary-studio side of the digital screen leading such a rite. What I am trying to imagine is what happens, well, wherever the analog baby or the converted adult is located. Is the authority for this rite -- literally -- in the hands of the layperson who is doing the baptism? Are the church authorities who are discussing this innovation saying that the authority of the priest or pastor comes through the wifi or fiberoptic cable?
All I am saying is that I cannot be the only person struggling to flesh out the details of this scene.
A little help please? I can't find anything online (strangely enough) that provides some answers.