Liturgy in Migration: Liturgical Migrations into Cyberspace: Theological Reflections

Moderator’s note: This post is part of our short series “Liturgy in Migration.” This series is based on the new Liturgical Press book Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace.

by Stefan Böntert

A few years ago, liturgy experiments in internet still occasioned headlines and sparked controversy-laden debates about the risks and side effects for the liturgical life of the church. More recently, the commotion has disappeared. Borrowing from the liturgy belongs ever more to the standard elements of the church’s internet presence. Standard liturgy broadcasts are only one aspect of this. Especially interesting are those projects that do not broadcast from the church space, but rather gather people at a computer in order to make use of images and sounds to reflect on Scripture texts, pray, and enter into dialogue with one another.

Viewed theologically, this migration of liturgy to internet raises difficult questions: Can we speak at all of religious activity in internet? Of what importance is physical presence when believers gather for worship?

To answer such questions, we must acknowledge that internet is a social medium which is not merely an instrument of the church, but rather something in which the church itself lives. In this, the church’s mission of inculturation must be considered. A look into liturgical history shows that the liturgical life of the church remained lively because it was ever able to adjust to changed general cultural conditions. Adaptation to the givens of the era is a main feature running through history, and this, in dialogue with tradition, was able to stimulate astonishing creativity. The Second Vatican Council emphasized anew how much the liturgy requires inculturation.

With respect to the internet, the question will be how its technical possibilities can be made fruitful in carrying out rituals of faith. Internet liturgy stands for a church which, in its activities, seeks out the public and seeks out spaces in which the message of the Gospel can be proclaimed, lived, and celebrated.

Realistically, we must also see the limits. All this is no panacea to counter the departure of many people from the church. With this in mind, it would be naïve for us to count only on a strengthened internet presence. The decisive key is surely that we value internet as an extension of life in the church.

Stefan Böntert is professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Bochum, Germany.

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3 comments

  1. One modest area of potential is serving those who are homebound or in hospitals and nursing homes. Many of these people currently watch a televised Mass on Sunday, possibly on EWTN or another Catholic network. While this is surely helpful, it does not keep them connected to their particular parish or community of faith. It would be a great benefit if parishes could offer live streaming of their services, followed later that day by a Eucharistic Minister visiting them to bring Communion and to pray with them.

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #1:
      I think this is a great idea. I have a friend home bound who prefers her internet parishes to her own. She watches Anglican Matins and then switches to an Orthodox liturgy. The parish deacon takes communion to her later in the afternoon.

  2. Scott and Brian, you both have identified the use of the internet as a kind of outgrowth of television and radio, with the production control now in the hands of the web site proprietor. I’ve been part of parishes that have a local radio ministry, which they use as you both suggest.

    But the internet provides the possibility of interaction in ways that television and radio do not, which parishes and others are only beginning to tap into. For example, various ELCA services, like the recent installation of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, are not only streamed live for those who cannot attend in person, but are accompanied by a parallel twitter-style track for interaction between those viewing online.

    But take it yet another step further . . . Imagine a live streamed parish liturgy where those viewing online would be invited to offer prayer requests via the internet, which then would be incorporated into the intercessory prayers later in the service.

    Picking up on another of the post’s main points, the use of images and video from the internet is a growing part of both liturgical and homiletical academic conversations. For instance, I once served as the chaplain for a synod assembly (ELCA-speak for diocesan convention), and at the time for intercessory prayer, I invited the assembly not to bow their heads and close their eyes, but to lift up their heads and direct them to the video screens as we prayed. Playing across the screens for each set of prayers was a carefully crafted set of images that visually added to the spoken words. For instance, at a time of discussion of a very difficult subject, we prayed for unity, verbally using the image of a quilter taking scraps of old cloth and bringing into being a new thing, and the images showed this taking place. Before a meal, we prayed for those who made the meal possible, and the images showed farmers, cooks, servers, and the path of our meal from field to table. Lots of possibilities!

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