Understanding the presence of God in virtual worship
When I first started studying theology, I was very confused by the word ‘immanent’. Whenever it was spoken in a lecture, I heard it as ‘imminent’ and could not understand the description of God as someone who was about to show up any minute. Surely, he was already here? Of course it was not the word imminent but immanent which was being used – and its point was precisely that God is already here. It is a truth which we shall affirm again and again over Christmas, however we might celebrate it.
That said, it is not a Christmas truth, but a permanent one. Part of the hidden framework upon which Christian worship is built is the affirmation that God is present. In some traditions that presence is symbolised in sign or sacrament, whilst in others it is somehow sensed in the act of collective worship.
Right now, the sense of anything which we do collectively is changing. Meetings online are so commonplace that we highlight them only if they are a rare ‘in person‘ encounter. Informal chats and formal business meetings now take place online as a matter of course. Within the past few weeks, the Charity Commission has said that not only can annual general meetings take place by video conference, but that votes registered at such a meeting are valid. The line between online and off is gossamer-thin.
What does this imply for acts of online worship, though? We may be learning to sing and pray together online. We may have found ways to share communion online. We may have settled into the habit of preaching and listening online. In what sense, though, do we say that ‘God was there’? What makes us come away from an online act of worship as we may have occasionally done from a service of worship in church and say ‘God was here today’? I would love to hear from you in the comments box as to how you are answering that particular question just now.
Somebody wrote to me recently that the phrase ‘you’re on mute‘ was the catchphrase of 2020. I hope it doesn’t apply to the one who really has to show up when we worship!