THIS book brings together a collection of essays on “the unique opportunities and challenges facing churches around the world” due to the global pandemic, such as “a period of focused digital integration and adaptation” when many “are shifted from primarily offline worship to online worship”. .
Each reader of Church hours is likely to have thought about these themes, which makes the book relevant and – as we say today – “relatable”. There are also weaknesses, however. Scholarship is often somewhat spotty, and while the best observations are certainly to the point, they can also be somewhat obvious.
Among the most useful or stimulating elements are ideas on how to characterize or categorize various online phenomena, for example in the distinction between “online religion” and “online religion”. (The online element is secondary to the first, but fundamental to the second.) This reminds us of Pope Francis’ emphasis on the primacy of “encounter” in Christian life, which can do useful work in relationship with online interactions.
The presentation of social media personalities whose field is spirituality, religion or values is also intriguing. A German scene is in view here, hence the name “Sinnfluencer”: not from the English word “sin” but from a German word (Sinn), which could be translated as “meaning”. Another useful message, mentioned throughout the volume, is the reminder that online interactions are not disembodied: they are physical, but “differently physical.”
The themes of mediation – always an exciting subject for theology – are at the center here. One of the main forms of mediation in theology or religion, however, has been tradition, and this is not well represented here, nor generally celebrated. The authors show a striking unanimity of outlook in showing little interest in a deep commitment to the long theological tradition, whether out of a “primitivist” conviction that theology is called to always start from the Bible, or out of Pentecostal insistence. on the current stirrings of the Spirit, or what we might call a Vatican-II approach as a great reset within Roman Catholicism.
This raises questions about what is meant by “ecclesiology” here. It is a “digital ecclesiology”, but we will not find any substantial elaboration of a doctrine of the Church. It is more of a work of ethnography: we are given snapshots of church practice. A theological reflection is provided, which is the weakest part of the book, with little substantive engagement. One author is described as a “key theological influence”, but only ten words are quoted, from a single essay. A figure from the twelfth century is invoked, but with reference only to an anthology passage and a secondary newspaper article: the medieval writer’s own texts do not appear in the bibliography.
Poor structure or integration of ideas is also a problem in some essays, as is a lack of specificity as to what is being asserted, such as when we are told that the doctrine of the Trinity “may be related or considered consistent with community-networked understanding”. As an underlying problem, the essays seek to cover too much material, and therefore too fleetingly, to permit any particularly scholarly discussion when it comes to history or texts.
Put the doctrine aside, and the volume will fare better judged as a collection of ethnographic observations of what happened with the online churches. Even so, again, perhaps, due to the length of the contributions, essays rarely really shine on this front either, whether as fruits of deep and longstanding immersion in a particular context, or due to theoretical or analytical sophistication.
One could take the book as something to read together, as a challenge to local reflection on the online journey in its own context. I expect contributors to appreciate this, but I would always be cautious in placing some of these chapters ahead of others as if they were good examples of theological scholarship or the study of religion.
The Reverend Dr Andrew Davison is a Fellow and Dean of the Chapel at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Starbridge Associate Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.
Ecclesiology for a Digital Church: Theological Reflections on a New Normal
Heidi A. Campbell and John Dyer, editors
SCM Press £40
Church Times Bookstore €39