Monday, January 31, 2022

Public Theology or Moth to the Flame? You Be the Judge.

Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them is a key lesson poker players learn. Knowing when to engage in online debate in the service of theological discourse and when to decline to play the role of moth to the flame is a key lesson public theologians learn. And whoever you are and wherever you fall on either of those continuums, they are arguably lessons you keep on learning -- over and over and over again.

The most recent example in my little corner of the continuum was Sunday's unfortunate NYT op-ed with the click-bait title Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services.

I'll admit I only read it because I was scrolling down the page to get to the Spelling Bee ... but once I did I immediately started to write my response in my head. I have been at this long enough to pause and at least ask myself the "moth to the flame" question. In this case, myself answered "go for it" -- and so I did: sharing my critique of both the context and conclusion of the piece on social media and with some lively discussion resulting.

The op-ed was written by Tish Harrison Warren -- a priest in the Anglican Church in North America: an author and frequent contributor to the NYT Opinion page. The piece in question is linked above ... but it is behind the NYT paywall. So in case you're not a subscriber, here's a quote that gives you the gist of the author's premise:

“One might ask, why not have both? Why not meet in person (with Covid precautions in place) but also continue to offer the option of a live-streamed service? Because offering church online implicitly makes embodiment elective. It presents in-person gatherings as something we can opt in or out of with little consequence. It assumes that embodiment is more of a consumer preference, like whether or not you buy hardwood floors, than a necessity, like whether or not you have shelter …
No longer offering a streaming option will unfortunately mean that those who are homebound or sick will not be able to participate in a service. This, however, is not a new problem for the church. For centuries, churches have handled this inevitability by visiting these people at home in person.”

And here was my response: 

It figures that the ACNA priest who writes for the NYT would come down on the either/or side of the in-person/on-line worship debate. Sorry, but we live in a both/and world — and if ANY tradition is ontologically wired to meet that challenge it is the actual Anglican/Episcopal one. Forged out of the crucible of the Reformation, we are a church that has historically chosen to be both catholic and protestant. Surely we can be a church that builds community both virtually and physically and not exclude our shut-ins and immuno-compromised siblings from the opportunity to share virtually in our gathered community.

At my parish we’ve been streaming our services for over a decade and going to “in person only” would be an unnecessary diminishment of the value of radical inclusion that we hold as a Gospel imperative. And — for the record — we also welcome, affirm and celebrate LGBTQ+ people as full members of the sacramental life of the Body of Christ. But that’s another op-ed.

Could I have just kept scrolling on down the the Spelling Bee and left well enough alone? Sure. But I would also have missed out on the chance to engage in some lively and enlightening conversation about what makes liturgy the work of the people; what it means to live sacramental lives in a time of virtual community; how we meet the both/and needs of our communities of faith in these complex times without resorting to simplistic either/or answers.

Arguably my favorite exchange was this one on Twitter with friend and colleague Scott Gunn: 

And I'll take that as Game, Set and Match for Public Theology: at least this time! 

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