Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Baptism... by website.

As even so-called mainline denominations have begun reformulating the Baptismal formula rebaptism will become the norm for accepting converts.

(The Telegraph) - For centuries the key Christian sacraments of baptism and communion have symbolised people coming together in one place.

But under potentially radical plans being considered by the Church of Scotland, the rites could be administered online for the first time in a move to redefine the idea of a congregation in the internet age.

The suggestion, to be debated by members of the Kirk’s decision-making General Assembly which meets in Edinburgh next week, stems from initiatives such as streaming services to enable housebound parishioners to join in despite being unable to be physically present.

A paper presented to members of the General Assembly drafted by the Church’s Legal Questions Committee suggests re-examining issues such as voting rights at congregational meetings to people joining remotely.

But it goes on to argue that it is also time to go further and create what could effectively amount to virtual congregations, by allowing “access to the sacraments” for people are not “physically present in the congregation”.
In Presbyterian teaching, the term “sacraments” refers only to the rites of baptism and communion.

“Even wider questions about membership and belonging are now being asked by congregations whose services, through the internet, are being carried well beyond their parish boundaries,” the paper explains.

“We are living in an age when some of the old rules are fast becoming redundant and, as a result, the [committee] believes that it is time for the Church to undertake a wide ranging review of practice and procedure which is impacted by the use of new technology in church life.”

It adds that the idea of being a member of a congregation is becoming “more and more blurred” as people move around yet keep strong links through new technology.

“As fewer people join up in the traditional sense and as they make choices which include ever greater interaction with the Church through online access and social media, questions arise about online membership and even about access to the sacraments while not being physically present in the congregation,” it explains.

“There are no easy answers to some of the questions which are already 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 ranging discussion on these contemporary developments.”

Norman Smith, vice-convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council, said there would be a “proper grown up discussion” about the theological and practical arguments before any specific proposals would be put to a future meeting of the General Assembly.

“The question of the relationship with the Church when someone is online is being driven by a growing reality on the ground,” he explained.

“We have an increasing number of churches with an online component and they are asking questions about what does it mean to belong to the Church.

“And it is not just the Church asking this, all sorts of organisations are. It comes down to what is the meaning of community.”


  1. This makes drive-through communion (of both the Orthodox and heterodox varieties) seem almost theologically sound. At least in those cases physical presence actually matters.

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  3. I find it hard to believe there are many Church of Scotland members who do not have easy access to a church or cleric for baptism and communion, but they raise a valid theoretical question that is perhaps less theoretical for Orthodox in the West. As Orthodoxy spread across North America different tactics were adopted around baptism, communion, confession, and marriage for our far flung co-religionists without ready access to church or priest. The best solution is obviously to build a church and get a priest to at least visit regularly, but this has not always been the case, cf., the early Alaska mission, St. Raphael's travels around the U.S.

    However, it would seem the theological issue was answered long ago by the concept of a baptism of desire, and without recourse to a new, internet-friendly sacramentology and ecclesiology. This has been more specifically treated in the Latin West, of course, but it is not unknown in Orthodoxy.

    For example, St. Ambrose of Milan, in "De obitu Valentiniani consolatio", wrote: "But I hear that you are distressed because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me, what attribute do we have besides our will, our intention? Yet, a short time ago he had this desire that before he came to Italy he should be initiated [baptized], and he indicated that he wanted to be baptized as soon as possible by myself. Did he not, therefore, have that grace which he desired? Did he not have what he asked for? Undoubtedly because he asked for it he received it."

    Now, a baptism of desire is more commonly associated with those who profess the Christian faith but are martyred before they could be baptized. For example, in the Canons of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Can. XIX: 'Concerning Catechumens': "Catechumens, who by the unbelievers are arrested and killed by martyrdom, before they received baptism, are to be buried with the other martyrs, for they are baptized in their own blood."

    There are also examples in the lives of the saints of miraculous conversion followed immediately by martyrdom apart from the catechumenate, too, e.g., Sts Callinike and Aquilina, St Porphyrius the Actor.

    Of course, this is really economia ex post facto for those who were not able to be baptized prior to death, it's not a prescription for a new kind of e-baptism and never being baptized at all.

    One is tempted to make a comment regarding the dangers of economia becoming the new norm, but many traditional Orthodox practices are, in fact, examples of economia that did not fall down to the base of the proverbial slippery slope, e.g., chrismation rather than the laying on of hands, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom rather than that of St. Basil, communion by spoon rather than in the hand and from the chalice, the traditional Violakis Typikon of the Greek churches, parish practice according to the Sabbaite Typikon, not having a deacon serving when one is assumed by the service books, not having seven priests serve Holy Unction, non-ordained singers/chanters and acolytes, etc.