Regina Elsner is a Researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies ZOiS
Digitalization of the Christian faith triggered by restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic—despite all insights into its necessity—is theologically controversial. Indeed, most Christian churches stand on two pillars: the community and the Eucharist. Both lose substance in the process of going virtual—is it then still possible to speak of the Church? What remains of the Christian faith when these two pillars shake?
These questions have led to intensive theological debates about the “right” and “possible” forms of church fellowship when there are restrictions on gatherings. In contrast to other theological discussions of recent years, such as the discussion on power structures in light of the Catholic Church abuse scandal or the conflict over Ukrainian autocephaly in the Orthodox Church, the challenge of digitalization and the essence of ecclesial identity has been imposed on churches by external circumstances and is global like the pandemic itself. How Christian churches are responding to this challenge of forced digitalization are diverse, yet they show some interesting similarities. I would like to outline these reactions by looking at the Catholic Church in Germany and Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Russia.
Digital Church Service as an Opportunity or a Stopgap Measure?
The online transmission of church services has been a pivotal step for all churches to deal with the ban on gatherings. The Catholic Church in Germany reacted quite quickly and calmly to this change. The question of how the Church comes to the people and the debate about digital media are not new for German pastoral theology. Facing declining membership and attendance at church services, the use of new media is perceived not as a forced evil, but as an existential instrument of survival and an opportunity for the Church. Online or television worship services are therefore already a very common way of reaching out to the people.
However, the demand for all parishes, not just some, to use digital forms of worship is new, and the corresponding digital skills are hardly widespread. Pastoral theologians have therefore increasingly promoted the idea of understanding online services not just as a normal church service, just with the camera switched on, but as a form of pastoral work in its own right, with requirements in terms of language, body language, liturgical symbolism, and above all interacting with virtual churchgoers.
In Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe, digital worship happens in a different context. The historical experience of these churches is marked by the radical privatization of religion during communism. Many people are therefore much more sensitive to the pandemic obligation to practice their faith only in their own homes. Resistance from Orthodox churches during the pandemic has therefore been conspicuously stronger than from Western churches. The desire to keep worship open for the faithful was enforced for much longer, even against state regulations, and sometimes also against direction from Church leadership.
Nevertheless, for Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Russia, online worship was already an aspect of church media. Liturgies were broadcast live on national television channels. Here, too, the new challenge was to enable all parishes to virtualize their services, even though a theological discussion addressing different aspects of online worship is missing so far. Meanwhile, faithful believers admit the value of having the opportunity to experience worship services in other parishes and having a free choice to attend this or that service. For many believers, this broadens their perception of the global church and the variety of possible forms of worship and liturgical approaches.
At the same time, an intensive theological discussion has appeared about the possibility of an online communal celebration of the Eucharist. This debate includes important liturgical questions and addresses the important pastoral-theological aspect of the faithful participating in the service. The question of trust in the ability of the faithful to understand every dimension of the liturgical celebration even without the direct action of the ordained priest plays a remarkable role in this context. Thus, active participation of the faithful and their role in the liturgy has become a crucial challenge for the digitalization of worship services for both church traditions, and in the long run, this question impacts both online and offline worship.
Digital Church—More than Eucharist Celebration
However, the focus on worship services transmitted by the media has presented theological problems. The one-man service in an empty church strengthens the perception that the Church depends exclusively on the ordained priest and that all other forms of church community are a secondary matter. Is Church more than the celebration of the Eucharist centered on the priest? For the German Catholic Church, the extent of this discussion exists alongside massive questioning of the priest-centered nature of church life triggered by the abuse scandal. The struggle for a new understanding of church fellowship started with the “Synodal Path” last year, and the corona pandemic shows its relevance beyond the burning issue of abuse within the Church.
In fact, both in the Catholic Church and in Orthodox Churches, other forms of communal faith life appeared quickly in the digital space with one main goal: to make tangible the community of believers during physical isolation. Among the services offered by clerics, church employees, and committed lay people are local and global prayer groups, spiritual and social support groups, communal Bible lectures, and groups for sharing “spiritual impulses” or gospel insights. Believers’ sense of faith and ability to gather with other Christians thus holds special value. Catholic theology describes these virtual communities as upgrading the “Theology of the Word,” which has been encouraged by the Second Vatican Council. However, these virtual communities question traditional hierarchical structures and the supposed indispensable role of the ordained priest.
One aspect less visible within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is digital forms of catechetical services, like Sunday schools, worship services for small children (Kindergottesdienst), and religious education for different school classes, and other community activities such as categorical pastoral care for the sick, prisoners, people with disabilities, soldiers, and also children and young people. In most countries, personal contact between pastoral workers and these groups has been severely restricted or forbidden due to pandemic measures. In some cases, corresponding thematic spiritual messages have been shared digitally. However, a theological discussion about the structural difficulties in guaranteeing access of vulnerable groups to digital content and the possibilities of overcoming these difficulties are missing.
In both contexts, the churches so far have not used going online as an impetus for developing more online services that target specific groups. Reasons could include too little time for preparing qualified curriculums, lack of digital literacy and experience with such formats, or the assessment that other forms of digital church deserve a higher priority. But the extent, diversity, and reach of existing offerings will only become more apparent in the coming months and thus also provide a basis for further research, for example through the large-scale survey “Churches Online in Times of Corona.” For Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe, similar surveys are still to come.
Digitalization as the Downfall of Institutional Self-Image?
The digitalization of church life in these churches has been accompanied by some fundamental internal criticism of digitalization. Two lines of argumentation can be observed here.
On one hand, the state ban on church gatherings has been interpreted by conservative or fundamentalist circles in Catholic and Orthodox churches as part of a global or local struggle against Christianity. These groups say that churches should stay open and liturgies in communion accessible to all, for they are the only effective salvation from the virus and from the secular downfall of the Church. The “compulsion into digital space” was backed up by conspiracy theories that church leaders in the Catholic context have only hesitantly contradicted. In the Orthodox context in Ukraine and Russia, the fact that the ban on gatherings also applied to churches has been tantamount to rejecting the identity-forming role of the Church. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Orthodoxy has been perceived as a pillar of national and cultural identity in contrast to Western models and values. To close churches seemed to question this “systemic relevance” of churches for national identity and thus offered fertile ground for corresponding conspiracy theories.
The second line of argument is less polemical but similarly radical. It claims that digitalization of church services and other digital offerings is not courageous enough and is offensive to the ability of smaller entities to gather and worship. According to the motto “where two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matt 18:20), this group argues that early Christian forms of sharing bread and wine and joining fellowship with God and neighbors should be rediscovered as a response to the pandemic and the ban on gatherings. The early Christian model of the house church, or common liturgical celebrations within the family or other house communities, could serve as a model for the faithful to continue gathering and to counteract the “self-secularization” of the Church by digitalization. It is striking that this call for theological “courage” ignores so far the experience of other Christian grassroots movements like the ecclesial base communities in the liberation theology that have been developing and living such models of worship for many decades and under constant protest from the Church’s hierarchy.
Ethical Questions Beyond Self-Preservation
When analyzing church statements regarding pandemic-related digitalization, it is remarkable that the Catholic Church in Germany, as well as Orthodox churches in both Ukraine and Russia,have largelyremained silent on issues that go beyond inner church life. At least some theological engagement with certain media and ethical questions, perhaps about data security or access to and accessibility of digital media, would need to be visible when diving into digitalization. But other aspects have only been addressed sporadically in sermons or other venues, such as the uncertainties of society as a whole in the face of the unknown, fatal disease, enormous financial losses and growing social inequality, Russia’s disastrous healthcare situation, massive restrictions of freedom, increasing domestic violence, fears for the future, and rampant conspiracy theories. A systematic and digitally visible socio-ethical discourse has been generally absent from both Churches and only rarely addressed by academic theologians or faith-based organizations.
As Germany relaxed legal quarantine measures including the ban on assembly, critical voices were hardly audible in the jubilation over the return to the usual. Only a few voices warned of the ongoing responsibility for the faithful to protect at-risk believers who are still unable to participate in community worship services or called for more solidarity with those who still lack access to common Eucharist celebrations worldwide. The rapid return to “normalcy” confirms the suspicion that digitalization was only a quick replacement and probably only about the self-preservation of existing church groups, rather than about a wider and sustainable outreach all over the world.
The wave of digitalization due to COVID-19 quarantine measures has brought to the surface burning theological questions. Despite different contexts for the Catholic Church in Germany and the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Russia, their reactions are remarkably similar. The priest-centeredness of church life, the lack of concepts and language for dealing with special target groups, the relevance of church existence for modern society and politics, and finally the failure to address structural social problems outside of church walls appear as common challenges. Instead, dealing with digitalization focuses on pastoral and liturgical matters. These topics—such as the hotly debated possibility of virtually celebrating Eucharist in Orthodoxy and digital literacy of priests in Catholicism—certainly will advance important liturgical and pastoral theological debates. Yet, pandemic-driven digitalization also proves the lack of socio-ethical answers from these churches in times of crisis.