"Time, Technology, and the Happening Reflections on the Implications of the Nature of the Divine Liturgy"

Time, Technology, and the Happening

Reflections on the Implications of the Nature of the Divine Liturgy

Fr. Edward Rommen


Today we are under ever increasing pressure to incorporate elements of modern technology into the life of the Church. We have certainly already done that in the form of email lists, Facebook accounts, and parish websites. In other cases, such as the use of Power Point projections during the Liturgy, certain media are almost universally rejected. Most of this movement, both for and against new technology, has occurred with very little thought and almost no theological reflection. For example, one parish website initiates the use of an on-line payment option with these words, “We live in a digital age, and sometimes it is hard to remember to bring (or mail) that check. We have had several requests for online giving options over the years, and we have now partnered with “Easy Tithe”[1] to offer secure, online giving…”[2] So the reasons given for using this technology are simply that it is available, that is, we live in a computerized age. So, because it is available, we can justifiably make use of its capabilities. Furthermore, some of our people, who because they are already caught up in this digital age, have quite understandably asked for this convenience. As I said, there is no evidence of any critical thought here and the absence of any theological/biblical input is obvious. What we have is rather an uncritical acquiescence to the common business principles of availability, desire, and, above all, convenience. Obviously that is no way to make such important decisions in the Church. We have never adopted technologies simply because they were available or because someone wanted to use them. No, each new technology that has been adopted had to be evaluated and carefully vetted before it was made part of ecclesial practice. So it seems to me that we today should, at the very least, be having conversations about the legitimacy of using the various technologies that are available. So how do we do that? On what basis do we Orthodox make decisions of this kind? What standards can be used? I am sure that there are any numbers of ways in which we can and should apply the Scriptures, our Tradition, our theology to these issues. One way to approach this topic might be to ask if the Church, its services, and practices have any unique characteristics or meanings that need to be preserved at all costs and if the proposed technologies change those meanings in any significant way.

The idea that new technologies bring with them presuppositions and meanings that simply cannot be separated from the medium itself and which inevitably alter our perceptions has been around for some time.  Marshal McLuhan famously expressed the idea in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964, 2013). In it he went so far as to suggest that the medium actually is the message. He writes

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.[3]

McLuhan is not suggesting that we should never make use of technological advances, but rather that we carefully evaluate them and the impact they will have on our lives. In other words, they will have an impact and, in order to properly process the new technology, we need to know what that impact might be and if it fundamentally changes the context and the participants to which it is introduced. I think this is especially pertinent for the Church because we are charged with preserving our Tradition. That doesn’t mean the Church can’t change, it certainly has, but rather that all change is regulated in such a way as to make sure that what is new does not fundamentally alter what we have already been given. In the case of some technology, the likelihood of unintended and destructive change is very real.  As McLuhan warns us that it can and will happen.

any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. But the greatest aid to this end is simply in knowing that the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody.[4]

There are some, of course, who argue that each particular technology is neutral and suggest that “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.”[5] So the proponents of online giving will say that the technology is neutral, we are using it for a good cause, therefore, it is good to do so. However, that is to assume the complete consequentially inert (non-reactive) nature of the technology—something which is patently not true. Take a weapon, for example. Is a gun neutral? Is it people rather than guns that kill, as the NRA would have us believe? Well I suggest that it is, in fact, the gun which kills and that the gun which alters the perception of the person carrying the gun, making murder convenient, transforming him into a killer. No wonder McLuhan says that this “neutrality” argument is “voice of the current somnambulism.”[6] It seems, then, that we cannot ignore the technology’s power to alter perception.

So if the technology is, in fact, not inert, then we need to think about the potentially anti-Christian meanings of all media before we make use of them. Part of our difficulty is that most of us have already started using these technologies outside the Church. I, for example, pay almost all of my bills online. But, as McLuhan points out, people who have already started to use a particular technology (which is most of us, since we have simply grown up in a digital age) don’t even know that it has already changed their perceptions. For that reason, they will not be able to see the dangers inherent in the technology and will maintain their opinion that its use is neutral. But, as it turns out, “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”[7] So we will need some special individuals who can anticipate or sense these changes and warn the rest of us. According to McLuhan “the serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.[8] They are, after all, society’s experts in perception. So who could be such a “gatekeeper” in the Church. I suppose it would have to be the hierarchs and the theologians, the spiritually attuned who function as artists, who, guided by the Holy Spirit and Scripture, can understand and anticipate and sense these changes in perception and warn others that this or that technology probably will alter the very nature of the Church and its practices.

So let us consider, on the one hand, the unique character of Orthodox Liturgy and surrounding practices (that which we have been called to preserve) and, on the other hand, ask ourselves what messages are we importing, that is what aspects of our faith and practice are we in danger of redefining when we import certain modern technologies into the ecclesial context?

Every time Orthodox believers gather to celebrate the Eucharist they are initiating a unique, one-time, non-repeatable event that, for lack of a better term, I will call a “happening.”  So this week’s Liturgy is not simply repeated the following Sunday. In fact, that is not even possible since each event is a completely separate occurrence or instance of the Liturgy. Now what is happening during the Liturgy is that ordinary time is being suspended and the participants enter into the temporal space of the eternal Kingdom of God. When we speak of God’s Kingdom, we are not referring to some specific geographic space, but rather the space, any space, where God’s absolute authority or dominion reigns completely. That this is the case during the Divine Liturgy is guaranteed by the very real presence of Christ, our King and our Lord, in the Eucharist. The other thing that is happening is that communion, a total interpersonal engagement, is established among those who partake of the sacred mysteries.

Because of its nature as a happening, anything that is integral to the celebration of the Liturgy takes on that same character of uniqueness, one-time-ness, and it can only be what it truly is within the context of the Liturgy. We see this clearly in the Eucharist itself. The Church, which is not constituted by a building, but by the actual, physical, gathering of the faithful, is the only God-appointed place for that to take place. It is the special place of God’s special self-manifestation. For that reason, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated outside that gathering. It cannot, for example, be celebrated in cyberspace. Of course, it has been suggested that faithful viewing a live video feed of an actual Liturgy could place bread and wine before the monitor allowing them to be consecrated along with the elements of the actual service. But that kind of “cyber-gathering” cannot be the Church because its non-personal, purely informational mode of representational presence falls far short of the actual, real-time, personal presence required by the active administration of a rite that involves concrete actions and specific objects. That, more than anything, makes the celebration of the Eucharist in cyberspace an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. The reality of the divine mystery is inseparably tied to the real (not representational as in cyberspace) presence of the Gifts, which are actually, not virtually, present, prepared, consecrated, fractured, and distributed by the priest to really present believers in the context of the actual gathering of those believers. To use any kind of technology (internet, video feed, etc.) that separates the faithful from the actual happening is to fundamentally change its meaning and render it something other than what the Church claims it to be. I am not saying that the live video feed of the Liturgy is bad, but rather that it is not a Liturgy, not a Eucharistic gathering, and that the one watching the feed is not in communion with those actually gathered.

The same thing applies to all other aspects of the Liturgy. The music, for example, sung, as part of the celebration is unique, can only be truly liturgical music if it is sung during and for the Liturgy. For that reason, the Church has always frowned on presenting its music as concerts for the pleasure of listeners outside the services of the Church. A sermon can only be a sermon within the context of the happening. Outside of that it is only a text, a powerless representation of what was uniquely delivered, empowered, and guided by the Holy Spirit active during the divine service. It is something like the difference between a musician's practice sessions and the concert itself. Tithing, that is the bringing of offerings to the Church, which in the ancient Church took place during the Liturgy, can only really be tithing, a deliberate act of faith, if it is done within the context of the worship happening. Of course, the basic offering was the bread and wine for the Eucharist. But there was much more to it than that. As Alexander Schmemann explains

Each person who came into the gathering of the Church brought with him everything that “as he has made up his mind” (2 Cor 9.7), he could spare for the needs of the Church. and this meant for the sustenance of the clergy, widows and orphans, for helping the poor, for all the good works in which the Church realizes herself as the love of Christ, as concern for all and service of all for all. The Eucharistic offering is rooted precisely in this sacrifice of love, therein lies its origin. And this was so self-evident for the Church that, according to one witness, orphans who lived at the expense of the Church and did not have anything to bring participated in this sacrifice of love by bringing water.[9]

The liturgical setting for this giving is also echoed in the Liturgy of St Mark during which after the offering the priest says “Remember O Lord, the sacrifice, the offerings (Prosphora), and thanksgiving of those who have offered unto the honor and glory of thy holy name ”[10] and then goes on to ask God to accept all the offerings. So the giving of tithes and offerings took place in the Church during the Liturgy as an act of worship and an expression of faith, thus tithing as well as our music, the sermon, and our images can only be what they are supposed to be in that setting.

So what would change if we started using video clips or computer projections during the Liturgy. We might argue that it would enhance our singing, supplement our sermons, and even keep the attention of our worshipers. But what messages come with this technology? First and foremost, it affects the way we view the use of images in the Church. It would mean, at its worst, an outright rejection of the Church’s teaching that only certain images, namely icons, are to be used in the Church (which, by the way, is what makes them sacred) and, at best, it would mean abandoning our understanding that icons are the only holy images, that is, the only images that can be filled with the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit and can thus transcend the boundary between the created and the uncreated worlds. I suppose we could consider the possibility of blessing or sanctifying a video projector or a computerized power-point presentation, but the Church certainly has not, and probably never will authorize us to do that. So what we see with this example is that there are some technologies that cannot be added to into the liturgical happening without actually violating an existing teaching or practice of the Church.

What about the messages that come with using online giving and credit card readers in order to make giving to the Church more convenient? Here we have a case of an activity which is already part of the liturgical happening, tithing. Distancing it from its natural ecclesial context clearly redefines its nature. Using these technologies (and a number of others) in the Church allows or even encourages the redefinition of the sacrificial act of worship, the giving of offerings  or tithing.[11] As we know from Scripture and Tradition

The paying of the tithe was first and foremost an act of worship, not merely a duty. When it comes to finances, we often tend to think in secular, rather than religious concepts. We owe our money to the bank, the credit card company, or the IRS. God, on the other hand, gets the spiritual stuff—or at least it often plays out that way. The perspective of the Mosaic Covenant was much more holistic when it came to such matters. Rather than a nagging debt to be settled over and over again, year after year, the payment of the tithe was seen to be a privilege—an act of worship, a reasonable sacrifice, a giving back to God of a portion of that which He has given to His people.

It was also assumed, as mentioned above, that this act of worship, tithing, would take place in a special, sacred space. In other words, the act of a believer bringing an offering to God presupposes a special place of God’s particular presence. We see this clearly taught in the Old Testament. For example, in Deuteronomy 12:5–6 we read

But you shall seek the place where the Lord your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.

The Israelites were forbidden from worshiping in any of the places frequented by the non-believing pagans. Instead there was to be a special place chosen by God Himself, which would become the “one common place for the solemn rites of religion was an act of divine wisdom, for the security of the true religion.”[12] So it began in the moveable Tabernacle in the wilderness and then, after they entered the promised land, it moved successively from Mizpeh, to Shiloh, and then finally to the Temple in Jerusalem. So it was to this special place of divine presence that tithes and offerings were to be brought (Neh 12.44, 13.5, Mal 3.10). That same practice is reflected in Jesus teaching.  In Matthew 5:23-24 he says “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (See also 1 Cor 9.13, 10.18). He also commends the poor woman for bringing an offering, which was truly a sacrifice, to the temple (Mk 12.41–44, Lk 21.1-4).  As might be expected this practice of bringing offerings was continued in the early Church. In Acts 4. 34–35 we read “all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet.” Not long after that the practice of a weekly offering brought to the Church was established. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 St Paul tells the Corinthians and the Galatians “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” The reference to Sunday seems to imply the Church as the context for, the sacred space of giving.

Taking giving out of the worship setting causes it to morph into a kind of payment (of a bill?), but more than that, a payment for services rendered. So, on the one hand, you no longer need to actually go to the Liturgy and worship in order to give your tithe. On the other hand, the activity becomes as mindless as paying for a book online. When I do so, I am just barely aware of the financial transaction or even the amount, but am focused entirely on the service or object I am buying. So, if we bring that concept into the Church what remains of the purposefulness of giving and what “services” are people “paying” for? Surely this technology changes the nature of tithing into something that is not recognizable as an offering in any biblical sense of the word.

How about a live video feed of the whole Liturgy or podcasting the service or parts of it (the sermon)? What we know of cyberspace, which is where all of this streaming, blogging and podcasting has to take place, is that it is not real in any concrete sense of that word. It has been called a collective illusion. William Gibson in his novel, Necromancer suggests that cyberspace is

a consensual hallucination experienced by billions of operators, in every nation... a graphic representation of data extracted from every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light arranged in the nonspace of the mind, cluster and combinations of data. Like city lights receding.[13]

I tend to agree with this assessment because, whatever else it is and for all of its real usefulness, cyberspace can only transmit representations, that is, information in the form of text and images. There is no real personal interaction. You cannot actually meet anyone online, in spite of what Facebook promises. All you get is an image, information and no real personal presence or engagement whatsoever. If that is the case, how can we even think of video streaming a Liturgy? Isn’t that the most fundamental violation of the primary aspect of Liturgy, the actual gathering of believers and the resulting communion? How can we even think of recording and streaming a sermon? Does that not seek to capture and preserve something that can only occur once and that during the Liturgy? Is that not denying the temporal space of the Liturgy by imposing an aspect of ordinary time by means of the recording technology?

Perhaps we could do confession online? It would certainly be more convenient and I am sure that we could communicate something of our remorse for sins committed in writing through email or on a web site. But what of absolution? How would that work? If we remain committed to the idea that confession is a sacrament, which involves the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the presence of a priest, the real encounter between priest and penitent, then how can that be done in the absence of the persons involved? On what will the priest lay his stole? Over whom will he say the prayer of absolution? If no real personal encounter is possible in cyberspace, then no confession can take place.

It seems, then, that there are some limits to the ways in which we in the Church can use modern technology. In addition to fundamentally altering the meanings that make up the Church and its practices, I am also afraid that the use of these technologies will actually turn people away from one another (undermined communion) as has happened with Facebook users who—“trend toward giving up face-to-face for virtual contact.”[14] I am also concerned that as we make things more “convenient” we encourage people, or at least give them an excuse, not to attend the Liturgy. They no longer need to as they get it streamed, pod-casted, and can even “bring” their offerings without being in the presence of the altar. It seems to me that our Tradition is quite clear. If you want to give to the Church, come and give it as an act of worship. If you want to hear the sermon, come and listen, because the Liturgy is the only place where you can actually hear a sermon, where you can actually take communion.

As I said above, I am not interested in a general rejection of technology. I use many aspects of it every day. So, I am not a Luddite in any sense of that word. However, I am very determined to fulfill my role as a gatekeeper, as a guardian of the Tradition which I have been privileged to receive. For that reason, I cannot agree to an uncritical incorporation of technology into the Church. I do not want to dictate the outcomes, but we must have and promote this discussion, otherwise we jeopardize the very nature, the very life of the Church we have been ordained to defend.

[1] Easy Tithe is a secular company that provides the technology needed for on-line giving. Of course, it does so at a cost. Some (quite a bit actually) of what is being tithed goes to the company. Cf. http://www.easytithe.com/pricing.htm

[2] http://wilmingtonoca.org accessed 8/21/2015

[3] McLuhan, Marshall (2013-06-14). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Kindle Locations 148-150). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] McLuhan, Marshall (2013-06-14). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Kindle Locations 274-276). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] McLuhan, Marshall (2013-06-14). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Kindle Locations 207-209). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] McLuhan, Marshall (2013-06-14). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Kindle Location 209). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition.


[8] McLuhan, Marshall (2013-06-14). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Kindle Locations 327-329). Gingko Press. Kindle Edition.

[9] Alexandr Schmemann as cited by Fr. Athanasius Iskander in Understanding the Liturgy. (Kitchener: St Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, 1997), 30. 

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11] Fr. Thomas Zell. The Trail of the Tithe. http://www.antiochian.org/node/16719 accessed 8/21/2015

[13] Cited by Andrew F. Wood and Matthew J. Smith, Online Communication : Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture, 2nd ed., Lea's Communication Series (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005). p. 18.

[14] Rosen, "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism " 15.