What sort of innovation illustrates the adaptability of the church to everyday life in the twenty-first century? In a previous post below on the increasingly prominent roles of women and minorities in the Anglican Communion, we showed how it was possible for the Communion to modernize its traditions in order to remain relevant to its diverse congregations in the present day. The Church of England in particular has not stopped here, but has moved a step further in this modernization process by updating Plow Monday—a holiday dating from the Middle Ages that marks the first Monday after Twelfth Night (the Eve of Epiphany)—to include the consecration of laptop computers and mobile telephones brought in by congregation members.
Will Pavia of London’s The Times reports on efforts by the English Church to incorporate the blessing of modern technology, including ubiquitous Apple products such as the smart phone, into its centuries-old liturgy. The Church’s willingness to adapt is evident, as Pavia reports, since “none had been brave enough to adapt its ceremonies to address the modern mysteries of 3G network coverage, iPhone apps and variable battery life” before the new liturgy was held January 11th at St. Lawrence Jewry in the City of London Corporation. Part of St. Lawrence’s success in this endeavor is due to Canon Parrott, who exhibits a charisma and dynamism absent in many of England’s quickly-emptying churches. “In his former parish”, Pavia reports, “he once dressed up as a Christmas tree to promote the message of Christmas”.
At first, this novel practice may appear to many as bizarre, newfangled, and even irreverent, as though the timeless character of the liturgy has been diluted. But this rite may not seem so bizarre as one might first think. In the Middle Ages, Pavia notes, laborers would commemorate Plow Monday by bringing their plows to the church door and leaving them there to be blessed by the clergy. Thus, ecclesiastical adaptation to modern-day needs and interests is not a new phenomenon; the Church (at that time the Universal Church, since the English Church had not yet been established) has long been appealing to its laity with innovations which would have been highly personal for, and contemporary with, them.
Why do congregation members bring their plows and laptops to church to be blessed? The ritual may have deeper and more anthropologically significant roots than we imagine. The Catholic Church, for example, has been a traditional exponent of the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which worshippers partaking in the Eucharist literally believe they are consuming bread and wine which have been alchemically changed through incantations into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This, along with the consecration of holy water and myriad other Catholic sacraments, is not terribly different from the ceremonies of pre-industrial cultures in which participants engaged in drumming, dance, and chant to bring rain or a good harvest, or to ward off disease. Both might be considered forms of imitative magic, in which the mimicry of an event brings that event into reality.
As long as traditional practices such as imitative magic form a fundamental aspect of religion, it seems appropriate that the church should adapt them into a modern-day context. And the current rapid advances in technology cannot be excluded from traditional ceremony. Online churches such as Universal Life Church Monastery, with their discussion forums, online sermons, and non-traditional methods of ordination, are one example how the church has incorporated modern technology—particularly the internet—into its traditional rites, services, and ceremonies. As the world becomes increasingly more interconnected, these modernizing methods will become instrumental in helping congregation members and burgeoning spiritual adepts to become involved in the clergy, exchange ideas, and minister to the underprivileged.
Image and Source: The Times