Apostolic Succession Is Virtual Reality

Apostolic Succession Is Virtual Reality April 21, 2020

Let’s be clear from the start: metaphorically equating the two complex things named in the title of this post casts no aspersions on either. I do not have a low view of apostolic successor, nor do I have a low view of virtual reality.

Setting the two up next to each other does, however, have the value of clarifying both.

So let’s start with some simple definitions:

Apostolic succession: a kind of uninterrupted transmission of faith and spiritual authority from the present moment all the way back to Christ’s apostles, through a long succession of bishops. This has typically been extended through the laying on of hands, but is also understood as succession by continuing the “office” of ministry and by performing the ministry of the apostles.

Virtual reality: a typically digitally mediated experience that simulates the “real” world and/or an alternative, “virtual” one.

And let’s define one more term.

Virtual: “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact.”

It’s this last term that most intrigues me as it relates to apostolic succession, since those of us who are in the “succession of the apostles” are that in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact.

I’m virtually an apostle. I’m not one of the original apostles.

On the other hand, I am a “real” apostle. But then, it’s also the case that what we experience in “virtual” reality is still in another sense, “real.”

Virtual doesn’t really mean not real. It just means differently real, and with virtual reality typically means a digitally mediated experience, which is still very real.

So Let’s Talk About All This

Notice first of all that by the definitions above, a livestream of a worship service is NOT, in the strict sense, virtual worship. Because it’s not a simulation.

Livestream worship is audio and video of an actual worship service taking place elsewhere, often with accompany tools participants can use to “talk back” and participate, much like face-to-face worship.

Notice also that distributed forms of worship (say, for example, prayers led at each location synchronized with the livestream, or shared greetings, shared peace, shared communion) are also NOT virtual. They’re embodied in place.

So why does so much of the conversation about digitally socially mediated worship during this pandemic focus on and talk about “virtual” church?

That’s a good question, and I don’t know all the answers. Perhaps because it is easy short-hand. Perhaps because it still feels “virtual” to some participants. Perhaps because some philosophically think that information that travels over wifi is less “real” than information that travels by sound waves or light.

In any event, already we have an interesting thing to note. Most of the forms of worship faith communities are practicing during social distancing are decidedly NOT virtual. They’re just differently mediated real church.

So What Part Of Socially Distributed Worship Is “Virtual”?

Well, the answer, interestingly, is the apostolic succession part. Or we could even say more broadly, the virtual part of worship is the God part.

All of it. All the God parts of worship are virtual reality.

Why would I say that? Well, let’s go back to the common definition of virtual, the definition everyone has been working with since at least the 15th century.

Virtual is “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact.” 

Well, let’s take the confession at the beginning of worship as an example. The congregation confesses their sins before one another and “in the presence of almighty God.” They then hear the pastor say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

All of this is very real. The church believes and trusts that sins really are forgiven in this event, that because Christ has promised to forgive sins, real forgiveness happens.

Nevertheless, it’s also definitely “virtual.” The pastor is bringing Christ’s words in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact, because actually and in fact Jesus is somewhere else–we don’t really know where or how–but has promised to be present in and with the community virtually.

John 13:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.

2 Corinthians 5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

We are virtually Jesus to each other. If the term “virtual reality” signifies anything meaningful at all, it really should signify everything we talk about when we talk about liturgy, prayer, all talk of God active in the world. It’s all “virtual.”

And that’s not taking God down a notch. Not at all. It’s just describing what’s actually the case. Virtual reality makes this regular reality also God’s reality, which ultimately are the same thing, but also we can and do talk about them as being overlapping or intertwined or perichroetically dancing realities.

So What About Apostolic Succession?

Well, this should be pretty obvious, but maybe it needs spelling out. When I was ordained at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa in 2003, I was ordained into multiple lines of apostolic success. The ELCA bishop had been ordained into the succession of the Episcopal church. But there were also pastors there who had been ordained into Latvian and Swedish lines of succession.

To be honest, the Roman Catholic communion would not recognize these as being authentic lines of apostolic succession extending back to the Petrine office. So to them my ordination into apostolic succession is literally a “simulation.”

But if we think about succession more philosophically, we’ll see that it is virtual reality all the way day down.

First, it is not at all unlike a digital network. Succession is like a hyper-link.

Lay hands on the one being ordained, and it connects them back to a long line of such hands, all the way back to the apostles.

Drop a hyper-link onto a page, and it connects you all the way back to other sources.

Touch to wires to each other, and you get a current. Hook up a fiber-optic line, and light leaves one place and really does arrive at the next location.

And packed into those packets of light, those signals, is all the information you need so that, once you unpack it, you can watch a movie, read an essay, study the Bible, see a photo of your grandchild.

So too apostolic succession. Ideally succession is not JUST or ONLY about the succession itself, the hands, but the hands provide a link to a set of practices, a body of teaching, that is transmitted with the succession.

So when we are ordained, we are ordained into a set of practices, a way of ministry, we are taught a gospel.

And we receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit arrives in many ways, but one of the ways the Spirit travels is through this succession.

Acts 1:8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Sama’ria and to the end of the earth.

Am I one of the original apostles? No.

Am I ordained to serve and teach in essence or effect like the apostles, as if I were one of the original apostles? Yes.

I’m a virtual apostle.

Okay, now let’s take on the last part of this whole construct. Some Christian communities are highly invested in the notion that the meal established by Jesus, the Eucharist, is only truly the Eucharist when the one presiding at this meal is someone who has been ordained into this apostolic succession.

In other words, the only REAL Eucharist is one established by the presence of a VIRTUAL reality.

Typically, the basic standards here for it to be a real meal are 1) bread and wine, 2) the words spoken over the bread and wine, 3) a gathered community present to hear and receive, and 4) a presider ordained into continuity with the succession extending back to the apostles.

So let’s say you have some bread and wine and you speak the words. Then you certainly have #1 and #2.

But what counts as a gathered community? Is this a certain number of people? Do they all have to be in the same room? It’s difficult to see how that would have to be a criterion, since even when people are in the same room, they still rely on “media” to hear and see the meal.

And we already translate the gospel into other media in order for people to hear the words. Nobody says a deaf person who hears through a hearing aid can’t receive the meal. And a blind person can receive. Nor do we exclude even those (say someone with Alzheimer’s) who can no longer readily comprehend the words spoken.

I think all definitions of what counts as a “gathered” community are inventions, and certainly can’t be used as a justification not to share the meal.

So if you are alone at home and watch a livestream online you have still gathered with a real (not a virtual in the dismissive definition of that term) community. You have discerned the body of Christ, the gathered community, you have bread and wine, and you’ve heard the gospel.

We already prove this is true by the fact that we distribute communion to the homebound and the sick and believe and trust this is also the real presence of Christ.

So this leaves, interestingly, only ONE item that could possibly preclude communion taking place over livestream or other distributed formats, and that has to do with apostolic succession.

Now, if the livestream is presided at by an ordained pastor, then the point is moot. We’ve already established that presence through livestream is real presence with the community.

Such a Eucharist is a real Eucharist. It’s not virtual. Only the apostolic succession is virtual.

But what about a format where each household or small group communes with a local presider who is NOT ordained into the apostolic succession?

Well, so much depends upon whether you think the virtual reality of apostolic succession is a barrier, or an avenue.

For example, we believe you can receive God’s forgiveness even without confession to a priest or even speaking to God out loud. Simply turn your contrite heart to God and receive forgiveness.

It can help us in our faith to hear such forgiveness spoken by another person. That’s the point of confession. It’s not a barrier to confessing on your own. Rather, it is a powerful potential avenue to hearing forgiveness even more clearly.

Same with prayer, or so many parts of faith. They are amazing forms of virtual reality, crucial to imagining our life with God.

But the current fasting from the Eucharist in so many of our churches is using apostolic succession as a barrier rather than an avenue. It could be an avenue: “As pastor, I now consecrate each of you to share Jesus with each other, trusting the Holy Spirit is fully with you in your baptism.”

But if the clergy say, “Oh, we can’t do that, it would violate our full communion agreement with other denominations who believe in apostolic succession,” then we are using the virtual reality in a manner quite distant from the mercy and grace we know in Jesus Christ.

When we realize that apostolic succession is virtual reality, then suddenly reality is wide open and present in ways heretofore unimagined.

Which of course is also the point of actual “virtual reality.” Whole new worlds.

This is my body. This is my blood. Do this.

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