The corona virus seems to have achieved what Jesus said the gates of Hell could not: it has prevailed upon churches across the land to close their doors! Many communities (like Box Hill Baptist) are moving to different ways of engaging with each other and with the essence of their life and ministry. Streaming content online, meeting in video conferences, party-line phone calls of several friends at once, drive-in church, picnic church – all these are some of the new modes of ‘presence’ that the people of God are exploring.
The reason for this dramatic move on the part of churches has been well expressed by the Baptist Union of Victoria who wrote to all the churches of the Union: “Given the pattern of COVID19 in other countries ahead of us in terms of infection rates, the more we can do, as soon as possible, to reduce the occurrence of transfer in the community, the better. Transfer happens most when people are in proximity to one another. Therefore, out of love for our communities, there is good reason to suspend large gatherings and non-essential activities now.” (emphasis added)
We have closed our church buildings ‘out of love for our communities‘. It is not a sign of failure or fear, but rather of hope and care. Is it a positive expression of love. It is a virtuous decision – something that embodies virtue.
I have long been intrigued by the use of the adjective ‘virtual‘ to describe in a generalised way the content of the world wide web. The narrower definition of virtual means almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition. A subsidiary definition is not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so. A third definition that tries to integrate both these senses is that it describes something that exists in essence but not in actuality. To my mind this latter definition raises some thorny philosophical issues around essence and actuality!
The roots of the English word virtual reach back to the Latin word virtus, which came through the medieval Latin virtualis to the modern virtual. By comparison, virtuous (meaning having good moral values and behaviour) comes from the same ancient Latin root virtus, but by a different linguistic pathway: through the late Latin virtuosus to the Old French vertuous to the Middle English virtuous.
Two words from a common root – but with widely different senses in the 21st century. Can the virtual world also be a virtuous world? What principles and behaviours would make it so? Can a virtual world ‘exist in essence‘ but not in ‘actuality‘ – or does the virtual require some actualisation in real people – in human actions, thoughts and emotions – before it can be truly virtuous?
This trajectory from the Latin roots to modern virtual reality has been well documented by David Porush in a fascinating blog post (https://davidporush.com/2017/08/18/what-the-word-virtual-says-about-the-future-of-vr/). Given our setting – an engagement with ‘virtual church’ because of a viral pandemic – it is interesting that Porush also makes an aside about another word springing from the ancient Latin vir– root: virus!
The months ahead present us with an opportunity to explore whether a virtual church can also be a virtuous church, whether we will demonstrate and live out ‘good moral values and behaviour’ supported only by connections through the internet, phone calls, video-conferencing and other creative forms of linkage. It will be an exciting time, but also a very challenging one.
I believe that Jesus was actually right. The pandemic might have closed our doors, but the church might yet prove to be virtuous as well as virtual, and may even – irony of ironies – go viral!