By Richard Wineland
For the first 10 years of my ministry I was a Mennonite pastor, serving congregations in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. I experienced a significant insight during those years, a discovery that eventually brought me to the Episcopal Church: the people I ministered among had a deep yearning for the sacraments. When I visited church members in the hospital, they would often ask me to anoint them with oil before praying or ask if I would bring the elements of communion to them. Mennonite theology and worship does not typically dwell on sacraments or liturgy, but at some level my parishioners recognized that something mysterious, mystical, and sacred occurs when tangible elements and Spirit come together, and they hungered for that experience.
Every bishop, priest, deacon, chalice bearer, sacristan, and lay eucharistic minister is aware of something similar. It occurs at that moment — “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” or “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” — and eyes lock. Time stops. There is a numinous crossing over of matter and spirit, an unfolding of the sacramentum or divine mystery. The veil between heaven and earth becomes permeable, porous. In the words of the catechism, these are occasions when there are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.”
In the season of Epiphany we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentile nations, but the word also has a parallel meaning. To experience an epiphany is also to have a preternatural flash of recognition and insight. It is that moment when time stops, when the veil is lifted, when God is experienced in a tangible way through bread, wine, water, oil, or by the laying on of hands.
Long before the creeds made their appearance, our apostolic faith was intensely sacramental. The first Christians did not hold evangelism workshops or issue white papers on what it meant to follow Jesus and proclaim and establish his kingdom on earth. Their theology of evangelism was real and incarnational, rooted in simple yet concrete acts of worship, compassion, mercy, and community-building. They “kept it close to the ground,” as we say here in Tennessee.
You want to know more about our Lord Jesus and his teachings? There’s a group of us who gather at Peter’s house on the Sabbath. He was a disciple of the Rabbi Jesus. We have a meal together and listen to some of the writings of the prophets, then we pray, sing a hymn and receive the bread and the cup, which reminds us of our Lord’s life and sacrificial death. Why don’t you join us?
In this way epiphanies took place, “and day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47, NRSV).
Every so often I am obligated to go online to attend to some business matter. Generally speaking these are not my finest moments, and typically they do not turn out well. A long-forgotten password must be summoned or needs changing, some important disclaimer requires my electronic signature, or vital contact information requires an update for the umpteenth time. Occasionally I run in circles, arguing with a website, or I get sucked into the dark matter of a digital labyrinth from which there seems to be no escape.
I have in more than one instance had to simply give up and print out a paper copy of whatever is vexing me, then return it via the U.S. Postal Service. I am not a Luddite. Although I’m a late Boomer and didn’t purchase my first computer until was 35, I do regular online research for a doctoral degree, access information through apps on my smartphone, use Zoom for meetings, and can navigate Amazon Prime with the best of them. I have not one but three Facebook pages (don’t ask), a personal webpage, and own four web domains. Yet digital is definitely not my first or primary language. I am, as they say, not a native in that world.
I recently had a digital vs. analog epiphany. Last summer I was shopping for a birthday present for my oldest son, who is 24. I found myself wandering the aisles in one of those trendy, urban boutique-style chain clothing stores. As I pondered the relative gift merits of distressed skinny jeans vs. a distressed Fossil watch, my eyes were drawn to an endcap display of vinyl records featuring the latest alternative, underground music. And then I saw it: something I hadn’t seen in a retail store in many years.
It was a cassette tape. Not a used cassette tape, mind you, but a brand-new one, all shrink-wrapped and shiny, with previously unreleased music on it. These past few years I have finally grown used to seeing new vinyl records again, and I have rejoiced at the resurgence of bookstores, classic board games, and Polaroid cameras, but a cassette?
There’s something going on in our culture; people are rediscovering the value of real experiences with tangible objects. As rock & roll singer and vinyl record entrepreneur Jack White wryly observed: “There’s no romance in a mouse click.”
For a generation now the triumph of the digital universe has been proclaimed loudly and enthusiastically. Few places have escaped its reach. Digital, it must be said, is either on or off. It is binary, discreet, clean, and precise. In the digital world, information (Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia,for example) as recorded on a microphone is converted into digits and the information is then somehow displayed.
Analog, on the other hand, is not precise. Analog is messy, flawed. If someone in the third row at symphony hall sneezes, you might hear it in the final recording. Analog recordings, of necessity, accommodate the mishaps, the surprises, the rough edges. The difference between digital and analog may perhaps be akin to the difference between the rigid, exacting arguments of systematic theology and the rough texture of a loaf of fresh-baked Communion bread.
In The Revenge of Analog (2016), David Sax argues that we now may be on the threshold of a counterrevolution. Young people are increasingly hungry for incarnational, tactile, messy encounters, not binary or digital ones. They long for something they can taste, touch, smell, and feel — witness the resurgence of vinyl records, printed books, Polaroid cameras, neighborhood café game nights, etc. Sax argues that
the honeymoon with a particular digital technology inevitably ends, and when it does, we are more readily able to judge its true merits and shortcomings. In many cases, an older analog tool or approach simply works better. Its inherent inefficiency grows coveted; its weakness becomes a renewed strength. (emphasis added)
The Reformation was necessary, a needed course correction for a Church that had lost its way. But what an over-correction! Orthodoxy, or right belief, replaced orthopraxis, or right practice. Our faith embraced the rational (digital?) and lost touch with its contemplative and sacramental heritage and sense of the mystical. In the words of the late songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, in the Church we now spend most of our time “living inside our heads.”
There’s no romance in a mouse click. Here’s a message to those who are tempted to write epitaphs for the Episcopal Church in the United States: Not so fast. There is enormous potential and hope for our tradition if we again recapture what it means to be a truly sacramental, analog church. Anglican theology is intensely both incarnational and sacramental. For Anglicans, Advent and Christmas have equal footing with Easter. We do indeed have a hidden treasure in our understanding and confession that sacraments and a robust theology of the incarnation are occasions for grace and real connection with God.
The Rev. Richard Wineland is director of youth and children’s ministry at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee.