Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?

 By Dr. R. Scott Clark - Posted at The Heidelblog:

The Church of Scotland was recently convulsed by a controversy over the call of a practicing homosexual minister.1 According to a recent news report it appears that the Church of Scotland has more trouble with her ministry in her consideration of virtual pastoring.2 One suspects this change in her approach to ministry will not generate the same level of discontent as the controversy over the call of Scott Rennie, but perhaps it should.

In the ’70s there was a recording medium known as cassette tapes. In a commercial, the great Ella Fitzgerald used to hit a note that would break a glass. The hook for the commercial was, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”3 The conceit of the commercial was that the reproduction was so faithful, there was so little loss of signal and so little distortion, that the live Ella and the tape were interchangeable. However true that might have been for audio tape, it is not true for pastoral ministry (or for training pastors).

The cassette (and before that, reel-to-reel) recordings were magnetic analogs of reality, but they were not reality. Despite the illusion created by the advent of CDs and digital recording, we learned in the ’80s that virtual reality is just that: virtual. It is still not real. A digital recording is clean, clear, and crisp (and some still say “cold”), but it is still not the actual voice. Max Headroom was not really able to capture the reporter’s soul.4 He became another thing. So too with virtual or distance ministry.

According to the story, there “are presently an estimated 190 full-time vacancies for clergy across Scotland, which has a population of 5.1 million. Under the proposal, churches would be linked by technology similar to that used in video conferencing.”5 A minister would be in one of the congregations in the Orkney Presbytery and minister by video link to the others. My concern is not that there is magic or power in a local voice as opposed to a digital voice. My concern is more profound. Consider the words “digital presence.” This is an oxymoron. One is either present or he is not. Though locally, bodily absent from us, our Lord Jesus is able to be present with us by virtue of his Holy Spirit; but digital technology is not the Holy Spirit. Your pastor is not actually with you when he is in another congregation ministering. Watching a minister who is conducting his ministry in another congregation and then pretending that he is with you is ecclesiastical voyeurism. It is creepy.