Ecumenical online conference tackles new challenges for churches

By Rev. Marie-Louise Ternier, Anglican Diocese of Saskatoon

The Saskatoon Theological Union (which includes St. Andrew’s College, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Emmanuel St. Chad College) and St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon hosted an online conference in June 2022 entitled Religious Communities in a Digital World. The initiative itself was a remarkable witness to ecumenical collaboration and to a much-needed conversation in “church-land.”

Two pandemic years catapulted all the churches into online ministry by necessity. Few pastors and priests had adequate preparation or resources, and no time to engage important discussions about what the theological, ecclesial and spiritual implications would be of this plunge into the deep end of the digital world. Religious Communities in a Digital World provided a forum in which this reflection and dialogue could begin to take place.

Keynote speakers Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Mahan and Rev. Dr. Deanna Thompson unpacked topics such as Church and Media, Leadership and Authority, Vocations We Do Not Choose, the Virtual Body of Christ, Identity and Community, and more.

With engaging sensitivity and thoughtful clarity the speakers explained how each of these areas are affected by the growing digital culture and by an increasingly fluid social and moral landscape where traditional norms and boundaries are quickly dissipating, a process accelerated by the two pandemic years.

Breakout workshops covered a wide range of topics, from blessings and pitfalls of online worship, creating community through digital ministry, the practice of virtual communion, “why gather-why bother.” All this was sprinkled with inspiring worship lead by talented ministers who led from inside several of the colleges’ worship spaces.

Professor Thompson’s claim that the Body of Christ has always been a virtual body was illustrated by her own personal experience of a cancer diagnosis which made in-person participation in worship a serious health-risk. Online worship allowed her to remain connected to her faith community in real and meaningful ways even before the pandemic arrived.

Today’s online communication platforms offer new ways to grow and sustain community even while they create new concerns and pitfalls. The incarnational nature of our faith is challenged when all interactions are concentrated in digital form.

Participants gained a deeper understanding of the scope of cultural, social and moral fluidity that is sweeping the globe, and by extension the churches, especially in the western world. The scope of this fluidity is growing by the day into areas previously considered fundamental for the good ordering of society such as long-cherished boundaries and authority structures.

As Dr. Mahan illustrated in his presentations, the church has always engaged whatever media was at hand, from St. Paul writing letters to employing the printing press to broadcasting entire worship services on television. Churches are now compelled to use digital media in creative and faithful ways to continue to proclaim God’s love in and through our Lord Jesus Christ.


Rev. Marie-Louise Ternier is an Anglican priest pastoring a shared Anglican-Lutheran ministry in Watrous, SK. Besides being a writer and retreat leader, she is on the chaplaincy team at St. Peter’s College in Muenster,  serves on ARC Canada, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and is the Ecumenical Officer for the Anglican Diocese of Saskatoon.