Communion and Social Distancing (Crossing the Virtual Line?)

pic- bible and communionOur Bishop and Appointive Cabinet have given permission to practice alternative forms of Holy Communion where we “extend the table” through the distribution of pre-packaged elements or inviting participates to provide their own elements during a “live” gathering via Facebook or Zoom.  I am thankful for these guidelines as we all seek to do ministry in new and creative ways.  The guidelines given, however, focus more on logistics than on theology, which has led me to some needed reflection.  Not “can we”, but should we practice online communion during this time of social distancing?  How might this distort our understanding of the sacrament or cause unintended consequences?

To get into these questions, I started with the exercise of giving an “elevator speech” for how we understand holy communion. Here’s what I might say: “We believe that Holy Communion is a sacrament, which means that as we do what Jesus invites us to do, God is present and promises to act. Our communion together becomes an outward and visible channel of God’s grace in our lives, where we are incorporated into the story of salvation, fed with holy food, and connected together in peace and love.  This is not “magic” or “hocus pocus (a phrase possibly derived from the Latin where it is said that the bread becomes the body of Christ).  It is, however, a mystery. Communion is an opportunity for us to participate in the mystery of God who, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, comes into our lives in real, tangible, and incarnate ways.  We need more of this mystery in our lives!”

“When Jesus said ‘do this,’ he meant more than taking the elements; rather, he meant the whole experience – of gathering in real time, sharing in a blessing that includes an account of how God’s comes to save and the words that Jesus said over the bread and cup, followed by an invocation of the Holy Spirit to be present in our receiving and sharing. Next, the one who is duly called and ordained to administer the sacrament in keeping with the Apostolic Tradition, breaks the bread to be shared. In often open hands, each participate receives a portion of the larger loaf, shared from a common table that extends, from a spiritual perspective, beyond time and space into heaven itself.  In Holy Communion we become a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  As we “do this” the healing, strengthening, and transforming love of Christ is given so that we might be the body of Christ in the world.  And finally, Christ is the host of this event; therefore, we do not judge who can come.  All who long for this love, who want to come and receive, and who desire to live in peace with others, are invited.”

Yes, that may be a little long for an elevator ride.  But if this summary has theological merit, then the question remains – not can we, but should we engage in online communion?  For my initial thoughts, I would give a cautious and qualified “yes.” I would say every effort needs to be made to keep it in “real time.” The notion of the incarnate presence of God is inherent in the nature of our understanding of the sacraments. It is about real, tangible, incarnate grace given in real time and space.  Facebook Live, for example, could work, but it would need to be clear that any views after the event should not to be used as communion.   Zoom might be a better medium, with its face to face feature in real time. Both of these options provide for the corporate nature of the sacrament – to some extent.

These virtual mediums also allow for the elements to be consecrated by one who is duly ordained to administer the sacraments. This is important as a way to honor the Apostolic Tradition – the passing on the faith of the Apostle and maintaining the traditions of the larger church, bringing the blessings of the church, beyond time and space, into our time and space and into our lives. As an Elder in the Church, I can’t just make stuff up.  While I am also called to be creative and adapt, I must do so in this larger context and in respect to the liturgy that has been given to me.  That’s what an elder is to do.  It is our job to struggle with such questions and work towards this balance.

With that said, Maundy Thursday is approaching.  To honor the mandate for social distancing, I will likely lead my congregation in some form of virtual communion. Our current plan is to do a Facebook Live Devotion early in the day, which will include an invitation to one of several Zoom gatherings for holy communion, asking people to provide their own bread and juice, while mentioning that both elements are not required.  We believe Zoom will provide us with a “real time” and “in-person” experience, needed to maintain the integrity of the sacrament.   At the same time, I will trust that God’s grace is big enough to overcome many shortcomings – which is a part of our understanding of sacraments.  Ultimately it is something that God does for us, and often in spite of us.  I invite your thoughts and wisdom.

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! I am also a delegate to General Conference. Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.Min).

5 thoughts on “Communion and Social Distancing (Crossing the Virtual Line?)”

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. I’ve been struggling with the best practice. I have no doubt that Jesus Christ can move through all time/space, even Zoom. I would give the benefit of the doubt that anamnesis can take place via the internet, but extending the table is not being done. 1/3 of our folks do not have the internet or know how to find the link for worship. New attenders that might find their way to our doorsteps will most likely not find us through our Zoom link. The extension of the table therefore is limited, preserved for a percentage of privileged. It’s a no for me.

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  2. Although thre church has not approved virtual communion, I would say yes because we never dreamed of these circumstances. A local church could email the communion liturgy to use and it would be more if a personal invitation. My guess is that more would participate than usual. God would be with us in the same way that were are still the church using virtual worship.

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  3. Some really great theological thoughts, here, Michael. A couple of “leaning into the conversation” ideas:
    First, while I agree with all of the things you said about ordination, we UMs can’t really claim that our ordination is part of Apostolic Tradition. *However,* I think that our ordination does set apart certain persons to preside over the sacraments. Our authority is not dependent on Apostolic Tradition, though.

    More importantly, I’d suggest that when we worship via Facebook Live, we are not “virtually” worshipping. We are worshipping. There is nothing “virtual” about our gathering to properly praise and honor God. This online space certainly limits physical touch between the participants. But I’d submit that it does not lessen the praise and honor that is given God, nor the participation of the community in the vital acts of worship (entrance/gathering; prayer and praise; proclamation of the Word [scripture and sermon]; offering; sending forth). Would we prefer to be physically gathered? Of course! But I’d suggest that this mysterious ether in which are now gathering is *still* gathering.

    Thus, in this space, communion is not virtual, but is indeed communion. We certainly confess that as we participate in the sacrament, part of the mystery that is made incarnate is the “extension of the table” in time and space to unite us with all Christians who share in communion (hence, World Communion Sunday). If this is so, then why would online space be discounted?

    In the interest of being completely frank in a discussion about communion, we should also discuss baptism. Here the sacrament requires them physical touch of the officiant and the candidate. Or at least, I have not figured out how it does not. I suppose that the existent circumstances of being in a place with no water and a dying person who desires the sacrament would make it possible to conduct the sacrament in a way that does not adhere to our general understanding of this sacramental theology. That has always seemed to be a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” argument, though. Now we are in the metaphorical desert.

    It seems to me that Jesus was ever looking to break down the barriers between people and their ability to experience the presence of God. He certainly didn’t let the observation of the Sabbath (which could conceivably be compared to a sacramental type activity in Jesus’ day) get in the way of healing or other activities. Perhaps (and *only* perhaps) Jesus would say to us that communion was made for people and people were not made for communion.

    I’d add that I completely agree with being very cautious about this, and that once the pandemic is over (please, let it be soon, Lord), that theologians far smarter than me will need to study, debate, and write about these very ideas so that we can continue to live into the world that is around us in ways that remain faithful to our God.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up and doing so, as always, in a sagacious, gentle, and holy way.

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  4. Michael,

    Thanks for taking this matter seriously. It is clear to me you are doing that.

    However, I hope you will also take seriously the work of the two task forces that first advised the bishops to call for a moratorium on online sacramental practice in 2013, and then provided additional guidance throughout 2014 that led them to extend that moratorium indefinitely.

    It is true that Facebook Live as a platform did not exist in 2013 or 2014. It would not come to the fore until the second half of 2015. However, a growing number of churches were in fact already livestreaming their services through other platforms with interactivity at the time. YouTube had been among these since 2008. There were also platforms for online conferencing similar to Zoom in use. Google Hangouts, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and others have been around a good while, not to mention other open source platforms that were entirely free at the time. So to suggest, as you seem to, that the guidance of the task forces working on these matters did not take the possibilities such platforms offered into account is simply false. We precisely did.

    We found them lacking in the ability to accomplish an irreducibly physical element beyond “consecration”: giving. There is no way for the presider to GIVE the bread over which that presider has prayed to the persons watching the service online. The fourfold actions of Jesus with his gathered disciples were Take, Bless, Break, Give. These, not incidentally, are also the fourfold actions of all thanksgiving sacrifices described in the Bible. The priest takes the grain or other offering brought by those who bring it. The priest blesses God and offers the gifts on the alter (via cooking or burning). Then the priest, with assistance from others, divides what is offered (THAT very matter), divides it for the people who have come to that sacrifice, and gives it to them. When Jesus says “This is my body” the “This” matters. This bread. This cup. This is what he gives them. And THIS is what he GIVES them. This just doesn’t work via remote viewing.

    This is the logic of extension of table. It is precisely the elements of THIS bread and cup blessed at THIS assembly that are taken and then physically given to those unwillingly absent. Why? Because both THESE elements actually prayed over (and in the older rubrics, physically touched by the presider– go read Wesley’s Sunday Service sometime) and then physically GIVEN, so all share, really, in one bread, one cup.

    WHEN it is possible to give persons unwillingly absent from the same bread and cup blessed in the gathered assembly– which also presupposes some gathered assembly can safely gather, and others can safely distribute, neither of which is possible at this time– then extension of table would be possible again. I would suggest that would NOT be the case for safety reasons until the safe group size is substantially higher than 10, because if you extend that even a little bit, you see that each person present could not safely deliver the elements to more than one or two persons, IF THAT, if you take group size to include those to whom they would deliver them. (And right now, that is what should be done!). Those not present were presumably unwillingly absent, and so could receive THAT bread and THAT cup from persons who WERE physically present. The service COULD be livestreamed. But the reception would NOT be simultaneous with the initial service, but with when the elements blessed, broken, and poured, could be given by one who was there to those who unwillingly were not.

    Thank you for listening. And thank you for thinking out loud about these things in such a careful way.

    Peace in Christ,

    The Rev. Taylor W. Burton Edwards (AKA Liturgy Man)
    Former Director of Worship Resources (2005-2018, when the position was eliminated)
    The United Methodist Church

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    1. Thank you Taylor for you long-time work on this and your needed perspective. I do apologize for the statement about these options not being around when the momatorium was given. I do see now how that was less than accurate. In my mind, these platforms are new and I was distinquishing them as different from livestreaming a service. As the discussion continues, I do need to be more precise. I also appreciate your reasoning. After we make it through this crisis there will be a need for even more serious conferencing. Our episcopal leaders have opening the bag, so to speak, and it may be hard to close it.

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