Our 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.