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Communion in the Time of Coronavirus
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download 2Like most United Methodist churches, the church I serve has had to move our worship online for the foreseeable future. “Social distancing” and restrictions on the size of gatherings to ten or fewer people have significantly altered our Sundays, and while we can still engage in liturgy, prayer, sermon, and Scripture reading online, the biggest challenge is around Holy Communion.

 

Tri-Lakes UMC practices Holy Communion as part of our worship every Sunday at every worship service. We take seriously the pattern of the early church as well as John Wesley’s admonition to commune as often as possible since it is one of the key “means of grace.” We’ve been sharing in weekly communion for most of my ten years at the church and it has become the central act of our worship gathering. It’s the thing that people miss the most when we are not able to gather in person. As I often say, even if the sermon is lousy you will still get the gospel through the liturgy!

 

So, why not simply move communion online, too? Why not do so especially in this extraordinary, temporary crisis when we can’t physically gather? A lot of pastors are considering this. Truth be told, I considered it, too. I even planned for it for this coming Sunday. I have always been against the idea, but it seemed the pastoral thing to do to have people gather up bread and grape juice to use at home along with the liturgy they would hear during our livestream. Surely, Jesus would understand.

 

But after a lot of research, soul-searching, and consultation with a professor whom I trust and admire, I concluded that I couldn’t do online communion. In a world where everything is rapidly becoming disembodied and virtual (and how much more so will it become after this crisis!), Holy Communion, like baptism, stands as a sacrament of the Church that is fully embodied, shared in community, and grounded in the real presence of Christ. To make the sacrament virtual and individual not only violates that embodied-ness, it also sets the precedent that gathering together at the Table isn’t all that important in the long run. We need the tangible commonality of shared bread and wine and the real presence of one another with the real presence of Christ in our midst.

 

The United Methodist Council of Bishops took up this matter in 2014 and concluded that a moratorium should be placed on the celebration of online communion. I agreed with them then (a rarity, if you know me well!) and I still do, even though the present circumstances gave me pause. Indeed, other practices like “drop-in” communion and pre-consecration of the communion elements to be used later are equally invalid ways of distributing the sacrament. Our official United Methodist document on Holy Communion, This Holy Mystery, expresses it this way:

 

“The Communion elements are consecrated and consumed in the context of the gathered congregation. The Table may be extended, in a timely manner, to include those unable to attend because of age, illness, or similar conditions. Laypeople may distribute the consecrated elements in the congregation and extend them to members who are unavoidably absent” (pg. 22). 

 

To “extend” the elements means that the elements have been consecrated within the liturgy among the gathered congregation and then taken from the Table and served to those who are unable to be present through no fault of their own (the sick and homebound, for example).

 

The Articles of Religion in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, says:

 

The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.

 

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshiped. (Article XVIII)

 

Now, one might understandably ask if an online congregation is a “gathered” congregation. This is one of the arguments used for online communion. While the current and historic answer is “no”, this is a huge question that the Church will continue to wrestle with as virtual meeting technology becomes more embedded in 21st century life. We have to ask, for example, if we’re really having “Supper” together if we’re eating in different places, or if the sacrament can actually be said to be “given, taken, and eaten” when the officiant and the communicant are not physically present with one another.

 

Officiating at Holy Communion is the highlight of my Sunday every single week. As an ordained Elder, I embrace the authority to proclaim the powerful word of thanksgiving and grace to the assembled church; I get to break the bread and lift the cup, which fills me with awe every single time at what God has done for us; I get to look people in the eye and tell them that Christ’s body and blood were given for them. I am grieving over the fact that I can’t do any of that with my gathered church family right now; nor can I “extend the Table” in person with those who are homebound because of the need for social distancing. It’s a deep dilemma, and I won’t condemn other pastors who will wrestle with this and make different choices despite our sacramental doctrine. Extraordinary times challenge us all, and all of us are trying to do the best we can.

 

My agonizing conclusion, however, is that the current crisis–no matter how extreme–cannot become a catalyst for us to change our sacramental theology, doctrine, and practice. During the weeks ahead, we will continue to look for ways to share in the sacrament in a way that comports with our doctrine and Discipline, if that’s possible. I invite my creative colleagues to share their ideas of how they are managing to maintain the sacrament with integrity in these unusual circumstances. In the meantime, however, there are some alternatives to consider.

 

For the next several weeks at Tri-Lakes, for example, we’re going to institute the old practice of the Love Feast along with our online worship services. This ancient practice, which was adopted by the early Methodists, is a spiritual meal that doesn’t rise to the level of a sacrament, but nonetheless invites small groups of people to share in breaking bread in their homes, praising God, and witnessing to God’s work in their lives. You can read a helpful history of the practice along with some suggestions for sharing it here. We’ll use this meal as an opportunity for the church scattered to meet together until come back together as the church gathered. It’s a meal that doesn’t try to use bread and grape juice in a way that imitates the sacrament–then again, you probably couldn’t find bread and grape juice in the store right now anyway!

 

That this coronavirus crisis is happening during Lent is not lost on me. Lent is a time of fasting, penitence, and prayer, and this particular Lent we’re all being forced to do more of those things than we might have planned. The thing about fasting, however, is that it makes the feasting at the end even more joyous. I cannot wait for the day when we break this imposed fast and join together once again around the table for Holy Communion in worship. What a joyous celebration of Great Thanksgiving that will be!



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