Further thoughts on online communion

I have appreciated the engaging conversations I have had with colleagues and friends about online communion since I published my last post. I have heard some strong arguments from those who want to celebrate the Lord’s Supper online. In light of those exchanges I thought I should clarify and expand a bit on what I wrote last week.

This is a complicated question without an easy answer, and I see it as a genuinely debatable topic. I have offered reasons as to why I would rather not administer communion online, but I am not saying online communion is “wrong.” That’s far too simplistic.

Much depends on one’s theology of communion. Those with a memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper have fewer hurdles to overcome than Catholics or Anglicans, for whom online communion is officially prohibited. If you are in a denomination that has prohibited online communion for theological reasons then it would be wrong to go against your doctrine and denominational authorities.  The Wesleyan-Holiness churches are in a bit of a mediating position, affirming the real presence of Christ at the table in a spiritual manner, so it is not surprising to see some diversity of opinion.  As I said in my last post, my own denomination’s doctrinal standards do not preclude the possibility of online communion, so I affirm that my fellow Free Methodist pastors have liberty to celebrate online communion.

I believe God is going to honour the sincere intentions of his servants as they navigate this strange time, so I do not doubt that God can work through online communion. I don’t see it primarily as a question of whether or not God can work through online means. Of course God can work through any means or no means at all. I would not hesitate to say that God is working through our innovative and creative uses of technology.  My question is more specific: are online means of communication are a fitting vehicle for celebrating the Lord’s Supper in particular?

A few people thought I was skeptical of the idea of online community, but I affirm that online community can be meaningful and transformative. In online teaching I have seen some people develop much stronger relationships than they might have done in a classroom. On the other hand, someone can be physically present in a community and not connect well with those around them. So online community can be genuine, though I would say in-person community remains the ideal because the body is an essential part of our humanity. The size of the community obviously makes a big difference; a house-church or small group can replicate more of their embodied community online than a large church can. I would also say that there are some aspects of the Lord’s Supper which could translate through an online medium better than others. But regardless of the size of the community, it’s not possible to have a physically gathered community, and I prefer to wait until that is possible, rather than share communion online.

I am confident that God is at work in spite of our physical distance from one another, and it may be that God is going to renew the church in the midst of this chaotic situation. My hesitation about the Lord’s Supper online does not stem from a lack of confidence in God’s ability to work in a strange time or under unusual circumstances. Church renewal has often taken place in strange and unexpected ways! God is working and will work in myriad ways, even now.

But that’s also a reason that I feel I can refrain from the Lord’s Supper for a time: we have many other spiritual practices and disciplines at our disposal. That is one of the notes struck by Brent Peterson in the video below.  Peterson is a liturgical theologian and dean of the school of theology at Northwest Nazarene University.  He adds some other aspects to the discussion that I haven’t addressed in my posts.  I appreciated his congenial and thoughtful reflections.

Again, this is a debatable question and we are trying to answer it in the midst of an extremely challenging and unique situation. I hope my comments can be received as a friendly contribution to an ongoing conversation, rather than an attempt to tell others what they should do. Pastors: you know your context and your congregation and you know your own motivations, so you should follow your convictions and do what you feel is required, knowing that God is going to work no matter how we approach this issue.

 

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