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.

 

Online Communion: Why I don’t want it

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted normal church life in profound ways, and it is raising  significant pastoral and theological issues. Before COVID 19, online communion was a fringe question which very few had entertained, let alone practiced. Now that we cannot be physically present together, many churches are experimenting with various ways of celebrating the Lord’s Supper through social media.

Ryan Danker has written this clear and convincing case against communion in United Methodist tradition, based upon UMC doctrine and liturgy, identifying three key elements that must be present for the Lord’s Supper: the elements of bread and wine, the gathered community, and licensed or ordained clergy.

I largely agree with Danker, but my own Free Methodist articles and liturgies are not so clear, particularly on the importance of the gathered community, and my sense is that Canadian Free Methodist pastors tend to develop local communion rituals rather than using the liturgies supplied in our Manual. The Manual mentions the importance of ordained ministers administering, but it is not an absolute requirement, and it also discusses the Lord’s Supper as a “community event” (chapter 7, page 7) but the question of whether that community must be physically gathered is not addressed.

Whether they approve of online communion or not, I suspect that many churches will be revising or clarifying their rubrics for the Lord’s Supper in the aftermath of this crisis.  As it stands, I would say online communion is an open question for Free Methodists, and each of us in pastoral leadership must reflect carefully on it before we proceed.

It is not my intention to criticize what others are doing. This is a time of unprecedented challenge, and I appreciate the innovative and energetic way that so many pastors and church leaders are adapting. Nor do I expect other FM pastors or other evangelical Wesleyans to approach this the way I do.

Having said that, I wanted to outline why I am reluctant to embrace the practice of online communion. The most decisive issue for me is the necessity of a physically gathered community.

The Lord’s Supper is a physical practice – an embodied enactment and re-presentation of the gospel. It involves our physical senses as well as our spiritual senses. Wesleyans believe Christ is really present in the Lord’s Supper, though we interpret the real presence as a “spiritual presence.” But the emphasis on “spiritual presence” is not meant to drive a wedge between the spiritual reality and the physical signs. The physical signs point to spiritual reality and are means through which God himself communicates with us. The physical and spiritual are inextricably bound up together. And it is our Lord himself who bound them together.

This goes to the heart of our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as what Wesley called an “instituted” means of grace. It is a specific practice ordained by God as a means through which we experience and respond to his presence. God is present to us through a wide variety of means, and there is no limit on the ways God’s grace can reach us. Indeed, God does not “need” the means of grace. And yet, by Christ’s command and promise, God has willed to be present to us at his table in a particular and unique way. There is something special that happens at the Lord’s Supper that does not happen through other spiritual practices. And again, the physicality of the Supper is an essential aspect of this particular or instituted means of grace.

Here is where I think several other issues come into play: theological anthropology (and the doctrine of creation by extension), Christology, and soteriology.  To put it in an all-to-brief nutshell: Our physical bodies were created by God as an essential aspect of our humanity, and part of God’s good creation, which God has redeemed through the bodily work of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ. The Christian hope is for the redemption of our physical bodies through resurrection, following the pattern of Christ.

The essential physicality of God’s economy of salvation is reflected in the way Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper. At the table, God ministers to us in a way that reflects this plan of creation and new creation; we encounter and respond to God’s presence through our physical bodies – through actually taking and eating and drinking.

But that encounter and response is not just about bread and juice or wine, which we might have at home. It is also sharing that bread and cup with God’s people, and about being drawn together as the community of God’s people – persons whose participation in the kingdom includes our physical bodies.

In other words, the Lord’s supper is essentially social and communal. Yes, it is a means through which each of us personally encounters and responds to God’s presence. But it is also a means for which the whole community encounters and responds to God’s presence. As we gather around one table and feed upon the one loaf and the one cup which is the body and blood of Christ, the Spirit draws us together and makes us one.

I can see how some would make an argument that we could preserve the symbolism through a video conference. You could have a pastor breaking the one loaf and holding up the one cup at one table, and each person in their own home partaking of the elements individually. Still, those elements are not being served from the same table, and something is lost there.

But the deeper issue is the absence of physical presence together. The physicality of the Lord’s Supper is not just about the bread and wine but about the physical community of believers who gather in a particular place, around one table, to partake of the elements together.

As people created and redeemed for embodied fellowship with God and one another, our  physical presence together is essential to our gathering as God’s people, and therefore to our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Our practice of “virtual” gathering is the best we can do under the current conditions, but it will never be a Christian assembly in the fullest sense of the word, because we are not bodily present together.

This has implications beyond the Lord’s Supper. Based on what I’m saying here, the church cannot fully be the church unless we can physically gather together. There are lots of things we can do, and there are many ways that we can continue to live out our mission in the world and build one another up in the faith. But the lack of embodied gathering is a fundamental impediment to the life of the church. I’m not saying the church has ceased to be the church in the present time, but I think we should acknowledge that the life of the church is severely inhibited and that the church is suffering profoundly through our physical separation from one another.

If that is the case, then our fasting from the Lord’s Supper is a fitting expression of lament for our present exile from one another. Refraining from receiving the Lord’s Supper underscores our longing to be together again as the gathered people of God. I do not think we should continue as if nothing is lost, and as if we can do all the same things we could do if we were physically together.

I recognize that others, even within my own denomination, will interpret this issue differently. I’m still processing my thoughts and I recognize that this is a very complex challenge. I may need to write some more about it!

I expect that some people will find online communion to be a meaningful experience. But I don’t think it’s what the Lord Supper ought to be.

Cancellation of Wesley Events at Tyndale

Tyndale’s Wesley events planned for April are cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This includes the worship service on April 19, the Ministry Conference on April 20, and the Symposium on April 21.

Those who have already registered will receive a refund.

The Wesley Studies Symposium might be rescheduled for the fall of 2020. Watch for a further notice in the coming weeks.

I pray that the peace of Christ will be with you all. May the Holy Spirit give us wisdom and courage so that we can be faithful servants of the gospel in a difficult and disorienting time.

Thou hidden source of calm repose,
Thou all-sufficient love divine,
My help, and refuge from my foes,
Secure I am, if thou art mine,
And lo! From sin, and grief, and shame
I hide me, Jesus, in thy name.

Thy mighty name salvation is,
And keeps my happy soul above,
Comfort it brings, and power, and peace,
And joy, and everlasting love:
To me with thy dear name are given
Pardon, and holiness, and heaven.

Jesu, my all in all thou art,
My rest in toil, my ease in pain,
The med’cine of my broken heart,
In war my peace, in loss my gain,
My smile beneath the tyrant’s frown,
In shame my glory, and my crown.

In want my plentiful supply,
In weakness my almighty power,
In bonds my perfect liberty,
My light in Satan’s darkest hour,
In grief my joy unspeakable,
My life in death, my heaven in hell.

Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749)

Three Days of Wesleyan Events at Tyndale

In addition to our annual Wesley Studies Symposium, every third or fourth year Tyndale welcomes the Wesleyan community for a conference aimed at ministry leaders.  Past events have featured Ben Witherington, Leonard Sweet, and Timothy Tennent.  This year we are again hosting a ministry conference, back-to-back with our symposium, and preceded by an evening worship service the night before the conference.

Here are the details:

April 19 – Evening Worship Service

At 7 pm on Sunday, April 19, a Salvation Army band and the worship team from Oakwood Wesleyan Church will lead us in an evening of worship featuring a message from Dr. Gustavo Crocker, General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene.  No registration is required.

April 20 – Wesley Ministry Conference

Dr Crocker will be the keynote speaker at our fourth Wesley Ministry Conference on April 20, 9 am – 3:30 pm. The theme for the day is The Whole Gospel in a Fragmented World: Transformational Holiness for Effective Mission, and Dr. Crocker will be supported by Dr. Joel Thiessen, who runs the Floushing Congregations Institute at  Ambrose University where he teaches. Registration is $50 ($25 for students).

April 21 – Wesley Studies Symposium

Dr. Thiessen will remain with us as the keynote speaker for the Wesley Symposium on Tuesday April 21. The day begins at 10:00  with Dr. Thiessen’s lecture, “Signs of Life and Vitality in Canadian Churches: Drawing on Data to Inform Practice.” The rest of the papers are listed in the full program, available now.  Registration is $30 ($20 for students).

Sermon Audio: Peace in the Midst of Trouble

I preached this sermon yesterday at my home church, Wesley Chapel. We have been focusing on the farewell discourse from the Gospel of John through the season of Lent, and yesterday’s text was John 16:16-33.

One of the things I’ve learned in pastoral ministry is most people, if you scratch beneath the surface, have passed through profound trials. You think people live very cookie-cutter lives, but it’s not true. Many people’s lives have been marked by deep tragedy and brokenness.  But in our very private, individualistic Canadian context, these burdens are often carried in secrecy or near-secrecy. I know some of the suffering of the people in our church family, but I am sure there is much more that I don’t know about. It is important that we acknowledge the inevitability of suffering in this life, especially in a culture of convenience and ease, where suffering seems to have become so unthinkable that many people would rather cut their lives short than live with suffering. But the point is not to simply state that suffering is inevitable, but to proclaim how, through Christ, our suffering can be taken up and transformed into a path towards peace and joy.

Themes of grief, lament, and peace in the face of suffering were woven throughout the service. We had a powerful testimony from a mother who lost her 21-year-old son last year, and we introduced this song from Bifrost Arts.

I hope Christ’s words gave some peace and courage to those gathered yesterday: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 

 

Wesleyan Liturgical Society – 2019 Meeting

The Wesleyan Liturgical Society will meet for the fourth time on March 14, 2019, at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.  As in past years, the WLS will meet on the day before the meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society.

Go here to register today and you can still get the early bird rate for both events.

The schedule is posted below.

Annual Meeting of the Wesleyan Liturgical Society

March 14, 2019, Wesley Theological Seminary

1:00 Welcome & Opening Worship

Keynote Address: Anna Adams Petrin, Wesley Theological Seminary

2:15 Break
2:45 Michael Tapper, “Trinitarian Beliefs and Contemporary Worship Lyrics: Exploring the (In)Consistency within Evangelicalism.”

SunAe Lee-Koo, “Eschatological Hope in the Eucharistic Prayer.”

3:45 Break
4:15 Steven Vredenburgh, “Sanctifying Culture: Liturgy as Cultural Imagining.”

Rebecca Davis, “Inaugurated Eschatology and Corporate Worship: God’s Kingdom Breaks In.”

5:15 Business Meeting

 

Installation Sermon: The Triumphs of His Grace

This past Tuesday I was officially installed as the Donald N. and Kathleen G. Bastian Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale Seminary.  I’ve been doing the work of the Wesley Chair since I arrived at Tyndale in January 2013. However, since I was a newly-minted Assistant Professor, I was hired with the understanding that I would be officially appointed to the Chair upon successful application for tenure and promotion. So this Tuesday’s ceremony was nearly six years in coming.

It was a good day to celebrate the partnership between Tyndale and the Wesleyan denominations that sponsor the Bastian Chair: the Be in Christ Church (formerly Brethren in Christ), the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church, the Salvation Army, and the Wesleyan Church. The Bastian Chair was established in 1993, and Donald Bastian (then Bishop of the Free Methodist Church in Canada) was instrumental in drawing the partner denominations together.

Installation Sermon

The sermon audio is below, and it can be downloaded from the Tyndale website.  It was a bit of an unusual sermon – in fact, it was something of a blend of sermon and keynote address. Had the installation been held a separate occasion I would have done an inaugural lecture; since it took place during our regular community chapel service, it needed to take the form of a sermon and speak to the whole Tyndale community.

The scripture readings were Isaiah 25:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

As I said on Tuesday, I am truly grateful for Tyndale and for this unique role, which allows me to serve both the Canadian Wesleyan family and the broader church.