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.