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.

The Free Methodist Position on Baptism (Sermon)

I’ve recently been engaging the controversial question of baptism in Wesleyan theology and practice.  The Methodist position has always been somewhat unusual, and it continues to be of interest despite centuries of discussion and debate.  In the past several months, through student papers, conversations with other pastors, and situations in my own church, I’ve been pressed into renewed consideration of the question.

The occasion for the sermon below was two back-to-back baptism services at Wesley Chapel: four adult baptisms on June 3, and an infant baptism on June 10.  While we’ve had both types of baptism regularly, I don’t believe we’ve ever had them so close together. I realized that, in the ten years I’ve been at Wesley Chapel, we’ve never clearly addressed the question of baptism.

So in the sermon below I’ve attempted to give a brief orientation to the position of our denomination, the Free Methodist church. Given the context of this sermon, my goal was not so much to defend the Free Methodist view (though I do try to answer some common objections) as to articulate it. I also tried not to assume much prior knowledge, given the diverse set of people and church backgrounds we have with us on a given Sunday morning. So the sermon has limitations, and necessarily paints with a broad brush, but I hope it is helpful as a general overview.

*A note to my Salvation Army readers: in the first half of the sermon I set out the major positions on baptism from across the ecumenical spectrum; however, due to time constraints and the heavy amount of content that was already included in the sermon, I decided not to try to explain the non-observant stance of the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends. No disrespect was intended…this was entirely a practical decision. I didn’t think I’d have time to address it adequately. When I teach this topic in the seminary classroom, I always include an explanation of the Salvationist viewpoint.

Fourth Annual Wesley Studies Symposium at Tyndale

On March 13, Tyndale Seminary will be hosting its Fourth Annual Wesley Studies Symposium, organized by Dr. Howard Snyder, Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale.

I’ve been privileged to be a part of the previous three events, and it has been exciting to see the Symposium grow from about a dozen participants in 2009 to well over 50 in 2011.   We’ve had some great presentations from established scholars, practitioners, and graduate students.

Most importantly, it has provided an opportunity for networking among people who are interested in Wesleyan history and theology.  The Wesley Chair is an interesting partnership between five Canadian denominations and Tyndale: the Brethren in Christ, the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methodist Church, The Salvation Army, and the Wesleyan Church.  It has been wonderful to build connections, share resources, and encourage one another across denominational lines via these events.

This year’s program looks very interesting, and covers a wide variety of disciplines and topics (detailed schedule available here).  The papers to be presented are:

  • “Statistical Profile of the Wesleyan Community in Canada,” by Rick Hiemstra (Director of Research and Media Relations, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada)
  • “Graced Practices of the Salvation Army,” by Major Wendy Swan (ExL Program Director and Asst. Professor of Theology, Booth University College; PhD student, King’s College, London)
  • “Herbert E. Randall: From Canadian Holiness Missionary to Pentecostal Leader,” by  Dan Sheffield (Director, Intercultural and Global Ministries, Free Methodist Church in Canada)
  • “The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley”by Dr. Jeffrey McPherson (Asst. Professor of Theology, Roberts Wesleyan College)
  • “Toward a Wesleyan Holiness Homiletic,” by Mark Schnell (Ph.D. student, Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology)

In the evening, we’ll have a keynote lecture by Dr. Victor Shepherd, on the topic “Wesley as Theologian and Leader in the Universal Church.”  Dr. Shepherd is Professor of Theology at Tyndale Seminary, and was the first occupant of the Bastian Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale.

The Symposium will be held in the auditorium of Tyndale’s new Bayview Campus.  If you’re in the area and interested in Wesley Studies, please consider coming, and register here.   The event is free but we do need people to register so we can plan for meals.

Hope to see some of you there.