Should United Methodist pastors celebrate communion online? The question arose for me when I received an email from my bishop announcing that he was granting permission to “celebrate the sacrament of holy communion through a recorded or online worship service to which people are invited to gather as a congregation from a distance.”
From what I gathered a significant majority of United Methodist bishops in the U.S. have granted permission in similar ways.
My intent here is not to find fault or take cheap shots at our bishops. I recognize that this is an unprecedented time in the life of United Methodism. I also realize that our bishops are working extremely hard and are being pulled in a variety of different directions in this season. They are having to make rapid decisions in a variety of areas, for which no one was really prepared. I do not fault them for this. And I believe they are doing the best that they can.
I write this post to share a handful of resources that I implore you to consider before you choose to open the door to online communion. The fact that your bishop has given you permission to celebrate communion online does not mean that you have to celebrate communion online. The challenge in the current moment is that the recent actions are in tension with the most careful consideration about communion in times of less tension and stress. Put as simply as I can, the move to permitting online communion is a dramatic departure from the teachings of Methodism. (There are also a host of ecumenical challenges that arise in the wake of this that are beyond the scope of what I can speak to here.)
If you choose not to celebrate communion online this week out of an abundance of caution and to give careful consideration to what is at stake, you can always choose to do it later. A practical concern I have at this stage is that if you take this step Sunday, you will have a very difficult time walking it back later.
Two quick thoughts before I share the best recent resources I’ve seen from United Methodist scholars:
First, online communion is either really communion or it isn’t. The COVID-19 crisis has no actual bearing on whether communion can be celebrated virtually by people who are not able to be together. I think it will be impossible for bishops who have permitted this for only this particular season to justify withdrawing permission to do so after the church is able to gather together in person again.
If online communion isn’t really communion, and that is why the permission is only given for this season, we should not call it communion and we should look for other ways to engage the hunger that people are experiencing for God’s presence.
Part of what you are deciding right now is whether you are willing to normalize online communion going forward. Are you comfortable with someone watching this Sunday’s service at 2am in the morning two years from now and having communion?
Second, the well-intentioned move to permit online communion actually does the opposite of what is intended. Will communion come to have greater value within the church by celebrating online? Or will it be further trivialized?
Part of what has surprised me about this whole conversation is that I have experienced United Methodism as generally fairly disinterested in communion. I know there are exceptions. But I think the sad truth is that few UM churches with ordained elders see communion as absolutely essential to the church’s ministry. I worry that we are overreaching to try to fix things we can’t control in the midst of this crisis. The hard truth is that we can’t fix coronavirus and its drastic impact on the church.
Let me try to express my concern by asking a different question: Will United Methodists be more likely to find renewal in sacramental practice through practicing online communion throughout the coronavirus pandemic (however long it lasts)? Or, will United Methodists be more likely to find renewal in sacramental practice by allowing the longing to be together and receive the body and blood of our Lord and Savior to build in intensity, as it should, until we are able to meet again?
I have a strong suspicion the second is more likely to lead to renewal than the first.
I already feel strong anticipation for the first week my church comes back together and I am able to receive the sacrament in the midst of a mass of humanity. I am longing to kneel at the altar to pray, as I am nourished again by the sacrament of Holy Communion. Sometimes it is better to wait, even when expectation builds and there is a gnawing hunger for God, than to force an alternative practice that cheapens the thing itself.
This is one of those times. The United Methodist Church would be wise to allow the desire everyone is experiencing for incarnate connection and community to build until it can be experienced fully again.
The above thoughts are mostly pragmatic responses I’ve had as I have been wrestling with this. Here are three crucial resources that provide insight and guidance for thinking theological about ministry in this season. Please make time to check these out!
Justus Hunter, who teaches at United Theological Seminary, has written “Communion in Chaos in the UMC” at livingchurch.org that explores the initial rationale for online communion and provides helpful background.
Andrew Thompson encourages us to “Celebrate a Eucharistic Fast” in his piece at Ministry Matters. I’m grateful for Andrew’s contribution. He wrote his dissertation on John Wesley’s theology of the means of grace at Duke Divinity School.
Ministry Matters has also developed a section of their site focused on Christian Worship and Devotion During Social Distancing: A Resource for United Methodists. I highly recommend reading through the variety of articles and resources there. They address different aspects of faithful leadership in this challenging season.
This is a difficult time to be in ministry. I am praying regularly for the church that I love. We have good options for ministering as effectively as we can in this era of “social distancing.” And we can do this in ways that actually increase a desire for gathering together to worship Jesus and receive communion when the current restrictions are lifted.
For those of you who are pastors in this season, you face a variety of very difficult decisions. May the Holy Spirit guide and direct your steps and enable your faithfulness now and in the days to come. Amen.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.