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.
Online communion. I think I will take a pass.
I will be in our Church’s parking lot 7Am Easter Sunday however. Plan to read scripture & sings a few songs for a sunrise service.
Perkins’ Mark Stamm also offered some thoughts on the matter; I found them useful.
Click to access COVID-19-and-On-Line-Communion-article_-MW-Stamm-submitted-to-UMCDM-V2.pdf
Lyle Holland said:
I appreciate the wisdom of considering the long term implications of permitting online communion. Thank you for sharing links to other resources as well.
Mae and I both agree that this trivializes communion. Communion and community, how can you have one without the presence of the other? We will pass on On-line communion. We can hear the word of God spoken on line, but we can’t sit as a community and physically receive the elements through a computer monitor. I think some people think God is like a vending machine, you put in a dollar and can choose from a variety of products depending on your taste. God is God, his commandments are clear, there are no selections. His son Jesus sat physically at table with friends and ate the last supper, knowing full well what was coming. If we love him then so should we do the same in his memory.
Holdeman Gary said:
Kevin; I appreciate your thoughts on this. My question is: Why should we do what the majority of Bishops tell us to do when the majority of Bishops are also approving same sex marriage etc.
In the Army I saw what “rank” sometimes did to otherwise decent men/women. The old saying “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is applicable to some (not all) Bishops as well as soldiers. Especially to those Bishops who have forsaken the Biblical doctrine of original sin.
Cal Brannon said:
Kevin, I appreciate your excellent presentation of this issue. If we don’t serve Holy Communion to a couple at their wedding without serving the congregation, I don’t think we should do it online. The church is the body of Christ incarnate (in the flesh) on earth. It is only visible in its local expressions. Holy Communion is one of those important, visible expressions.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Thank you for sharing Dr. Stamm’s thoughts here, Brett.
Kevin M. Watson said:
This is nicely put, Cal. Thank you.
Steve Perisho said:
You’re welcome. I did not anticipate the link showing up as a document, however. Apologies for the clutter.
Wes Magruder (@wesmagruder) said:
I simply can’t find a solid reason why Methodists would NOT accept the validity of online communion, Kevin. You assert that “the move to permitting online communion is a dramatic departure from the teachings of Methodism,” but how can you justify this when online communion has only been a possibility within the last fifteen years or so?
There is a pragmatic argument that the pandemic creates an extraordinary missional opportunity, along the lines of Wesley’s decision to preach in fields, use lay preachers, and ordain his own preachers. I have heard the pros and cons of this, too.
But I’m looking for a theological reason why online communion should not be done. If the argument is that communion must be done in the gathered community, I think it could be successfully argued that an online community is effectively a gathered community.
What other reasons would you give for not doing this? Thanks!!
Hesitancy in this matter is warranted. I would not equate online with field preaching; Wesley was still face to face with the people he was preaching to. I have benefited greatly from online teaching and interacting via email with a specific teacher, but it is absolutely no substitute for the people to people interaction that truly defines my life on a daily basis. The church needs to be about bringing people physically together.
Furthermore, what I have witnessed locally and observed cruising the internet is that the ritual of communion/Eucharist has become trivialized for many United Methodists–starting with replacing the unleavened wafers with a loaf of bread. The unleavened wafers connect us to a much larger and longer understanding of Christianity: our Jewish heritage and the Passover .
Currently, as far as I am concerned, United Methodism in America has become more about “us” shaping Christianity rather than allowing historic Christianity to shape us. Methodism is in existence because John Wesley took 1700+ years of Christian understanding and made it relevant to his time and place If historic Christianity currently feel irrelevant it is because it has not had a clear and consistent presence in the American UMC for a very long time. I know this because ultimately, the UMC left me so lost, broken and confused, I was forced to wander off in search of answers that would make sense of all the randomness about God that I had collected over a lifetime of being a good church-going Methodist/United Methodist. I found those answers in the teachings of historic Christianity. I wished I had been exposed to such clear teaching a long time ago.
Jason Fry said:
I agree with Wes. The whole crux of the theological issue is what our understanding is of what it means to be “gathered.” In my opinion a view that does not define an online, streamed community as “gathered” is too narrow. If that’s true, then we shouldn’t do online corporate worship at all. And in another place, Kevin, you say that there is nothing in Scripture to support it. Neither is there support for praying with people over the phone, for example. I’ve never seen anyone really address, much less refute what I assert here. Further, to call celebrating communion through an online streamed service “virtual” is a misnomer: a real celebrant consecrating real elements (albeit in a different location than the celebrant) consumed by real people.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Thank you for your comment. I am sorry to hear of your negative experience with United Methodism.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Hi Wes, I find your first sentence baffling. It sounds to me like you are comfortable rejecting the consensus among liturgical scholars across not only United Methodism, but a broader spectrum of Christianity. I can understand disagreement. I cannot understand saying that you cannot find a solid reason for rejecting online communion. I justify the statement you mention because it has been carefully considered by the folks I just mentioned and widely rejected – by people who know of the internet and have given careful consideration to the possibilities and limitations of online communion.
There is indeed a pragmatic argument for doing communion online. I don’t think the examples you give work for reasons beyond what I have time or space to outline here. I’ll just say that early Methodists had a strong value both for communion and for right administration of the sacrament of communion.
I think there are theological reasons given in the resources I’ve linked to. I will say here that I think the incarnation is a theological reason. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This does real work in the sacrament of communion. Among other things, communion is about the body and blood of Jesus.
In Scripture Jesus institutes communion in instances when there is an enfleshed community. The physical presence of that community is not incidental to Christ’s institution of communion. The body of Christ is given to people who have bodies, not avatars or pixels.
In the liturgy of communion itself, the one loaf is connected to the one Body of Christ. This cannot hold through online communion, particularly because people will be eating whatever they find in their houses at the time. Regardless of what people are eating, they will not be eating from the one loaf or drinking from the one cup. The unity that is expressed through communion cannot be preserved online. This is a major problem theologically.
I don’t think there is any way to control when and where people accept permission to have communion once this door is opened, particularly in services that are recorded and archived online. Moreover, many bishops who have embraced this practice have themselves given permission for communion to not only be celebrated through a live online service but whenever it is watched or even through mailing elements.
Finally, I’ll say that I am not an expert in these matters. Part of my concern is that I have a pretty strong sense that there is a fairly strong and wide consensus among liturgical scholars that this online communion is either an oxymoron or extremely problematic. In other words, you should be able to find much better arguments than I am able to give from the authors of This Holy Mystery etc.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Hi Jason. Please see my response to Wes. I don’t think the whole crux of the issue is how we understand what it means to be gathered. I think the crux of the issue is what communion itself actually is. The people I know who have done the most work on understanding the meaning and significance of communion quickly see why it is not something that is possible to do online, in the same way one immediately sees the difference between waving at a camera screen in an online meeting versus shaking hands or giving hugs in person. There are some ways you can gather online and other ways you cannot gather online. Part of my frustration with people pressing for this is that it often feels like some aren’t willing to admit that there is a real and meaningful difference between physical being somewhere and not physically being somewhere. Your last observation begs the question. Whether online communion is virtual or not depends on whether it is really communion or not.
I suspect that if we even simply had in front of us the actual “elements” that people consume in a good sized online communion service it would be hard to take your assertion with much seriousness. The elements used in online communion are virtually guaranteed to undermine the unity of the sacrament itself. There won’t be one loaf. People won’t even all be eating eating from loaves. There will be Ritz Crackers, Saltines, loaf bread, maybe a cinnamon roll or donut that didn’t get finished at breakfast before the service, etc. I will refrain from speculating on what people will drink, but I expect it will be similarly fragmented. Many people will grab whatever they have on hand and will not have prepared ahead of time, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. It would strike me as exceedingly odd when we are not worshipping together because we need to stay in our homes to slow the spread of the disease to encourage people to make a special trip to the grocery store to buy exactly the right elements for their online communion service. And even if this practical concern were addressed, all of the other problems remain.
But it sounds to me like you will choose to take advantage of the permission the bishops have given (assuming you are a pastor, apologies if I am wrong). I could certainly be wrong. And these are certainly very unusual and challenging times. I find that the enthusiasm for online formation almost always over-promises and under-delivers. May the Lord give us both wisdom and discernment now and always.
Wes Magruder (@wesmagruder) said:
Kevin, thank you for your thoughtful response to my comment. I agree that the Incarnation is a major theological concept that stands in the way of online communion — I just didn’t see it in your article above. I thought you were more interested in the practical questions than the theological, so I was trying to understand what is actually at the core of your understanding.
Having said that, as long as the communicants on the other side of the screen are eating real bread and drinking real juice/wine, then why is the Incarnation a stumbling block? We are still using physical, tangible objects as a sign, we are still gathered, we are still united by the Holy Spirit around the table.
You suggest that it’s important that we all eat from the one and same loaf and same chalice — you make a fair point, but still there are problems. First of all, that will be impossible in the post-COVID in-person worship gathering — I doubt anyone will be doing intinction any time soon. And does this mean that Catholic-style wafers are unacceptable? What about grape juice that is poured, literally, from two different bottles of juice into the various juice that will be distributed on a given morning?
What this seems to me is to degenerate quickly into a legalistic, must-be-this-way tangle of sacramentalist dos-and-donts. And Methodists generally revert to their pragmatic, evangelical roots in times like this, don’t we?
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