Should a virtual sacrament bear the real presence?
We are living in an unusual time for the church. Necessary social distance demands banning large public events, which means gathered worship is off limits for the time being in many parts of the world. In North Carolina, this looks to be until at least mid-May.
Aside from more immediate concerns like caring for anxious family and vulnerable church members, this leaves pastors with critical questions: How do our communities stay connected? How can we continue to effectively serve our people? What does worship look like in this environment?
I’ve been impressed with the creativity and innovation of my colleagues over the last few weeks. I empathize with pastors who feel unprepared for this season, who are suddenly having to learn new technologies and utilize unfamiliar equipment on the fly. I’m with you. Still, the burst of new ministries and methods is beautiful to see.
Of particular concern for many UM leaders as we worship in new ways is the question of sacraments. Is now the time to celebrate communion over WiFi?
“Online” or “virtual” communion is not a new question in the UMC. Several years ago an official study group was commissioned after a church in North Carolina proposed beginning an online campus complete with Holy Communion. That resulted in a moratorium after a large gathering of stakeholders in Nashville. You can read the documents from this controversy here; my own response, given at a smaller Western North Carolina Conference discussion, is here. At the time, the chief concern was ecumenical agreements about a shared table that would be damaged had this been approved.
But over the last week, in response to churches being forced to avoid public gatherings, a number of UMC bishops have given official authorization for this practice. The bishops representing the two Ohio conferences put out this document, and the Louisiana bishop (soon to be the President of the Council of Bishops) released this guidance, citing the Ohio document. Several other American bishops have given similar permission.
A few questions arise.
In For the Life of the World. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, formerly of St. Vladimir’s Seminary) makes the case that questions about sacramental validity, and forensic accounts of when and how the eucharistic elements are consecrated and are largely unknown the Christian East. With a nod to Fr. Schmemann, I would suggest that the validity of online communion is not the question to ask. “Why can’t God work this way?” is an exercise in missing the point. If the question is posed as, “Can God….?” the answer is almost always, “of course.” The question is not about God’s power but our discernment.
In the UMC, context is king. What the Bible is for Southern Baptists, and Tradition is for the Orthodox, context is for the UMC. Thus we are told by several of the aforementioned bishops that this is a unique circumstance, and thus a special – and temporary – dispensation for a non-standard practice is given. We are “in extremis,” they say, meaning an extreme or emergency circumstance, which necessitates this new direction.
Because context is king in the UMC, declaring in extremis (which has no basis in our own church law or tradition) is the equivalent to Ricky Bobby saying “all due respect” before insulting someone to their face. It is a get-out-of-jail-free card deployed as a shield against any counterargument. The more important point is that, even if in extremis were a part of Wesleyan teaching, the bishops are using it incorrectly.
What is at Stake?
“So what?” Is this liturgical hang-wringing, just another form pharisaism? Shouldn’t we, with Wesley, “consent to be more vile”? Many suggest that this is our field preaching moment.
What is at stake are an array of issues that all touch on the sacrament itself, but we will focus on two: ecclesiology and Christology.
First, what does it mean to be the church in an internet age? Can we simply assume that online connection is the same as – or close enough to – face-to-face community? I am not a Luddite; I love podcasts, I’m doing all sorts of ministry right now on social media, and I hope every single church is finding creative ways to continue making disciples at this time.
That said, technology is often useful as a servant, but cruel as a master. We cannot simply affirm that connection over a livestream or other technology is the same as being physically present. If Catfish has taught us anything, it is that technology can be used as much to hide from one another as it can be to create community. We should seek the virtue that is in the middle: the Body of Christ is not fully itself in the digital realm alone, but we also do a disservice to the God who gives us innovators if we attempt to ignore social media and the new means of connection provided to us by technology.
Second, what does online communion say about Jesus? It is odd, at best, to digitally disembody a sacrament that offers us the real presence of Jesus. Again, the question of validity is moot. The question here is of propriety. It is it fitting with the Christian narrative to render virtual a sacrament that is so overtly fleshy?
Historically, the church has rejected teachings that downplay the full humanity of Jesus, or reject the necessity of embodiment. In the long struggle of the church against gnostic impulses, there is a lesson here for us today. Digital connection cannot bear the “weight of glory” of the divine presence meant as a gift for the (physically) gathered community which confesses, gives thanks, and offers gifts together. (2 Cor. 4:17)
Stewarding the Church’s Treasure
Whether or not God can bless a virtual sacrament is the wrong question. The question is, how do we treat the holiest treasures with which God has entrusted the church? We are stewards of these mysteries, not creators. (1 Cor. 4:1)
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Denethor has become evil precisely because he forgot his place as Steward and acted as if he was the King. This headlong rush to reconfigure the sacraments digitally in order to meet a new situation, without any ecumenical consultation or even church-wide discussion, is folly. It is to treat ourselves as owners or sovereigns, rather than stewards, of God’s good gifts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer began his classic The Cost of Discipleship with these sobering words:
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices.”
We are stewards, not sovereigns. Let us not offer to God a cheapened, half-baked eucharist.
Three Better Options
So what do we do instead? Here are three alternative practices to online communion that are worth considering in this odd season.
- A love feast. My friend Hugh pointed this out to me. The love feast is a part of Methodist tradition, and is especially appropriate when communion is not possible for some reason.
- Spiritual communion. I’m seeing this especially from Anglican/Episcopal friends. This is a way to honor the need for the sacrament without bending it to our purposes. Here is an example from the National Cathedral, and an article about it from another Anglican source.
- Baptismal reaffirmation (NOT repetition). United Methodists have a liturgy for this in our hymnal that is quite powerful. Because this involves remembering the sacrament rather than repeating it, an ordained or licensed clergyperson is not required. (A related question for another post: doesn’t temporary approval for online communion necessitate approving online baptism, as a corollary?)
These bishops and the pastors who will take their guidance are acting with pastoral intentions. I am sure these bishops are sincere in their desire to equip the church for this unprecedented season. However, as Dr. Mickey Efird was fond of saying, “sincerity is no guarantee of one’s being right.”
A more faithful response is found in a fruit of the Spirit that is as unpopular today as it is necessary: patience.
In a beautiful piece, Luther Seminary Professor Dirk Lange examines the question of virtual communion from within the Lutheran tradition and finds it lacking. The answer to such a time as this, he urges, is not distorting our practices, but living by “faith alone”:
“We are invited into the spiritual discipline of restraint. Our yearning – our communal yearning – marks and nurtures a growing communion within the faith community. This yearning is a new spiritual reality for many of us. It is also an ancient one within the communion of saints.”
We are not the first Christians to have to wait for a season to celebrate the sacrament. Rather than see this as an emergency situation necessitating new practices, let us see it as our forbears have: an invitation to wait in faith, during which our hunger for God can grow until we can joyfully gather again.
Since writing, two other pieces by UM scholars have been posted that are worth your attention.
- Justus Hunter from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio has a guest column at Living Church which corrects the misuse of ‘in extremis‘ as well as other questionable statements from recent episcopal pronouncements.
- Ryan Danker from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. writes for the Baltimore-Washington Conference about why patience, and leaning into the other means of grace, are better options for the people called Methodists in this unusual season.