Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Online Communion?

This one is really just by way of clearing my head and getting my own thoughts straight.  There are a good few articles out there at the moment addressing the question of whether we can celebrate Holy Communion 'together', and if so how we ought to do it, when the present crisis prevents us from physically gathering (for example, this from an Anglican perspective, and a pair of articles with different conclusions from TGC).  I can completely understand the caution around attempting this - novelty in liturgy, like novelty in theology, is always dangerous even when warranted and essential.  But I think I'm in favour of celebrating the Supper online, and this is my attempt to clarify (to myself primarily, and secondarily to anyone else interested) why that is.

To qualify this initially, I should describe our church situation and some presuppositions.  Our church is small, which means that for us meeting online means a Zoom meeting, in which we can all see each other and (at points when we don't have everyone except the preacher muted, hear each other).  We're not talking a livestream or anything like that.  Nor is anything pre-recorded (although I do record the sermon audio during the meeting for posterity!) - it feels as much like being together as is possible when we can't be together.

My theological presupposition around the Supper is that it is intended to be a community meal, albeit a very small one, taken together in remembrance of Christ; and that as it is taken together in faith, the Holy Spirit communicates the spiritual benefits of Christ's body and blood to the church and its individual members.  This understanding rules out entirely the idea that a minister could hold a Communion service apart from a congregation; there is no value in the liturgical act in and of itself without the collective meal.  So a livestream from an empty church of a clergyman reading the words of institution (or some more developed liturgical form) and eating and drinking is not Holy Communion in my reckoning, whatever else it may be.

What is essential, then, to a celebration of the Lord's Supper?  I take it the following elements:

  1. The remembrance of the Lord's death.  In a normal meeting for corporate worship, where the gospel has (hopefully!) already been rehearsed in the liturgy and preached in the sermon, this might mean nothing more than the reading of the words of institution, to link the act of eating and drinking in to the gospel story.  In another context it might require something more extensive to ensure that what is done is understood, and is not a mere ritual.
  2. Bread and wine being consumed together.  The elements are not there just to be looked at; the eating is an essential part of Communion.  It symbolises the gospel truth that Christ does not stand apart from us, but promises to dwell in us, to unite us to himself and thus communicate to us all the benefits of his death, resurrection, and ascension.  So there must be eating and drinking.
  3. Recognition of the body of Christ.  The critique that the Apostle makes of the celebration of the Supper in Corinth is that it is not truly corporate, just everyone doing their own thing.  In particular, this has the effect that the rich feast whilst the poor go without; it is anti-gospel.  There is a necessary corporate element to the Supper, because there is a necessary corporate aspect to the gospel.  To take Communion as if it were merely about me and my spiritual state, and not about the church, is a denial of Christ's work.
Behind these three things, there are two essentials which are impossible to capture liturgically, although they may be alluded to - specifically:
  1. Faith on the part of those who eat and drink.  Without faith, the celebration is of no benefit to the individual.  Just as a sermon heard without faith will not benefit the hearer, so a sacrament partaken without faith will be of no benefit.  (Albeit God in his mercy may use the sacrament to awaken and elicit faith).
  2. The work of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit can really communicate the benefits of Christ's victory to us, his people.  The Spirit unites us to Jesus (and also therefore to one another), doing really and spiritually what is done symbolically by the act of eating and drinking,.  The Spirit is not bound to the sacrament - but he is promised to those who look to Christ in faith.
So what does all that mean for online Communion?

Firstly, it must mean that any online celebration that did not involve the participants actually eating and drinking would not be Communion.  So we would all need to get our own bread and wine.  Can it be a shared meal, when we're not taking from the one loaf and cup?  I think so.  I presume we would all recognise that sometimes more than one loaf would be used in Communion - for example, in a very large church.  This does not impair the shared nature of the meal.  For the Apostle Paul, every Communion meal is "this bread" - a participation in the 'one loaf' which is Christ.  I see no reason why the bread which each person brings to the online gathering and eats in the context of the memorial of the Lord cannot be 'this bread'.

Second, I'd be anxious about taking Communion online if people weren't able to experience the body of Christ - that is, the church community.  Zoom is great for us in terms of creating a genuine togetherness even in our separation.  I wouldn't do online Communion through a livestream or any other setup where I couldn't see the others eating just as they could see me.

Third, the sheer physicality of Communion speaks to the importance of physical presence with one another.  Therefore online Communion could only ever be a stop-gap measure, which would be grounded in real physical celebration together in the past, and taken in anticipation of real physical celebration together in the future.  (I would reserve Communion and take it to the sick with a similar justification).  The Communion meal is always rooted in past celebration ("on the night he was betrayed") and always looks forward to future celebration (when we eat in the kingdom of God), so this weirdly strained version of Communion emphasises that.  All of which is to say, online Communion can never be normative.

Fourth, we need to remember that there is always another location involved in a Communion celebration - namely, heaven.  Lift up your hearts!  As Calvin emphasised (and there is a great essay on this in Sinclair Ferguson's book on pastoring, which I happen to be reading at the moment), the reality of the Supper is grounded in the ascended humanity of Christ.  We are to be lifted up faith to receive him in the Supper by the Spirit.  I would add that our unity as a body is also to be found in heaven; our little congregation on earth is just a foretaste of the great heavenly community still to be revealed.  Perhaps our separated Communion can bring out that emphasis clearly.

Given the positive command to celebrate the Supper, and given that we now have the technology to make something like an online Communion possible, I think we can do it.  I plan to do it on Maundy Thursday.  So if you think this is desperately wrong, please let me know ASAP!


  1. I think I largely agree with this, but I think there's an issue you haven't addressed. If we are to have communion online, care must be taken to ensure that every member of the church (in good standing etc) is able to participate.

    In particular, there will likely be some who are not able to go out and buy wine (or for that matter bread!), due to self-isolation, financial constraints, or not considering it sensible for themselves to have access to a whole bottle in their home. Provision would need to be made for them, probably by delivering the elements in advance.

    Also, more trickily, what about those who don't have internet access? Zoom allows you to join by phoning in, so that might be a solution, but it would be problematic if those without internet access were excluded.

    1. Both good points. In my particular context, the flock is small enough for me to distribute elements ahead of time as needed. We don't currently have any members without Internet access. I think if we did dialing in might be okay - but you certainly lose something in that. But agree people can't be excluded - that's the exact problem in Corinth!

  2. Hi Daniel, this was an excellent piece. Thank you for reflecting so clearly.