My spirit soars with particular energy whenever the people of the church spend time in the depths of authentic theological conversation. Presently, such theological conversation is happening robustly around the church’s virtualization (i.e., the church’s movement to online settings) in these days of quarantine and social distancing. It may be that the current theological searching and wrestling is part of God’s creative redemption of these difficult days.
Perhaps some of the most compelling recent theological discourse revolves around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The driving question in much of the conversation is this: Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually? Or, to put in another way, can we share the sacramental bread and cup when we are connected online but not physically present in the same geographical space?
(Note: I address these matters as a United Methodist clergyperson, speaking from a United Methodist perspective. I will honor other denominations by allowing their voices and leaders to speak out of their own sacramental theology and tradition.)
Allow me to cut to the proverbial chase: In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop—Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi—has made it clear that United Methodist Churches in Western Pennsylvania are NOT to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in virtual settings. My sense is that the Bishop has issued this directive for no other reason but to guard both the theological identity and the ontological integrity of the sacrament (which is precisely what we count on our Bishop to do). I am grateful for Bishop Cynthia’s clarity and leadership in this regard.
Beyond this practical and clear directive, however, the theological conversation around the Lord’s Supper and its proper celebration continues to find compelling expression. Some have been quick to articulate their strong opposition to “virtual Holy Communion” on the grounds that such a practice would constitute the “disembodiment” of the sacrament—i.e., the removal of the sacrament from its necessary concreteness and its physical community. According to this argument, the act of virtualizing or digitalizing the Lord’s Supper would dangerously distort both the sacrament’s incarnational nature and its celebration of a fully-embodied Christ whose living presence calls for a fully-enfleshed community.
On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the Holy Spirit is hard at work to redefine and reconfigure “embodiment” in this season of crisis where disembodiment (i.e., social distancing) has become a necessary norm. According to this line of thought, the Holy Spirit’s sacramental work cannot be confined by the church’s physicality and is just as efficacious in a virtual connection as it is in physical congregation. Those who espouse this perspective are likely to suggest that prohibiting a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper irresponsibly elevates the physical over the metaphysical, thereby generating a truncated sacramentology in which the Holy Spirit is not given adequate space in which to usher an isolated people into a transformational communion with the real presence of Jesus and with one another.
So, here we are.
I would suspect that neither “side” in this sacramental discourse is comprehensively right, and that both perspectives (and other perspectives between them) articulate important priorities that help to illuminate what is ultimately best for the church’s practice. Wherever it is that you land in the spectrum of the discourse, I encourage you not to allow your position to become so soundproof that you fail to hear what is right or helpful from other voices.
My personal conviction is that the entire conversation is helping the church to develop and clarify what might be called its theology of embodiment. What do I mean by “theology of embodiment?” I simply mean the church’s understanding of how God coordinates the mystical territory between “essence” and “substance;” between “in-person” and “online;” between the corporeal and the virtual. In other words, a theology of embodiment wrestles with this question: “What truth and illumination does the Incarnation—the “in-the-flesh-ness” of God in Jesus—bring to our understanding of physicality, virtual connection, and the sharing of the bread and cup?”
The church’s current theology of embodiment does not permit the church to validate or sanction an online or virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To put it simply, the church has a long history of interpreting the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of a living Christ who is embodied in the bread and cup, the consecration of which demands a physically gathered community whose corporeality bears witness to the very flesh that the Incarnation redeems. Will that interpretation change over time as our experience of virtual community continues to expand? Time will tell. But an altered sacramental interpretation would require a substantially reworked theology of embodiment.
Again, Bishop Cynthia’s instruction to the United Methodist Churches of Western Pennsylvania not to celebrate virtual or online communion is both clear and helpfully binding, which is essential to remember in our development of a unified sacramental approach.
If you are a pastor or church leader, I encourage you to continue to offer creative and safe ways for your people to experience connection, worship, prayer, and community. Utilize the telephone with new urgency. Livestream and record your worship where possible. Set up phone and video conferences for your meetings and Bible studies. Consecrate the chambers of cyberspace so that they might become tabernacles. Help your people to embrace the truth that not even a necessary social distancing can prevent the church from being the church.
In this temporary abstinence—or fast—from the Lord’s Supper, consider celebrating an online “Love Feast.” The Love Feast is a communal meal that has a rich history in the church. While it is not to be confused with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is a meaningful way for a congregation to experience a shared meal on those occasions (such as this season) when it would be inappropriate for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. I smile at the thought of the churches of my district and conference enjoying a small meal safely in their own homes while at the same time seeing the faces and hearing the voices of other church members with whom they are connected online.
Here is a link to a page with more information about the Love Feast and how to celebrate it as a church:
It hurts to be taken out of our normal practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, to be certain. And yet, it occurs to me that, while we are not able to share physically the bread and cup, we are finding remarkable ways to honor one of our most important eucharistic prayers:
“…Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
Through the creative ministry efforts of our churches in recent days, we may be doing our best-ever “eucharistic” work in “BEING” the redeemed body of Christ until such time as we are able to share the bread and cup once again. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is making our risky and innovative ministry into a metaphorical sacramental bread that we are breaking with our desperately hungry communities. I am encouraged by the thought of that. I hope that you are as well.
When we return to the table of the Lord’s Supper soon, we will be hungrier for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation than we have ever been. What a celebration that will be!