Online Communion?

Online Communion?

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced local congregations online. Some of you watched my humble attempt to provide a bit of encouragement to my own little church by providing prayers, scripture, preaching, and songs from the sanctuary to folks stuck at home via YouTube (see Sunday’s post). All well and good, as far as I’m concerned. Extraordinary times require some flexibility and doing what we can to maintain connections is important, even if not ideal.

However, let me make something clear. I don’t call what we did on Sunday “corporate worship.” Whether recorded (as ours was) or live-streamed, such virtual “gatherings” fall short of that definition. Rather, thinking of them as a legitimate substitute for meeting as a congregation to worship betrays some fundamental misunderstandings of what worship is, misunderstandings that are quite common in our culture and oft-critiqued on this blog.

Anne Ortlund once said that, in our world today, many church people come to worship as a room full of marbles — each individual self-contained, present but merely adjacent to the others around him or her. In contrast, she recommended that we understand ourselves as a grapes in a vat, crushed together to make wine. It is via the intermingling of our lives in Christ and with Christ together that we worship, and I simply do not believe that can happen in any real way online.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing virtual gatherings. As I said, at a certain level we can maintain a sense of identity and connection through them, and that’s good.

Just don’t call them or conceive of them as corporate worship. In nothing is this more clear than when it comes to “cyber-communion.”

One who disagrees with me is Chris Ridgeway, in his CT article “Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental.”

Imagine a video conference call with 40 faces in small squares across the screen, each with a cup and a piece of bread in view. We worship and pray and the pastor or priest consecrates with language from the Book of Common Prayer, “send your Spirit upon these gifts”—the non-physical, all-present Spirit of God. Then as one body we partake together. In unity. Not privately. Present to one another.

Arguments from a previous generation about digital Communion were binary: offline and online. The internet was seen as anonymous and individualistic. A cold keyboard couldn’t compare to warm shoulders.

Yet the imagined video conference call—not so much imagined anymore—is an extension of known relationships of the local body. Why can’t the signs of God’s presence—the bread and wine—and the signs of our presence—our smiles and voices—signify both the goodness of the embodied world and the reality of the spiritual one? There is nothing inherently Gnostic—disembodied—here. Real bodies. Real bread. And the real presence of the Triune God, on Zoom this weekend and joyfully gathered back together in person once this too has passed.

Cultural shifts have often been tectonic plates on which the church builds as we apply the unchanging Word to the changing world. The physical gifts of God for the present people of God.

In my view, Ridgeway greatly exaggerates the personal connection accessible through technology. I don’t think I’m simply being a Philistine either. After all, I’ve led a conversation blog for ten years now, and spend a great deal of time interacting with others via a variety of virtual means. Even my work with my hospice colleagues has been transformed, so that we communicate by phone, text, and email throughout each day to keep in touch and on the same page as we travel.

But I truly believe, on some ontological level, it is not the same.

Let’s say during this pandemic, I set up a Zoom meeting with all my children and grandchildren on Sunday. We are all in our own homes, eating Sunday dinner, conversing with each other around a virtual table. It may be necessary, it may be helpful, it may be encouraging, and it may indeed enhance our relationships, but you cannot convince me that it is the same as actually sitting around the same table sharing a meal face to face.

Corporate worship is not a virtual gathering. It is a real family dinner together. Communion, the meal portion of our worship, is not merely an individual act whereby each one accesses Christ’s presence through the means of grace. Worship is a meal celebration at the Lord’s Table whereby we break bread together and are fed as a family by Christ’s body and blood.

In our congregation, we all come to the table (those who are able). We stand together before the table as a family and are fed. We do not feed ourselves — the elements are served to us along with God’s promises. I look each person in the eye, speak his or her name, and say, with feeling, “for you.”

No harm will come to us if we have to forgo such gathered worship for a season. Virtual gatherings, in whatever form they take, can help us keep connected and preserve our identity. But I will not mistake them for corporate worship through Word and Sacrament. And I won’t think they can ever substitute for the real thing.

53 thoughts on “Online Communion?

  1. Our current Pope at this time tends to send mixed messages….but Catholic Doctrine stands firm on these issues.


  2. The point about the Pope and his comments were that Catholics believe that only sins committed can be forgiven by a priest.. They do not believe you can go directly to God for the remission of sins. The Pope now says something else.See w.Burleson on this blog.


  3. Catholics have always been able to pray directly to God. We can also ask the Saints to take our prayers to God as well. We have choices!


  4. As we Catholics believe in the Real Presence its impossible to receive the Eucharist virtually. We have to put it in our mouth….

    Now if you are implying that when the priest preforms the prayers that changes the host and wine to Body and Blood and the wafer I might happen to be holding, on the other side of the TV, monitor or radio, is also transubstantiated, well I don’t believe it works that way.


  5. BC,, My point or question was how this prayer meant Catholics could not have online communion. Your points are well taken and I agree with you.


  6. Not hailing from the Catholic tradition so I can’t speak to the underlying theology, but I think you misrepresent the prayer a bit. It’s not about “won’t” or “can’t” or location at all. The prayer, as part of the Eucharist, speaks to grace, mercy and faith – Christ heals us wherever we are, but especially in His presence (at the communion meal). We recognize we are broken and unworthy in the sight of God (that original sin thing mainly, but not exclusively) and that by grace we are given this sacrament, this real presence, this promise of life and forgiveness. The prayer is an acknowledgement that all of this is most certainly true.

    The prayer itself is derived from Matthew 8:8 and the words of the Centurion to Jesus when asking for his servant to be healed.


  7. –> “Now, in the gulags and torture camps of Communist days, prisoners used what they had in terms of food and water for the Eucharist (and sometimes in the worst of the prisons priests were forced to serve the Liturgy using human excrement). I know God blessed it somehow; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Christ condescended to come into those elements and make even them Eucharist.”

    My thoughts exactly. And I think of the Jews through that time, the things they either had to forgo or find other ways to do.


  8. Does. That prayer mean that Christ won’t come under my roof and heal. I just don’t get it. Plus Pope Francis said the other day that Catholics could pray directly to God and the prayers heard and answered. Either Catholic dogma is beginning to fray at the edges or Christ has come under my roof and still heals.


  9. Like Radagast, in the Orthodox Church the Eucharist is of primary importance, but we can go without taking communion for a while. I think Mule mentioned elsewhere that weekly communion for the Orthodox is a relatively new (last 100 years or so) phenomenon. It was weekly in the early years of the Church and into the early Middle Ages, as far as I know.

    Orthodoxy does teach the priesthood of all believers, both within the Liturgy and outside it. Unlike the Roman Catholic Mass, the Orthodox Liturgy may not be served by a priest without a congregation of at least one other person. The priest prays the words of consecration, asking the Holy Spirit to come and change the bread and wine, but the people present must affirm those words with their own threefold Amen. Outside the Liturgy, the people are to be “little Christs” in their world, which involves blessing all of Creation through Christ’s presence in us, and being priests in relation to it. (Of course, mileage varies as to how well we do this.)

    But there’s more to it than the technicalities of how things are done. The Orthodox Church is iconic. This doesn’t simply mean that we have icons. In Orthodox worship, everything that we see points to something about the meaning of who Jesus is and how he has acted – including the very architecture of a classic Orthodox worship space – and those things we see are actual material things. Priest and people together are an icon of Christ and his body, which is one of the conclusions to which we come because of what the Eucharist itself is. Of course it’s not necessary to understand these things to partake of the Holy Mysteries; nobody “understands” it completely anyway. But it’s not something that we remember by mental cogitation in our heads, or about which we summon up some sort of feeling “in our hearts”. It’s the sublime expression of Reality in which we live and the telos toward which we are headed. So a great deal has to do with the materiality of being all together in one place, as well as the materiality of the bread and wine.

    Last Sunday my priest served the Liturgy with a congregation of one – a singer for the responses. He did not give the singer Holy Communion; the bread and wine were consecrated and held in reserve for the sick and dying. I watched the live stream via Facebook. It was a blessing – and it was not the same as being there. I drank a little holy water (we drink it as well as apply it to things) and ate a piece of a special blessed Pascha bread, which we keep in our freezers for when we can’t receive the Mysteries. There was benefit and blessing in that – and it was not Holy Communion.

    Now, in the gulags and torture camps of Communist days, prisoners used what they had in terms of food and water for the Eucharist (and sometimes in the worst of the prisons priests were forced to serve the Liturgy using human excrement). I know God blessed it somehow; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Christ condescended to come into those elements and make even them Eucharist. Our times are “extraordinary” but, for most of us, not that wretched. There is much that has been “irregular”… Gathering together physically means something, but out of love for others we are not doing that; I believe God blesses such a sacrifice, such a fast. If you believe that the bread and wine somehow become the body and blood of Christ, nothing can replace it, nothing is “the same as”. But if you don’t believe that, or if you don’t believe the church must gather physically, maybe God blesses the remembrance with the Cheerio according to the orientation of a persons’ heart in love and trusting loyalty to Christ. God is good and loves mankind, and he meets us where we are.



  10. Good summary of your position, and probably a bit more relatable than your OP. Very helpful. Thanks.


  11. At my wedding, we did communion for everyone as a part of the service. It would feel really, really weird for me if we had just taken communion as a couple and not invited the congregation to join in.


  12. A YouTube video is available : “Tom Wright on being a Christian during the Coronavirus”. Worth watching.


  13. I wrote a poem once called “Jesus is the Popcorn.” The title was intentionally obvious, as the symbolism in the poem was pretty obvious, too…LOL. Like, “in case you missed it…”

    It was a fun one to write.


  14. Again, let me try to summarize what I’m trying to say. I have a relatively “high” view of communion, in the traditional sense, but I am really not objecting to online communion in terms of traditional categories.

    1. I’m saying that corporate Eucharistic worship is a certain thing — God’s people gathered around the Table of Christ face to face being served the bread of life and cup of salvation.

    2. We are being prevented, by circumstances, from doing that certain thing for the time being.

    3. Because of technology we can have virtual gatherings with many elements, but we still cannot do that certain thing at the present time.

    4. If we cannot, then maybe this is a time when God is asking us to do something else besides that certain thing. Let’s do what we can to maintain connection and identity, but let’s not imagine that these things amount to that certain thing.

    5. When Israel was in exile and could no longer go to the Temple, offer sacrifices, etc., they learned something new. The synagogue emerged and, in fact, the Old Testament was written out of that experience — reinterpreting their identity and setting a course for future hope. The nation became a much more “in the world” kind of people, interacting with the customs and practices of their neighbors (and enemies), paving the way for the gospel of Christ to spread far beyond the Promised Land in the days after Jesus came. In exile, Israel learned to lament, to adapt to new practices, and essentially to redefine themselves. This is what I see as possible for us today.

    6. So, it’s not just about whether “real presence” can be communicated virtually. It’s about seeing this time as a season when, because we can’t do the certain things we’re used to doing, we can hear a new call from God. And I’m not just talking about putting our services and practices online.


  15. “For Catholics online communion will not work”

    you forgot the prayer before communion, this
    ‘Domine non sum dignus . . . ‘

    ” Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed”


  16. strange thing:
    the way testing was made so difficult to be had so that ‘numbers’ could be kept down, where in countries that tested promptly and completely and quarantined victims and searched out those exposed to those victims and put them into quarantine: it it THOSE countries that got a handle on the virus and are now able to resume a more normal life

    playing ‘games’ with denying the need for testing has probably nearly ruined our economy for the foreseeable future, but hey, if we can keep the death count under 100,000, I hear this will be considered a ‘success’ for the administration


  17. “Unless communion is more than a reminder.”

    TED, this is an excellent comment. Being Catholic myself, I have noticed that non-Catholics seem to vary in their opinions of ‘the Lord’s Supper’, from something quarterly and solemn, to something infinitely more ‘casual’ given and taken in almost a mocking fashion ” there’s a plate of bread on the table at the back of the Church, just take some on your way out the door” . . . .

    it has wondered me if non-Catholics ever did pause and think about the possibility of ” unless communion is more than a reminder”

    Eucharist . . . what is it to Christians?


  18. A couple of friends decided that the two of them would have communion as part of their wedding ceremony. For just the two of them together with the Pastor.

    During the service, the groom noticed that the communion table was bare. So he nudged his best man, who nudged another of the groomsmen, who went to get it ready….

    Only to discover the youth group had consumed all the bread in the kitchen the night before.

    … So he improvised…

    When the bride and groom got down to the communion table, they discovered what the improvisation had been and broke out laughing….


    They certainly remembered!


  19. “And being quarantined tends to keep us out of trouble (or reduces it at any rate).”

    So no need for confession either!


  20. “On the other hand, it’s totally acceptable for a priest to go and celebrate communion with someone shut in at home or in the hospital. That’s not “corporate worship” either, but if someone’s life circumstances require it, it’s a way for them to still participate in Christ’s body and blood “remotely.” ”

    It is also acceptable, in the Catholic tradition, for laity to take consecrated hosts (already consecrated previously at Mass), kept in the Tabernacle, to someone who is sick. That does not really apply to this crisis, but mentioning it just the same.


  21. Again… Does communion being more than a reminder *necessitate* an ordained pastor/priest to implement it?

    That’s a good question–I read where you asked that in in an earlier comment too. I would say no, if one really believes in “the priesthood of all believers.”

    And I was about to comment on something Chaplain Mike said: “I’m more concerned about the wholesale devaluation and lack of understanding about worship…”

    That too is a valid problem that every pastor has to deal with. I have the luxury of being a layman, free to heckle those in church leadership.

    But with an insistence on “Remembrance only,” I think there has already been a wholesale devaluation and lack of understanding.


  22. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

    If it comes down to a Cheerio and a swig of apple cider vinegar, as long as I’m doing it in remembrance of Jesus, I’d like to think it’s okay. After all, isn’t it the act of doing that matters. And frankly, if it’s a Cheerio and apple cider vinegar, that’ll be so different that I might actually be MORE likely to think differently and more intently about communion. Strange times sometimes get us to focus on what’s really important. In this case, remembrance of Jesus and what he did for us.


  23. In the Pittsburgh area our Bishop has cancelled everything, parking lot reconciliation, Mass, sacraments (except for Anointing of the Sick) Weddings, Funeral Masses, etc. For Catholics online communion will not work, but we are only required to partake in Holy Communion once a year (though we should receive it once a week and it is available daily as well under normal circumstances). For us we can watch Mass on TV as we not only participate in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (which does not work online) but also the Liturgy of the Word (which works well online). Catholics don’t have to worry as much about cult of personalities, self help sermons etc. Again, Eucharist is important but we can survie without it for a while. And being quarantined tends to keep us out of trouble (or reduces it at any rate).


  24. –> “I’ve spoken to several local pastors and honestly, they seem way more concerned about doctrinal points than the lives of their parishioners.”

    Yes, and it’s not just pastors but some parishioners, too. I’ve really been noticing lately how much we Christian’s have become centered around “right theology” at the expense of being Christ-like.

    My mantra lately has been: Don’t show me your theology, show me your Christ.

    I hope I echo that for myself.


  25. I’m with you, Suzanne.

    To paraphrase 1 Corintians 13, “Though I may have excruciatingly correct doctrinal points, if I have not love I am nothing.”


  26. “We don’t need an ordained pastor, in a Sunday morning pew setting, to be the only one to tell us to “remember Jesus.”

    Unless communion is more than a reminder.”

    Again… Does communion being more than a reminder *necessitate* an ordained pastor/priest to implement it?


  27. Book recommendation…

    Scott Daniels’ “Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World.”

    Excellent read, lines up with what we are kinda going through.


  28. Mike, I can understand that for those with a more sacramental view of communion—particularly Roman Catholics—that online, or do-it-yourself communion would be impossible. But some of the more reformed types may have painted themselves into a corner with their insistence on “remembrance only.”

    Near as I can tell, there are about four views of communion (Lord’s Supper, eucharist, mass):
    –Transubstantiation (Real Presence of Christ, the bread and wine/juice becoming His body and blood)
    –Consubstantiation (Real Presence of Christ “with” the elements—in, on, and under)
    –Symbolic (the elements represent Christ, perhaps standing in for him)
    –Remembrance (merely a reminder of Christ and his work—what I call the “yellow Post-It Note” version)

    Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, said “Well, if it’s a symbol to hell with it.”

    But the Symbolic view is at least a step above the Remembrance view, unless one is deathly afraid it’ll lead to idolatry (one of the criticisms of Transubstantiation).

    The current pastor of the church that I had attended for more than 25 years is a young, reformed, Southern Baptist. On the first Sunday of each month he instructs the congregation that the elements are “a reminder only”—and he says this about three times, once as an intro and again with each of the elements. Methinks he doth protest too much.

    The previous pastor, a generation older and also in the reformed camp, but more moderate and American Baptist, also believed in Remembrance only, but didn’t push it so hard. He did however insist that communion be served only by an ordained pastor.

    Why? If it’s a symbol, as Flannery said, to hell with it; but if it’s merely a Post-It-Note reminder, why all the fuss? Why insist on such formality?

    I think we need to call them on this inconsistency. We don’t need an ordained pastor, in a Sunday morning pew setting, to be the only one to tell us to “remember Jesus.”

    Unless communion is more than a reminder.

    So if you, as a Lutheran, have a higher view of communion than my crowd does, then yeah, I say you’re allowed to insist on a higher formality. But the reformed baptists, with their view, have painted themselves into a corner if they insist on that.


  29. I’ve spoken to several local pastors and honestly, they seem way more concerned about doctrinal points than the lives of their parishioners. They mention things like what constitutes proper communion in a virtual environment, (several in fact defying health commissioners’ orders to close down completely for the duration in order to have corporate worship in small groups), worrying that the government is infringing on their rights to assemble, and one pastor, after a request from a hard of hearing member who had trouble hearing the live stream, refusing to put his printed sermon online because some other pastor might steal it.

    I am sorry if I sound harsh. I have a close relative who is a pastor so I understand the pressures and concerns, and I understand how difficult it is for a pastor to navigate in this unprecedented environment. I really do. I talk to my relative often and he is very stressed about caring for his flock when he can’t physically be near them. But I think the lack of control over the situation is making many of the clergy focus on what they understand, which is the finer points of doctrine and practice.Those are concrete things; a spreading virus is not.

    Personally, my concern right now is about having the virus and not knowing it and infecting a loved one, or one of my loved ones dying, or of dying myself, how much longer will I or my loved ones have jobs, how will we get by if we don’t have an income. How or when I commune has not really been top priority. But maybe that’s just me.


  30. I don’t know the specifics of Saddleback’s theology, but it is a fair guess that it derives ultimately from the Reformed branch of Protestantism. This is to say, the communion as commemoration wing. It is to be expected that the answer to the question that results would be different from what Lutherans get.


  31. It doesn’t have to be symbolic to be divorced from the necessity of an ordained priest to administer it.


  32. If that “fasting” leads some to question the validity of the hierarchical and political lines they’ve been fed up until now, then heck yes. Which brings us back to open, lay-led and initiated communion.


  33. I hope everyone takes the time to read the article at the link under ‘Recommended Reading’,

    “What the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Meant for American Churches”

    wherein one may note every response we’re seeing today, from outright denialism to astonishing outbreaks of reason and discipline.

    ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’


  34. I have preferred to see this as a time when God is giving the church an opportunity to fast from gathering, to learn what it means to live in “exile,” to lament the absence of practices we take for granted, and to learn to serve each other in different ways.


  35. As Protestants, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. We probably should empower the laity i.e. mothers, fathers, even older youth through digital materials, educating them on how to properly handle the elements and share them. Families can sit at the table and partake or join in the living room. I’m not going to get into who should and should not partake. My belief as a former Methodist is broadly toward open communion with it being a sacrament of grace. And also a tradition of lay preachers.

    The theology is beyond me and seems to be beyond the Church also if we read Church history.


  36. And after this is all over, that is a perfectly good conversation to have. But right now, we need to lean into the necessities of the situation.


  37. I agree that on-line communion is a poor substitute for communion facilitated by a priest at an altar rail–but it is, if it gives you comfort and enables you to get through your week in a time when you can’t leave your house and guests are a very bad idea, better than nothing. I can see how Catholics would not find it acceptable, but for those who see the elements of communion as symbolic, why not? Corporate worship will have to wait a while.


  38. I see most of you disagree to some extent, and I will admit that today’s post sounds a chord that may seem dissonant to the emphasis on grace here at IM. I’m more concerned about the wholesale devaluation and lack of understanding about worship in our culture than I am about being a theological stickler who wants to guard the Table.

    In writing this, for example, I learned that Saddleback church always offers online communion — but they only have it twice a year. A friend of mine says their online livestream invited people to use whatever they had around the house — maybe a Cheerio or a piece of a granola bar and their coffee — and celebrate communion.

    I get the extraordinary situation but I also want people to know and to feel they are missing something— and to know what it is they’re missing.


  39. This has become an all-consuming quandary for my Episcopal friends in the past week. I’ve been dragged into a few of the arguments, but I’m still not totally sure where I stand. On the one hand, if you believe only a priest can consecrate the elements, it’s a bit hard to argue that consecration can happen remotely via a video screen. And, I agree that Zoom is not the same as corporate worship.

    On the other hand, it’s totally acceptable for a priest to go and celebrate communion with someone shut in at home or in the hospital. That’s not “corporate worship” either, but if someone’s life circumstances require it, it’s a way for them to still participate in Christ’s body and blood “remotely.”

    Another question is, how important is communion, as the one aspect of regular Christian worship mandated by Jesus himself? How serious was Jesus being when he said, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”? Could it be that it is so spiritually harmful for someone to go three or six months without communion that “virtual” communion is better than nothing, despite all its shortcomings?


  40. “And I won’t think they can ever substitute for the real thing.”

    But they do substitute. They are a poor substitute. But it is what we have.

    We video chat with our Son across the continent every week. It is a poor substitution for not having him here, but it is what we have.

    Though in general terms, I do agree with the thrust of the post.


  41. “The meals established in Scripture are all meals initiated on the way, and for the people… I make this list of references simply to illustrate how wide open meals and table fellowship become if considered in biblical perspective. That we have so narrowly confined the Eucharist, the meal of Jesus, to something that takes place in a specific liturgy, and only on Sunday morning, and only with an ordained pastor, simply flies in the face of this more open and capacious biblical imagination.

    Furthermore, notice the lack of middle men here. Priests and other religious leaders are not in place to set boundaries around the Israelites as they share the Passover meal, or the people as they gather Manna, certainly not the flour for the widow, etc. Where they are connected to it, they are there to give instructions to those who will serve…”


  42. Determining whether online communion is true Holy Communion is way beyond my competence. Our Lutheran pastor tells us that when we partake of Holy Communion on Sunday as a gathered body in the church building the whole communion of saints, living and dead, is present and participating with us, even though they’re not physically present. How is online communion different?


  43. Mike, I broadly agree, but I do think that although on-line communion is not “a legitimate substitute” it is “a legitimate substitute in exceptional circumstances”. Blessings, Jon


  44. “In Christ there is no east or west,
    in Him no pride of birth;
    the chosen family God has blessed
    now spans the whole wide earth.”

    – Michael Perry


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