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Grace Upon Grace: United Methodism, Holy Communion & Social Isolation

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By Ryan Danker*

Pastors and those who lead our communities must be commended for the ways in which they are maintaining community during this difficult time. Many of our pastors are finding ways to pray, preach, teach, and counsel the faithful as we, together yet physically separate, face this pandemic.

Others have been trying to find ways to extend the sacraments of the church to their communities and I would also commend their intentions. However, the idea of virtual or online communion is sacramentally impossible from a United Methodist perspective.

According to United Methodist doctrine and liturgy, we believe that the Real Presence of Christ is available by means of bread and wine within the gathered community, administered by ordained or licensed clergy. Every aspect of that sentence is necessary in order to have communion.

Take a look at our liturgy, as found in Word and Table I. United Methodists have what is called a double-epiclesis (page 10 of UMH). The epiclesis reads:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood. 

This double-epiclesis requires both the historic physical elements (bread and wine/grape juice) as Christ instituted them but also the physical gathering of the people of God. The physicality or tangible nature of our faith, that God called a tangible people to be his own, came in the person of Jesus Christ, died, and was resurrected physically, is extended to the sacraments, which themselves must also be physical and within a gathered physical community.

Some have argued that families can gather to celebrate communion on their own. This is only possible if a member of that family has been ordained or licensed by the conference to do so. It’s not that clergy are better than laity; that’s not true.  It’s that clergy – and specifically Elders – have been ordained to have, as the Discipline states, “authority” and “responsibility” for the sacraments of the church. This authority comes from the bishop and the conference and within the ordering of the church, Elders then have a responsibility to administer the sacraments “rightly” and “duly” as our Articles of Religion state.

The authority given to celebrate the sacraments, and in particular communion, does not mean that clergy are somehow able to celebrate communion without the gathering of others, and in particular the laity. Nor, in the case of “virtual” communion, does this mean that clergy voices are somehow able to transcend space and time to consecrate elements wherever their voice is heard. If that were so, it would be a very strange form of clericalism.

No, the clergy need the people of God gathered just as much as they need bread and wine to rightly and duly administer the sacrament. Communion is more than just words spoken; it is a ritual act in which all the gathered are invited to participate fully, both visually, audibly, tangibly, together.

We encourage the use of one loaf because we partake of the one body. Likewise, we, as Methodists, encourage the use of one cup because the symbol is not just a symbol but a participation in that to which it points; in this case, the blood of Christ. The responsibility of the clergy, in this case, extends to the proper use of the consecrated elements within the community gathered.

If “virtual” communion was possible, the clergy would be incapable of having responsibility over the elements. We care so deeply about this responsibility because we believe communion to be a means by which Christ meets us.

Some have argued that virtual or online community is equivalent to the gathered community, but such arguments are theologically shallow. We all know from experience that virtual community cannot replace physical community. To hug your children, your spouse, your loved ones, rather than receive a text, is exponentially greater. 

So it was with the life of Jesus, who as God incarnate (tangible) placed such emphasis in his ministry on touch, on shared meals, and on gathered community. So it is with the church gathered. In this time when we cannot gather physically, we are given the opportunity to see just how vital community is to us as Christians.

As to John Wesley himself, he has been used as a justification for innovation. But a thorough knowledge of his life and work shows that he was an amazingly deep thinker grounded in the tradition of the Church. He made that tradition alive in new ways without undermining it. He would never have argued for a practice that rejects the very nature of the sacrament itself. He would be using this time to preach and teach and to organize the people of God in order to care for one another. I specifically commend those local churches that have divided their membership into small groups so that everyone is checked on, even without physical contact. Such an approach is authentically Wesleyan.

As to Holy Communion, now is the time to wait. That we are yearning for Communion is a sign that we have been shaped by the gospel and we will celebrate it with joy when we finally meet together again.

For now, though, we have the opportunity to participate in the other means of grace. (See Wesley’s sermon, “The Means of Grace,” to explore this concept.) We live in a grace-drenched world where God is available to us in prayer, in meditating on the scriptures, in fasting, and in helping others (among so many other ways!).

Now is the time to explore the means of grace and to teach our people about this aspect of our Methodist heritage. 

*Dr. Ryan N. Danker is Associate Professor of Church History and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC

David deSilva Mar 25, 2020 1:12pm

I agree that "virtual communion" ought not to be the norm.  I strongly believe, however, that if we can gather in worship as a virtual community and be in communion in adoration, intercession, and the like, then we can also be in communion in, well, communion.  There is no substance to Danker's claim that "Nor, in the case of 'virtual' communion, does this mean that clergy voices are somehow able to transcend space and time to consecrate elements wherever their voice is heard. If that were so, it would be a very strange form of clericalism."  If clergy voices can transcend the space to offer prayers on behalf of the congregation scattered and listening/watching in their homes, those same voices can transcend the space to consecrate the elements that those parishioners have set out -- and set out mindful of the fact that they are part of the gathered congregation that the Holy Spirit is holding together in this act of communion during the time in which physical gathering is impossible.  This is not "a very strange form of clericalism."  That claim is a red herring thrown out there to put the stink of elitism ("clericalism") on an otherwise entirely defensible practice in these times of necessary distancing.

The real driver of the theology here, it seems to me, is this statement about polity and authority tucked away in the middle of that article: "If “virtual” communion was possible, the clergy would be incapable of having responsibility over the elements."  There is a "kind of clericalism" here -- a desire both to protect our authority over communion (blatant in the paragraph on families celebrating together) and to protect the consecrated elements (as if our parishioners are going to toss a piece of the bread to Fido?).  But God will not allow the elements to be abused in the homes of the viewers -- there is no transubstantiation in the Methodist tradition that we must carefully eat up every crumb and drink down every drop.  And while I am just as interested in the next person in doing things decently and in order, I do not believe that God would begrudge a Christian family breaking bread and drinking juice in remembrance of Jesus' death just because none of them happen to be ordained.  A simple reading of the Gospels and 1 Corinthians would lead them to do such a thing, and I think God would be pleased wherever his Son's death was lovingly and appreciatively remembered by those for whom he gave his body and poured out his blood.

While I would agree that "virtual community cannot replace physical community" (I would not say, with the author "We all know from experience that ..." since I have not polled "all" -- and I suspect that the author and I are simply of a generation that cannot appreciate the intimacy of virtual community and that he, at least, is imposing his prejudices on what "we all know"), when virtual community must replace physical community, our liturgical practices can keep in step with that.  The word "here" is not the most important word in the double epiclesis.

Jackson Day Mar 26, 2020 10:39am

As a holder of a "high" view of the sacraments, I appreciate what you have written and agree with most of it. In particular, I agree with the Methodist view of community as essential to holy communion, in distinction from the Roman practice of priests saying mass by themselvees. But I think we must be careful that we not become fundamentalists regarding the physicality of community. In this era, Covid-19 has made physical community dangerous in ways it was not before, and these new dangers may persist for centuries. At the same time, technology has made virtual community possible in ways it never was. As i conducted worship via Zoom, I was struck by how important it was to see each others' faces, and how much we were still a gathered community, albeit virtually. When I lift the cup, metal is interposed between me and the contents of the cup. If distance is also interposed, is that a difference in kind or a difference in degree? I am not ready to attempt a virtual consecration, but I believe we need to keep the discussion open.

Jason Fry Mar 26, 2020 12:17pm

A flaw in this argument that the double epeclesis requires the physical presence in the same room is an assumption. And I would challenge that assumption. And a service in which the congregation watching/participating virtually, communion would not be virtual, but real and physical (xonsuming real bread and wine). And as for the one bread and one cup points, if one adheres to that, using the trays with cups and wafers wouldn't qualify. Lastly, I would question the whole idea of calling a streamed service virtual; the people imvolved are not avatars, but real people. Talking on the phone is not a virtual conversation, but a real one, for example. Likewise, is participating in a streamed worship service really virtual or real?

Dale E. Coates Mar 26, 2020 2:06pm

I would call attention to the tradition of the love feast. It would be a way to remember our connections without the problems of communion.