News and Views

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

Posted by on

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.

A friend May 6, 2020 3:46pm

Find me one verse of scripture that requires the communion elements to be blessed by an overseer, Bishop or elder. There are none. This is a tradition of man, an inheritance from our Roman Catholic and Anglican heritage. Perhaps this is a time for new traditions ... in line with scripture, but allowing for 21st Century practices. An amalgam that provides for a new vital way to experience the love of Christ instead of being divided by the traditions of men.

Rev Millie Martin May 6, 2020 4:19pm

As an ordained UM elder who holds a high view of the sacraments and believe as Wesley did in Christ's "real presence," I believe that our communities of faith can gather to hear the Word and partake together of the sacrament of holy communion when it is consecrated by an ordained elder during an online service of worship. We ARE gathered together by the miracle of technology, which for all of its detriments, has become a blessing to our churches during this difficult period. To demand that we define "gathering" in such narrow terms as all of us being physically present in the same physical space is to put a limit on the gift of grace that Jesus intended us to receive through his body and blood. When Jesus ascended into heaven and promised to be with us always he was not referring to being with us in a physical sense. He is no longer physically present with us, but is surely present nevertheless in a manner that we all can experience. Therefore, this justifies the online communion services from which many church members receive the gift of grace and draw strength. Ask yourselves, "WWJD?" I believe that he would want us to continue his command to "Do this in remembrance of me."

Noel Burt May 6, 2020 4:28pm

Two comments:
1. Why are we considering this issue in light of United Methodist teaching and practice? This is a sacrament of Jesus, not of the UMC. Our Lord's instruction in the Bible on the first communion was clear: Do this in remembrance of me....he did not say to do this only in groups, or to do it with a rabbi/priest/holy person/etc. It is so presumptuous to me for someone to think that only another person (ordained or not) can mediate God's grace, and that the mighty UMC alone can triage God's presence and ration God's mercy in the Lord's supper. God help us !

2. This is a "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin" issue. Is this debate really how we need to spend our time and energy? There is real human need all around us. Our church has been in food pantries, school lunch programs and food ministry over these past few weeks. I have heard questions about survival, pain and unemployment. I have seen real fear in people's eyes. NO ONE CARES what the UMC "approves" as an appropriate format for communion, and I doubt the Lord of all creation worries about our polity at all.

Andy Wilson May 6, 2020 4:44pm

Much ado about nothing. God looks at the heart, not the Methodist Book of Discipline, which even a huge percentage of Methodists openly disregard.

Juntry McTagert May 6, 2020 5:28pm

Author, do you think Jesus is smiling down on you for your vast knowledge and important words or frowning at your gate-keeping?

David Edwards May 6, 2020 6:23pm

As a former District Superintendent who covered a vast territory and consecrated elements for lay speakers over the phone long distances away... and reading the comments about one cup and growing up in churches with little cups and hard little excuses for bread of any kind purchased in large bags that could last forever, I find this laughable but for the fact we are trying to minister to people in the midst of a pandemic. Go ahead and parse your theological words and rationalize your reasoning! Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." We are to hunger and thirst after him and I believe that allowing people to open their hands and receive that gift is as real as those terrible pieces of bread I was given as in lieu of the body of Christ as a child. I believe that a bowed head asking to be covered by the blood of Christ is as powerful an experience as sipping a plastic cup or dipping a piece of bread in a chalice. Or this past week when I prayed the prayer of consecration over the pieces of bread and the cups the people held in their hands wherever they were and then we all partook of the sacred gift of the holy eucharist together united not in one place but in one faith! I believe that prayer I lifted up was not limited by a few feet and that it reached to every ear that heard it and beyond, because its power was not in what was spoken but in the faith we shared and in the name we prayed. I experience communion with my sisters and brothers in Christ and I communed with God through Christ in the breaking of the bread and the communion and shared drinking of our cups! Say what you want but it was a eucharist moment and no one can take that from me.

Anglo-Methodist May 6, 2020 6:33pm

I agree with the high church position, but would point out that we are so sacramentally poor that often it's on-line or nothing.

Anglo-Methodist May 6, 2020 6:34pm

I agree with the high church position, but I would point out that we are so sacrramentally poor that often times on-line Communion is all we have access to.

Sarah Flynn May 6, 2020 6:41pm

The historical position of Protestants regarding the Lord's Supper an be found in the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion and the Lutheran Augsberg Confession. j Wesley abbreviated the 39 to his 25 for American Methodists and kept the prohibitions regarding the misuse of the Lord's Supper in Article 18. These were aimed at Roman Catholic liturgical al practices that evolved over the centuries from the fifth century to the time of the Reformation. By the time of LUther and Calvin
the Sacrament was rarely received lived by lay person and instead had become an object of personal devotion to be worshipped at the elevation of the host in the Consecration. In reaction tion to the Protestant rejection of this tradition the Council of Trent approved of the rite of Be ediction whereby the Consecrated host is not consumed but instead is placed on the altar in a monstrance to display the true Body of Christ for adoration.

Only with the Reforms of the Roman rite in Vatican ii did the Roman Church and later the mainline Protestants did we began to recover the ancient sense of a communal celebration of the Eucharist as a Resurrection feast in which we are proclaiming the death and rising of Christ who has overcome sin and death.

Virtual Communion is in my opinion a backsliding to a devotional practice contrary to the corporate sense of new life in the Spirit. Consuming the consecrated bread and wine in the actual real presence of the community is a public testimony of faith not possible by Zoom on my coffee table. This is more of the individual convenience model of take out or drive by sacraments.
One adopted as an acceptable practice it will be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle. he Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament cannot be separated from the Real Presence of Christ in of the members of his Body the Church. To do so is to spiritualize grace, a docetic tendency contrary to the incarnation.

While the intention may be to make Christ available to people it offers Christ without members flesh and blood only the appearance of them without form or substance. Only too convenient to be real. Being the Church Carrie's with it our physical presence and consequent responsibilities.

Donald E. Messer May 6, 2020 6:47pm

I have never claimed to be a historian of Methodism, but I believe that John Wesley created bishops for American Methodism, though he lacked the "authority" or "episcopal succession." In this time of crisis, it seems strange to think United Methodists can't think or act more creatively when it comes to theology and the sacraments. Jesus suggested that people were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for people. Likewise I believe the sacraments were created for people, not we clergy or academics. I have always understood that in an emergency, anyone could baptize or serve communion and it was valid in God's sight. We are in an emergency--one that may go on longer than any of us want.

David Polhemus May 6, 2020 8:43pm

It feels as though ordination make us magicians who must touch the elements to make them valid. What hubris. My God does not physically touch me.I have a virtual realtionship with God. I feel sorrow for those who dont.

Rev. Percival J. Gregorio May 7, 2020 3:37am

Holy communion is one of the three chief means of grace. because of quarantine we can not gather to do this. Let us focus on how we can do communion during quarantine, instead of what will happen to the Episcopal fund. What is our priority? Quezon City Philippine Conference East. (QCPACE )

JB Brayfindley May 7, 2020 7:59am

I am not sure if a Jesus would agree with the author. I think Jesus’ love and welcome and forgiveness transcends time and space, including the internet. Please open the doors, minds and hearts to include...

Denise Brewer May 7, 2020 10:43am

Thank you, Dr. Danker, for sharing your pastoral and theological views. As a layperson, I submit that the lack of our physical presence does not limit the Holy Spirit. Virtual communion has been an extraordinary time for my family and for me. The experience so blesses us during this period of isolation. It is an uplifting experience that we do not take lightly. Pray for us that we may continue to grow in our spirit lead freedom. Blessings!

Mark Charlton May 7, 2020 11:58am

There's a possibility that we never will be able to gather physically again in congregations. We won't have a vaccine for a year to a year and a half at the earliest...assuming we'll be able to develop one. if one can't be developed, then gathering physically will put members at risk of being infected...which is the way things stand right now.

"The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, believed the Lord’s Supper to be “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God” (Sermon 26: “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount VI”, §III.11)." To suspend communion until members can gather again physically is to deny this great means of grace to all...and this is a time when we all desperately need it.

C Newton May 7, 2020 12:03pm

I find the argument against online communion to be lacking in consideration of ‘the spirit’ of the table. When thinking about this new way of celebrating the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, should we not look to Christ for affirmation of our intentions rather than Wesley and tradition!
The Wesleyan idea that only licensed or ordained persons are allowed to offer prayers over the table is not Biblical but rather holds on to “high church” traditions from his past religious life. Again, let me note that Christians must follow the Lord’s example and teachings not the edits of men, regardless of how holy (holier-than-thou) they appear.

Rev. Donna DeCamp May 7, 2020 2:41pm

In my heart and mind, I believe Jesus would tell us the body and the wine he blessed at the Last Supper were symbols . . . He was not actually feeding the disciples his own flesh and blood. Remember, people thought early Christians were cannibals who actually did eat flesh and drink blood. I also believe in one of the "methods" of Methodism "to do no harm" and I think not allowing virtual communion is harmful who the people of the way who need encouragement and hope in these most trying times.

Rev. Keith Peachey May 10, 2020 9:08am

Remind me again...How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Dave Ogden May 10, 2020 10:21am

I do not believe that the physical presence is necessary for true communion. However, we should not be strong in our disagreement. We need to concentrate on what Jesus wants us to do, not on how we celebrate communion.

David Pickett May 10, 2020 12:28pm

Jesus cured a boy at a distance. If we use tech to gather together despite the distance, we are together, and when 2 or more are together in His name, Jesus is there, too.

Jeff Fothergill May 11, 2020 9:32pm

Ryan, how then can we justify taking communion to shut-ins after the service?