In these pandemic days, it has been amazing to see how creative churches have become in finding ways to gather virtually for fellowship, prayer, study, conversation and worship. Even BC (Before COVID-19) many churches utilized radio and television, and more recently, emerging digital technologies. Few question whether words carried over the airwaves or the internet can be used to communicate the Good News faithfully and effectively.
“Even our participation in communion when we are together physically is not unmediated.”
These new methods have not become a substitute for worship with the gathered community in those congregations that have embraced them. Churches that have expanded their digital presence have discovered that these media have extended their witness and their capacity for ministry beyond the walls of their buildings.
Now in these days of sheltering in place and social distancing, when we have not been able to gather in person, many have been wondering whether churches might observe the Lord’s Supper in “virtual communion.” They are asking whether Christ might be really present in the breaking of bread, even if they do not share physical space in communion with one another.
Our eucharistic practice as baptistic free churches is sometimes criticized by Christians from more “orderly” and “liturgical” traditions. They suggest that in claiming to be free, we are actually just being loose in our practice. Our tradition, if it may be called a tradition, is that we are not bound by written texts and church mandates. We are free to be open to the direction of the Spirit.
Yet there is always risk in innovation.
We find ourselves and our congregations genuinely free to consider the possibility of observing the Lord’s table in extraordinary ways, even though we are physically separated from one another. We believe that Christ is present with us and speaks to us in the gathered community, even when we are gathered by means of Facebook, Zoom, or YouTube. So, we seek to discern together the direction of the gospel and the leading of the Spirit in our hunger for the presence of the Lord at the table.
To participate in what has awkwardly been described as “virtual communion” runs the risk, as theologian Hans Boersma has argued, of taking one more step down the road of consumerist individualism. Such concerns should not be lightly dismissed, and we must respect the conscience of those who do not have the liberty to participate.
Yet, when it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper while gathered in separate locations, we resonate with the statement of fellow Baptist theologian Steve Holmes, who observed that “we do not imagine some magical aura emanating from the celebrant which fades after traveling 50 yards.” But even our participation in communion when we are together physically is not unmediated. Christ becomes known in the breaking of bread, through the medium of sound waves that reach our eardrums and light waves that reach our retinas, most often amplified by microphones and enhanced by electricity.
“In this way, sharing the elements with the dispersed church could be understood as an extension of a shared communion meal.”
These extraordinary times may permit exceptional measures. We are inclined to think that while not normative, the observance of communion virtually might be permissible, not as a practice to be maintained until the end of time, but as a temporary solution, and perhaps a providential sign, until our churches can return to regular eucharistic celebration when we gather together at the same time and in the same space.
While virtual communion is not normative, and therefore not regarded as communion proper by all Christians, we nevertheless believe that such an observance would participate in important qualities of what makes the Lord’s Supper a communion in the body and blood of Christ. While we do not want to exclude the possibility of the exceptional observance of virtual communion, we want to commend an ancient Christian practice that may be relevant for churches today, especially for those that have decided they cannot celebrate communion virtually.
Justin Martyr was a second-century Christian leader, thoroughly versed in law and philosophy. He aimed to present the good news of Christ in a way that the Romans could understand and receive it. In his First Apology, Justin reports that Christians gathered for worship on Sunday, where they read the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets, followed by teaching and exhortation. After that they entered into a time of prayer and thanksgiving, concluding with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When all had participated in the eucharistic meal, the excess elements were gathered up and distributed by the deacons to those who were unable to participate.
Based on this early Christian practice, we recommend that in our present circumstances, as an alternative to virtual communion, congregations consider convening a small assembly to celebrate communion within current recommended practices for the size and spacing of gatherings, consecrating an excess reserve of bread and wine or juice. The remaining elements could then be distributed by ministers and/or deacons to the scattered church members. In this way, sharing the elements with the dispersed church could be understood as an extension of a shared communion meal.
The use of pre-packaged, individual communion packets could address concerns about the hygiene of handling the elements. The deacons and ministers distributing them should follow recommendations about physical distancing and the wearing of masks while making their deliveries.
COVID-19 has scattered the church of Christ, making it difficult for us to find ways to gather. Our hope is that, like the broken bread scattered throughout the earth mentioned in the second-century church order document called The Didache (“Teaching”), we may be open to new ways that the Spirit can gather us again as one body. In so doing we anticipate the coming day when the church will be gathered as one from the ends of the earth into the fullness of God’s reign.
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