Palm UMC family- the next time we would have celebrated communion together, if we were not all staying at home, would have been this Sunday, April 5. Pastors, Biblical scholars, Bishops and theologians are thinking hard about the issue of celebrating communion while we are together not physically but over the internet, and they don’t all agree. I have communicated with both my Lutheran bishop and Bishop Carcaño recently about my own thinking, which is, as long as we are all IN THE MOMENT participating together, we can celebrate communion while connected over the internet, for the duration of these extreme circumstances. I wrote down for myself some things I found myself thinking about when I wrestled through this in my spirit: I am an ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament. Part of my vows is to properly administer the sacraments. I take my vows seriously. The normal circumstances of administering Holy Communion is as part of a worship service among believers gathered, with words accompanying the distribution of the elements that make clear the meaning we as Christians have for this ingestion of a small bit of bread and wine or juice. We take into ourselves this Body of Christ while we are gathered as the Body of Christ.
Since the time of being admonished by our Governor to all stay home, we have ceased to gather as a body in a physical way for worship. There are different adaptations pastors and congregations are making, in our case I have prayed and preached over Facebook Live, the audio recording of that has continued to be uploaded to our website for later hearing, and I have added back in a written form of my sermon to a blog. For the second week I also emailed out a guide for families to use at home for a more complete service, with conversation about the scripture taking the place of the sermon.
While we have not been able to gather as a body for the Word, the Word continues to be preached in as many ways as possible to reach as many people as possible.
Why should the sacrament not also be “shared” through a virtual community?
I have struggled through this because I take my vows seriously. If thousands of years of Christian teaching has held that the sacrament must be celebrated as a body, is it proper to celebrate it without being physically present with one another?
I recognize that two experiences in the formation of my practical theology inform my thoughts.
One is a conversation we had at the training time of camp counselors at Lake Luther in Indiana, it must have been 1999. The lifeguard trainer was a seminarian at a Missouri Synod Seminary. The issue came up of women’s ordination and someone pushed this young man with questions, referencing something of Luther that I have never read myself, but that if a group of people is stranded in the woods, apart from everyone else in society and feel the need to celebrate communion together, even if a priest/pastor is not among them, that they could rightly do so. The young man insisted that if that group consisted entirely of women, that they would not be able to, only if a man were among them. This seemed to me to be ridiculous. Surely Christ could be present among women even if there were no man there! But the underlying idea that in extreme situations the conditions for celebrating the sacrament can be flexible, has stuck with me.
The following spring I was in a study abroad program in Mexico. During that time I related to an evangelical church in the area which did not often celebrate Holy Communion, if they ever did that semester I missed it. (We also had to travel many weekends as part of our learning program.) I knew I was missing Holy Communion but I did not know just how much it affected me until I returned to the U.S. after four and a half months, and communed again for the first time after that period. I happened to be at my synod assembly as a representative of my congregation. I wept, a lot, when I received communion at the opening worship. My soul had been hungry for the sacrament, more than I realized.
It is with all of this in mind that I seek to put a plan into place for my local congregation to somehow celebrate Holy Communion while connected virtually for the next time we normally would, April 5. With my experience I cannot ask people who have no way to be physically present with one another to be forced into a fast from celebrating Holy Communion. One concern to me is that this table will exclude; it will exclude those who do not have access to Facebook Live, or the internet more generally. Is it still worth it to celebrate with some even if I can’t celebrate it with all? I think so.
Other concerns are somehow offending tradition and perhaps establishing patterns that will be hard to undo later. Can I be sure the real presence of Christ will be in the elements if I am not in the room? Will people think they can just “do” communion at home alone whenever they want? When I think about these questions one of Luther’s famous quotes comes to mind, if we err, let us err on the side of grace. What I can do is make every effort to let my congregation know that this is something to be carefully discerned and only for extreme circumstances, such as we find ourselves in now. I also trust that the Holy Spirit is present even if I am not.
Blessings to all- Pastor Michelle