Online Communion Services?
A couple of days ago, a distinguished colleague ran past me a question which someone had put to him. Now that the church is delivering just about everything online, should we also have online Communion Services?
I must admit that I found the idea deeply disturbing, not merely because it presents yet another danger of rushing into an innovation without due theological reflection, but because it smacks of an exaggerated view of the importance of the Sacrament: the view prevalent in Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Scoto-Catholic circles, in which the Eucharist is the primary means of grace, and its weekly (or even daily) ministration vital to a believer’s spiritual growth.
Such a point of view can hardly claim the support of the New Testamen, where there is a remarkable paucity of references to the Lord’s Supper. Nor is it in line with the priorities of historic Protestantism. A famine of the Word of God would certainly be calamitous but, taking the history of the church overall, a 6-month hiatus in the ministration of the Lord’s Supper would not be at all unusual; indeed, in many Scottish congregations it was the norm until very recently; and that is before we even begin to think of the chronically-housebound who, in most churches, might have to go years without the Sacrament. Neither of these situations was ideal, but they may help us put the current disruptions in perspective.
The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrament on which we are free to innovate at will. We have a clear and authoritative norm: the accounts of the Last Supper handed down not only by all three gospels, but also by St Paul (the earliest account). Among the relevant considerations highlighted by these accounts are the following:
1. The most obvious feature of the Last Supper is that it was a shared meal; and those who shared it were not present only ‘in spirit,’ far less only virtually. They were present physically, and thus able to share together the bread which had been broken and over which the blessing had been said; and in the same way to share in the wine which had been poured out. To them the Lord said, face to face, ‘Take, eat,’ and, ‘All of you drink it.’ In each ministration of the Lord’s Supper he is still saying the same to ourselves, and then we receive both the bread and the wine not only with the mouth of faith (as we must), but first of all with our physical mouths.
The practice of the early Christians was in full accord with the nature of the Last Supper as a fellowship meal. For example, in Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth, we read, ‘When you come together to eat, wait for one another’ (1 Cor. 11.33); and the same principle is assumed in Acts 2.46 , where Luke speaks of believers ‘attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes .’
This remained central to the Reformed tradition, particularly in Scotland, where the Sacrament was to be administered in a gathering of believers seated at a table (in line with, for example, Luke 22.14, which records that Jesus ‘reclined at table, and the apostles with him’).
2. In the administration of the Lord’s Supper the elements are ‘sensible’ signs: that is, they are signs that address all our senses. There is a remarkable emphasis on this in, for example, Calvin’s comments on the Sacrament. In the preaching of the word, the gospel is addressed only to the ear. In the Supper, it is also seen, touched, smelt and tasted. None of this would be possible in a virtual ministration of the Sacrament.
3. The importance of the distribution of the elements. The bread and the wine are ‘given and received,’ and it is not just any bread and wine: it is this bread and this cup (1 Cor. 11.26), for which thanks have been given, and over which the words of explanation and institution have been pronounced. It is precisely as this bread and this cup, and only as this bread and this cup, that the elements represent the broken body of Christ and the blood of the new covenant. No such giving and receiving is possible in a merely virtual Service (unless we resort to the methods of the tele-evangelist and ask viewers to touch the screen with their bread).
4. Closely linked to the distribution is the nature of the Lord’s Supper as communion. In 1 Corinthians 10.16-17 Paul describes the ‘cup of blessing as a sharing in the blood of Christ and the breaking of the bread as a sharing in his body. The Greek word in both instances is koinōnia, conveying the basic idea of having something in common. In the Lord’s Supper, we share or have in common the same bread and the same wine, reflecting the fact that what binds us together is the one body and the one blood of Christ. This is consistent with the use of several chalices or even individual cups in a congregational setting; it is not consistent with a virtual service.
In many Christian traditions, communicants receive the bread and wine individually from an officiating clergyman. The Reformed tradition, especially in Scotland, avoided such clericalism. In the original liturgy (Knox’s Book of Common Order) the Minister, having preached the word, and given a preliminary exhortation and admonition, came down from the pulpit and joined the other believers at the Table. Then, having given thanks and broken the bread, he passed it to the person nearest him, and he or she then passed it on to the person beside them.
Today, few churches continue the practice of coming together at a table. Instead, we (Presbyterians, at least) receive the bread and wine seated in our pews. Still, the principle of giving and receiving is conserved. Communicants receive the elements from their fellow believers and pass them on to their fellow believers, betokening the fact that we share all the blessings of the body and blood of Christ with each other. Here, we are all receivers, and we are all givers. This would not be possible in any online Service.
5. There is a need for patience. In the good providence of God, this pandemic will not last for ever.
At the top of his Order for the Lord’s Supper, Knox indicates that in the early days of the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was usually administered once a month, but then he immediately adds, ‘or so oft as the Congregation shall think expedient.’ The Westminster Directory for Public Worship makes the same point. Communion is to be celebrated ‘frequently,’ but just how frequently is to be decided in the light of what is ‘most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people.’
In the middle of a pandemic, it is neither expedient nor convenient, and would not be so even if the law of the land did not forbid it. But we look forward to a day in the not too distant future when the cloud will lift, and we can sit together express in ‘joyful eucharist’ our gratitude for God’s deliverance.
In the meantime, we have the ministry of the word in almost unprecedented abundance. Let us relish and cherish it.,