Lesson 9: Holy Communion During the Pandemic

Drive through Holy CommunionWhile reading Holy Envy, I kept asking myself why I liked the book so much. It is obviously well written, easily read, but hardly profound theology. Instead, it is just as she promised, a simple report on how the experience of her college religion classes corresponded with her own over several years. In the end, I decided that is its attraction. Taylor is expressing what many people around me are also feeling and thinking. In fact, different students represent the conflicting emotions and thoughts whirling around inside me. When I find her naive, I am confronting my own naivete.

Beyond that, I think she is accurately and unabashedly confronting the situation in which we find ourselves. We are worshiping a Christian god while others in our neighborhood are worshiping other gods or none at all. We like her book, because she resolves the dilemma in a fashion that does not denigrate our present devotional life.

Taylor’s approach seems to support my ideas about theology being an ongoing conversation, but it also forces me to ask if my conceptions really relate to my present situation. For instance, does my theology work in the midst of the present pandemic?

I was really challenged when my symposium discussed that question this week. The group agreed they appreciated the online efforts of their congregations, but really missed gathering bodily with the rest of the church community. Then when someone observed you cannot celebrate communion over the Internet, one of our scientists threw out, “Why can’t you have a long distance consecration of the elements?”

It fell like a bombshell on some of us. Our traditions insist the sacrament is genuine only if an ordained pastor says appropriate words while serving a meal of bread and wine. Others in the group had no problem catching the question in stride. Their denominations allowed for all kinds of ceremonies to remember the Last Supper.

Although we went on to discuss numerous other issues, this is the one most often mentioned around me in the following days. My mind kept returning to it, because my son and I had written a paper about online churches that maintained you could not celebrate the Eucharist on the Internet. Now I was forced to ask, “Really?” I remembered all the changes in doctrine and practice that have taken place over 2000 years primarily due to changing situations, many during my lifetime. I wondered if the pandemic was simply bringing one more change.

You could write a long, long book about the historical changes in my tradition alone by just defining each word in my attempt to describe the sacrament above. Are we talking about ordination involving training, selection by authorities, election by congregations? Is the priesthood limited to men or does it include women? Are the appropriate words of institution simply a quote from the Bible, must the passage be included in a formal prayer, or will a simple invitation do? Must the meal be bread and wine, what kind of bread, can grape juice replace the wine, should the wine be in small glasses or a common cup? Must the meal be served from the hand of the priest or can it be passed from person to person? Should participants sit around a table, kneel at a railing, stand in a circle? Are only members of the congregation, the denomination, or a certain age group invited to the table? And on and on.

Relative to our situation, you could ask if an emergency warrants modifying every one of these requirements. Luther argued two lay people shipwrecked on a desert island could celebrate by selecting one to be the priest. Does the emergency of the pandemic open up the possibility of celebrating electronically?

I do not have an answer but think we should have a conversation that appreciates all the attempts being made. Just around me, most congregations are streaming modified services of the word without communion, one priest is streaming himself celebrating the Eucharist and inviting his people to eat unconsecrated bread and wine with him, and another has begun a Love Feast in which families participate on Zoom while eating their Friday evening dinner.

Incidentally, a Methodist pastor reported congregations in his tradition celebrated similar love feasts on weeks when the ordained circuit rider was not in town. Was there really any reason not to regard those as proper sacraments even though the pastor was absent? Do we have any decent argument against trying electronic consecration in our present emergency?

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    I received all sorts of responses to my comments about the possibilities of online eucharist, everything from “who cares in these troubled times?” to arguments from a priesthood of all believers’ position that people can do whatever is needed, to reports of being satisfied with the Service of the Word that is being offered online (actually worshipping at as many as three different congregation each Sunday morning), to “fasting” for the time being, to appreciating the Mass being offered electronically especially when the priest holds the host out to the viewer for adoration, to belief that sharing a love feast online via Zoom serves as a Communion service. I attached the most comprehensive treatment I received from a Lutheran bishop in Michigan. And I must say I imagine a beloved departed friend, Rustum Roy, who talked of broadband and narrowband communication perhaps shrugging his shoulders and saying “Okay, but realize how narrowband it is.”

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