Over the last two days United Methodist Church leadership—including pastors, scholars, general agency leaders, and bishops—has been consulting about the possibility of online communion. Much conversation at that meeting (and more that has spilled over to the altar table of the Internet as if from an overfilled chalice) has focused on need, rationale, practice, and much more for something that is crucial to being the Church. I think we should recognize our debt to those online church pioneers who are pushing all of us to consider what’s important and at stake. In that vein, here’s a few considerations I’d like to raise.
Get over indignation
“I can’t believe the UMC is even talking about having online communion,” and “We shouldn’t even have to discuss it, let’s get going!” are two general sentiments I spotted on Twitter’s #onlinecommunion hashtag over the last two days. We should never be threatened by having a discussion, hearing learned testimony, and engaging in broad, vigorous debate. We need more engagement with how connective technology is changing the Christian life, not less (or none!). And it needs to be a thoughtfully-entered conversation that recognizes legitimate concerns rather than writes them off as reactionary.
We aren’t alone
Sometimes we neglect that there are a host of other Christian communities—denominations, national churches, non-denominational congregations, missionary movements, and so much more—which are affected by our decisions. Wisdom is found throughout the Christian tradition; I am not interested in declaring our independence from it. Neither do I want a rigid lockstep theology & practice. If the Holy Spirit is speaking through the church everywhere, we can only be enriched by listening widely.
Online community is real community
I’ve written about this before: relationships happen all the time online, and they are far from meaningless or trite. I’ve been involved in digital community leadership since I was a sophomore in college, helped lead a virtual prayer community for several years, and have been an avid online community participant and proponent before I could drive a car. From Ross Perot’s concept of an online town hall in the 1992 presidential campaign to WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram today, social media has evolved in surprising ways, but it’s a reality that’s here to stay.
Online community is different from physical community
I can’t bring a cup of soup, share a hug, or high-five my online community folks over the webcam or Twitter. I find it interesting that, despite communicating online frequently, young adults as well as technology nerds also intensely prioritize physical meetings. Perhaps it’s precisely because they know the boundaries and limits so well. Communication style, management and supervision, modes of learning, and more all are suited differently to online communities vis-á-vis physical ones. Some things better, some things worse…none the same.
How much community happened between the twelve tribes of Israel in Judges? Lots of it mediated by messengers. How about Paul, writing letters to churches he couldn’t be present for? In our tradition, physical distance can’t keep relationships from happening. Is the internet/mobile technology so substandard that it can effect isolation rather than facilitate the ongoing prayer of Christ’s body that is one of the four classical marks of the church?
Baptism and Sacramentality
Any discussion of online communion absent clear connections to Holy Baptism (and maybe even sacramental rites such as Ordination and Christian Marriage) is irresponsible, negligent, and doomed from the outset. I also happen to think discussion of online communion absent a coherent ecclesiology and missiology is bound to be a trainwreck also, but I haven’t been able to get anyone on board about doing these at a denominational level. Maybe between this online communion discussion and what happened at General Conference 2012, folks would be more amenable now…
I’ve long held that “order” and “sacrament” go hand-in-hand, more than being merely unique exercises of presbyteral ministry in the UMC: Order and Sacrament are organically interrelated by the community of faith both have a hand in stewarding. Despite the representative ministry language being zeroed out beginning with the 1996 Discipline, I don’t think you can escape that functionality in Wesleyan patterns of ministry dating back to John Wesley & Company. How does ordering the life of an online congregation interface with sacramental responsibility?
By-the-by, what are the implications of both Word and Service (and, starting with this year, Compassion and Justice) online? We have a lot more instance of these occurring in different forms via the Internet. Can Communion can be received validly on the moon? May a Methodist bishop preside over a radio Eucharist? Should congregations only celebrate communion once a month or quarter? How about a District Superintendent consecrating elements in advance for a rural charge? There’s no end, it seems, to the questions around our Eucharistic theology and practice!
I think Holy Communion should be at the center of our practice as Christians, and certainly as United Methodists. If you aren’t familiar with John Wesley’s classic sermon On the Duty of Constant Communion, Charles Wesley’s many Eucharistic hymns, the United Methodist Church’s official teaching This Holy Mystery, or the recovery of frequent, rich, robust celebrations of Holy Communion since Vatican II, then I invite you to dive in and learn more!
And I hope you have a thought or two to share below about the importance of the Eucharist and how we can engage our changing world with God’s means of grace.