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Seven Considerations About Online Communion

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.

Jacques Iselin Elements of Holy Communion

Jacques Iselin’s Elements of Holy Communion.

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.

Catholicity
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…

Order
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!

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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.

About Josh Hale

Aren't we what we repeatedly love? My wife, being GeekDad to the 4 superkids, United Methodist pastoring, Texas, science fiction and other nerdy pursuits, words (speaking, listening, writing, reading), Britain, music, camping, tech, baseball, practicing theology. Jesus. Coffee.

Comments

  1. Hi, your brother Juan is my mom’s pastor, and I saw him post this on Facebook, and thought I would give it a read. I am currently reading a The Mass – A Guided Tour (ISBN: 9780867166460). So, I am thinking about Eucharist a bit anyway. I am probably somewhat in the minority these days, but generally speaking I do not believe there is such a thing as “A digital body of Christ”. This is not to say that there is no place in the church for social media, or technology in general. However, I am often concerned that “the church” uses the social media forum to distance itself from… well, itself. Churches are often “conflict averse”. Which I find seldom results in less conflict, it simply results in an almost constant undercurrent of tension and political correctness. Which may be why I am currently un-churched, I am not conflict averse. conflict to me is often problem solving… but I digress, all this is to say that I question the validity (or perhaps usefulness) of an online communion. Is this to be the Catholic Mass of old, in which the laity receives neither bread nor wine, but simply witnesses the meal and sacrifice? Or do I bring my own bread an cup to be digitally sanctified? How does this fit with the mystery of the sacrifice and meal in which the body and blood of Christ are separated, and the atonement of the body and blood through the reunion in the “body of Christ” … if I am not talking over myself… I suppose it comes down to the same questions Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli argued… is there any mystery beyond the remembrance? does anything really happen? I think I kind of side with Luther that there is some in, around, under mystery, but I find this partially in the regular celebration of the Eucharist. In other words, the more often I celebrate the sacrifice with the meal, the more I understand the meaning of Christmas, and feel the power of the resurrection in my life… So, I guess to try and reign this runaway rant in… I believe that as with televised preaching, it is better than no preaching, but should primarily be the purview of those that are homebound. I believe that when otherwise capable believers attend church from home, they are cheating themselves, the body, and the resurrection. In other words they are just “avoiding conflict”… Of course that could be projection, as that is largely where I am at right now… Anyway, hope you don’t mind my responding.

    • William, thanks for stopping by! Your mom has a great pastor, and you really ought to hang out with Juan if you’re reading Eucharistic theology for fun! :) So, I think you’re spot-on about a few things: the niceness culture that’s strangling our better angels, the quasi-gnosticism that we can spiritually apprehend things without getting our hands dirty, the fact that these questions are in line with what the Reformers were wrestling over. I’m not sure churches exchange physical community for virtual in order to avoid conflict, though–most online communities are at least as fractious (even if it is good healthy conflict) as their IRL counterparts!

      Thanks for this, too:

      …the more often I celebrate the sacrifice with the meal, the more I understand the meaning of Christmas, and feel the power of the resurrection in my life.

      A beautifully moving word for all of us. Don’t be a stranger–the Body of Christ isn’t complete without you.

      • Your key points reflect much of what was discussed in the conversation at GBHEM over the past two days. It seems to be critical that we continue these conversations in order to find our way toward more engagement with people in the culture, and to find where God is working in our time. I welcome your comments as a helpful guide to accomplishing this. And I welcome conversations such as the one just concluded as I believe this is necessary for us to come to understandings about how to offer ministry and the Christian faith in our time. We live in an unprecedented time of media influence and we as a church, or for that matter as the human race, have not experienced such a time as this.

        • Larry, thanks for your insight–glad you were there! I’m glad we agree we need more conversation and thoughtful reflection as we move forward. It’s fitting the consultation was held the week of World Communion Sunday–may we continue to offer the life-giving ministry of Christ across our globe and beyond.

  2. Thanks for this, Josh! I’ve been looking for someone to summarize the issues at stake so that “everyday” United Methodists could understand them. Yours is the best I’ve seen so far, so with your permission I’m picking it up for this week’s UM Insight, with all the usual attributions and links. Good job! Hope the family is well, especially our little man Tim-a-Roo!

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