I recently became aware of a new ‘hot topic” in church – “virtual Holy Communion”. A friend pointed me in the direction with an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. A quick “google search” resulted in a slew of articles in the secular press, religious media and blogosphere on the topic. For United Methodists it is possible this issue will come up at the next General Conference in 2016.
There is a passage attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John where Jesus says: If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31-32.) One of the most important “truths” to know is the answer to the question: What is important?
Whether or not Holy Communion can be received by someone sitting in their living room watching a live stream of a church service, taking bread and cup in their own hands after watching and listening to the words of consecration – this may be important to theologians. But how important is it to a homeless person? Quibbling over such issues as on line communion really seems to be fiddling while Rome burns. The United Methodist Church won’t receive and affirm some of the people who are physically present for worship into the full life of the church. How can we be serious about whether or not a person can receive the sacrament “virtually”?
The Council of Bishops in the UM Church has “declared a moratorium on all online sacraments, including communion, and called for further study of which practices would be acceptable online.” (Wall Street Journal.) This moratorium was declared, according to the WSJ, “at the request of an influential group of United Methodist ministers and theologians”. This influential group has declared that “communion is understood to be celebrated ‘within a physically gathered community’.” It seems there are some in power who can not resist the temptation to push their weight around, albeit with the best of intentions (which is always the rationale used to justify the exercise of power).
What about the presence of Jesus? Is his presence “virtual”? Is the risen Christ any less present with us for being so in Spirit (and therefore, in truth)? Who is it that truly “presides” over the sacrament?
A loved one in the later years of their life would sit at the kitchen table in the morning. They would take a small cup of juice and a cracker. Alone, prayerfully, with faith, they would “remember”, saying the words of institution, and then eat and drink, fully believing they were receiving Holy Communion. How much study will it take, and who is authorized to make the declaration as to whether it was really Holy Communion or not? The cynical, sarcastic side of us might then ask: Who cares?
It is easy to bounce back and forth between sarcasm, cynicism, and silliness about all of this. What is the virtue of “virtual”? People outside the life of the church might be looking at all of this, shaking their heads in wonder. For some things there is really only one way to truly understand what’s going on – you have to be there. With regard to knowing Christ, experiencing his love and the power of his forgiveness, the good news is the truth of his presence is available to anyone, everyone, any time, anywhere. Bishops and “influential ministers and theologians” should know this at least as well as the rest of us.
Here are some articles on “On Line Communion”.
Communion on line – Religious News Service
On Line Communion – Wall Street Journal