The recent practice of celebrating Holy Communion online, which is the direct result of lockdown in many countries because of the Coronavirus, is in my view well-intentioned but misguided. There has been a sense that because something like this can be done, it should be done. I urge that we should rethink this matter along different lines. To my mind, such celebration is wrong on three counts:
- It favours those who are wealthy enough to have advanced technology and strong internet bandwidths, thus disadvantaging poorer communities by leaving them excluded them from the Lord’s Supper. Communion at its very heart treats all people equally, giving all an equal share of the same cup.
- The decision to celebrate communion online is without any historical precedent and has not been licensed by the General Assembly of the UPCSA.
- Such practice is mistaken theologically because the person entrusted with the distribution of the elements (the one ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament) is sharing in a bread and cup different from the bread and cup shared by the celebrant(s), who have arranged their own bread and wine. (This besides the fact that they are celebrating in two different places, and not as a church.” (1 Cor. 11.18).) When Paul wrote to the Corinthians to redress abuses of the Lord’s Table, which seem to have occurred from the earliest times, he appeals to the fact that they all share of the same loaf and cup. He says in 1 Cor 10:17 “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” that is, “we all share in the same loaf.” This basic truth was the foundation of Paul’s argument against negligent practices in Corinth. With online celebration this is not the case, and as such an online celebration cannot be a proper celebration of Holy Communion.
There is also within the Scripture a strong belief (emphasised in the Reformed tradition) that Communion is to be transmitted only through one authorized to administer it. Hence, Paul writes in 1Cor. 11:23 “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” The term used for “delivered” in Greek (παραδίδωμι) is the technical term for the transmission of a tradition, i.e. an established practice or doctrine. Here, Paul’s “delivering” of the tradition echoes the giving (or delivering up) of the bread. But in an online “celebration”, what is being received is not what has been delivered. Further, of the four concrete actions of Jesus in the Eucharist that constitute its proper practice, “took”, “gave thanks”, “broke” and “gave”, the last of these is not possible online, for the bread and cup are not being “given” to anyone, but a different bread and wine is being “taken”. It is a trick of technology (and hence a deception) to assume that one is in fact giving anything, when nothing is being given. No doubt, in the back of people’s minds is the vague hope that God will do some magic and turn the bread broken in one home into the bread given into another. But this all goes well beyond the biblical tradition, and historical theology. Worse, what happens is that a single recording of a Eucharistic service is being used at any time or place by anyone to celebrate the Eucharist. One is therefore not partaking together with others, and any appearance of such is a trick.
One might mention too the promise of Jesus to be present when two or three gather in his name. A virtual gathering is not envisaged here, but a celebration in the flesh, where Christ Himself is present with those who are together in body, mind and spirit. Otherwise, what precludes us from celebrating communion in our homes without even the aid of an internet video or live stream–provided we have the “authorisation” of a Minister.
I therefore propose that we as a Church
a) make it clear that no such authorisation has been given by the church
b) be sensitive to how such practice favours the rich, and
c) understand that such practice violates biblical teaching on the Eucharist.
Needless to say, times are difficult and being away from the Lord’s Table is an affliction for many believers. However, when David was in the wilderness fighting Saul, he longed for the Temple of the Lord, but he did not try to recreate the Temple in the desert. He waited on the Lord in the hope that the Lord would restore him in His good time to the Temple. That should be our practice and hope too.