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Online Communion – My Pastoral Position

August 1, 2020

This lockdown has put churches in a bit of a conundrum: how do we continue to function as a community centred around Jesus? This is particularly obvious when it comes to communion. There’s an intense discussion going on in the Anglican church (see e.g.  Ian Paul’s blog), but there’s no consensus amongst us non-conformists either.

Yesterday I got involved in a Twitter discussion with Dave @faithrootsDW and Steve @steve_kneale about it: Steve arguing that online communion is not a thing, Dave arguing that as long as there is some kind of fellowship, even if only on Zoom, it counts as communion. Since I had just recorded a communion service for our church to watch on YouTube, it’s clear that I disagree with both of them…

My main argument is this: God is more interested in our motives than our performance, and he isn’t limited by either space or time. So if our church wants to celebrate communion despite being in lockdown, he is pleased with our desire and will meet with us as we try to do that as best we can.

I should maybe add that I am something of a Zwinglian when it comes to the sacraments: they are symbols of God’s interaction with us, nothing more and nothing less. Therefore I don’t believe it matters that my church members use different bread and drink to the ones I’ve used in my video. I don’t practise “consecration”: if I encounter Jesus in my piece of bread and cup of Ribena that’s thanks to the Holy Spirit, who is obviously equally present with the church member in their home.

If I understand Dave and Steve correctly, their objections hinge on the concept of fellowship: communion is a communal act. Now I agree with that basic principle – but I also believe that we are part of that community of faith through the Holy Spirit, not primarily through our physical presence (an atheist present in the church service is still not part of that spiritual fellowship). So I believe God can bind us together as a fellowship through online communion – after all, nothing is impossible to God!

And again, I believe it’s our purpose, our desire – our heart – that matters to God, rather than doing things “the right way”. For the same reason, if a prisoner in an isolation cell reverently eats a piece of bread and drinks some water (or whatever they have at hand) while thinking about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, while confessing their sins and their faith in the forgiveness of those sins, while spiritually joining their brothers and sister across the globe – that is communion, and possibly a more meaningful version than the monthly “going-through-the-motions” some of us have experienced.

Yes, obviously we should celebrate communion in fellowship with other believers if at all possible; but I don’t think physical fellowship is an indispensable part of what makes communion communion (and this is obviously where I disagree with Dave and Steve). I don’t think we can rule out online services on the basis that Paul only talks about the gathered church: back in his day, as we know, “online” wasn’t an option.

I was a bit reluctant about online services myself to begin with, and we didn’t start doing them until April. It was actually while I was praying one morning that the idea of recording a communion service for Maundy Thursday came into my head – I would say God suggested it (although if you don’t believe God would do that, you just have to explain it differently). It was so well received that I then decided to start recording Sunday services every week.

The comments I have had have all been very positive, and several people have emphasised how it’s helped them feel part of the church community! One unexpected comment was that several people appreciated me doing the recordings in the church, using the familiar lectern and the regular communion table… because it highlighted the continuity with “normal” fellowship life.

I don’t claim to have the final word on this. I may be wrong about the sacraments; I may be wrong about the necessity of the physical expression of community – but I’m convinced that God judges the heart above the action, and I am fairly sure he approves of my pastoral intentions in providing virtual communion for my church family.

From → Christianity, Faith, Jesus

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