Vashy Rahaman’s Take on This as a PCUSA Presbyterian in an ELCA Congregation
I hesitated at first to say anything about this because I am a PCUSA Presbyterian and not Lutheran of any stripe.
Still, I’ve been thinking and remembering, and it seems to me that there are two matters to consider in deciding whether, as an ELCA congregation, we should fast from the Lord’s Supper at this time. The first is the ELCA matter of the physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine at Communion. The second is the ELCA matter of Holy Communion needing to take place in assembly.
I remember, more than 20 years ago, reading the text of A Formula of Agreement between the ELCA, the PCUSA et al., and being a bit amused at the conclusion that (and I’m quoting here, because I decided to look it up) “while neither Lutheran nor Reformed profess to explain how Christ is present and received in the Supper, both churches affirm that ‘Christ himself is the host at his table . . . and that Christ himself is fully present and received in the Supper’” https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/formula.pdf
At the time, it sounded very PCUSA. Since then I’ve discovered that it is, perhaps, even more ELCA.
In PCUSA churches, the communion table is not an altar. According to the PCUSA Book of Order ( W-3.0409 : Theology of the Lord’s Supper), in sharing the bread and cup in Jesus’ name, “we who are many are one body (1 Cor. 10:17)” because, “when we gather at the Lord’s Supper, the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church” (the body of Christ) “in every time and place”. My understanding was that, for PCUSA Presbyterians, Christ is present in the whole meal and its participants, not just in the elements of bread and wine. And yes, the Book of Order does, indeed, not profess to explain the how of it all.
This understanding has made it, perhaps, easier for the PCUSA to clearly say that a congregation may celebrate the Lord’s Supper within an electronic worship service during an emergency or pandemic. The decision, it is further made clear, is “one of emphasizing the unity of the body in an extraordinary time when we are not able to worship or be together in person.”
If the PCUSA theological understanding is that Christ, through the Spirit, is present in the whole meal around a physical table, then it is not too much of a stretch to say that Christ is also present in the whole meal even when the table, but not the meal, is virtual.
How would that work for Lutherans?
My understanding was that ELCA Lutherans believe that, during the meal, the body and blood of Christ is physically present in the substance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, a sacramental union but not a transubstantiation. So, I tried to find out more, and found that my understanding seems to agree with the ELCA The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament that dates to the same year as A Formula of Agreement.
After quoting from The Augsburg Confession to say: “It is taught among us that the true body and blood of Christ are really present in the Supper of our Lord under the form of bread and wine,” The Use of the Means of Grace adds this from the 1960 The Sacrament of the Altar and Its Implications: “The how of Christ’s presence remains as inexplicable in the sacrament as elsewhere. It is a presence that remains hidden even though visible media are used in the sacrament.”
I begin to see why A Formula of Agreement steered clear of consensus on exactly how Christ is fully present and received in Communion.
And I begin to see why the ELCA Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns is somewhat less than clear in its recommendation
“that we do not urge people to employ virtual communion.”
The reason given for the recommendation to not urge is that The Use of the Means of Grace reminds us that ELCA Holy Communion takes place in the assembly. (A reminder too, perhaps, that there is, in my understanding, no ELCA version of the Roman Catholic sine populo mass, and that this is a matter, perhaps, of foundational distinction, from the Roman church, for Lutherans.)
- Is the presence of Christ in the bread and wine really and essentially more physical in ELCA understanding than it is in PCUSA understanding? If it is, then this presents a real and essential barrier to online ELCA Eucharist.
- What is the assembly in which ELCA Holy Communion may take place? Is it limited to a gathering in one place or is it the assembly of all believers, gathered together in space and time? “Assembly” in the time of Covi-19 is revealed to have meanings that we have not commonly used. I think that the assembly requirement may present less of an impediment to online ELCA communion than it may seem to at first.