Virtual/Online Communion

Reflections by Phil Hefner

The question is not whether there can be online communion, with lower case “c”; it’s whether there can be valid Eucharist online.

Unquestionably, there can be communion online. What is “communion”? Merriam-Webster provides a useful definition: “intimate fellowship or rapport.” One of the valuable things about online events is the joy of seeing other people, some of whom I haven’t seen for a long time. There are varying degrees of “intimacy,” online, but also in the flesh. There can be interaction, which is part of communion.

Can there be a valid online Holy Communion or Eucharist? There are several things to consider:

1–Holy Communion is a sacrament, one of the two recognized sacraments in our church.

2–Note the difference between a “sacrament” and a “sacramental.” Holy Communion is a meal; any and all meals can be “sacramental,” in that they are occasions of intimacy, with deeper meaning and joy. Nature can be sacramental, as well as many events in our lives: marriage, illness, family life, etc. A person might experience a closer relation to God by visiting the Grand Canyon, for example, than in a Church service.

However, a survey of ELCA members some thirty years ago discovered that, when they were asked to describe their experience of meeting God, most laypeople referred to an experience during a church service. Interestingly, a smaller percentage of clergy gave this response—they described experiences outside the church. Among both laity and clergy, experiencing God in nature ranked lower in responses. This survey was rigorous, designed and evaluated by respected social scientists. My guess is that fewer laypeople would respond in the same way today, but I would not underestimate the power of the church’s worship to bring people to God. I would also give attention to interaction with other people as a setting in which we meet God—more on this below.

3–What makes a sacrament? Lutherans believe there are three elements: a word of promise, attached to a material element, commanded by Jesus Christ. Under these criteria, Luther and his co-workers asserted only two sacraments—baptism and Holy Communion. Luther sometimes spoke of the confession of sins and absolution as a third sacrament (it is included in the Small Catechism) , and the Footwashing seems to meet the Lutheran criteria—but our consensus focuses on just two, baptism and Holy Communion.

4–What does Holy Communion accomplish? Luther wrote in the Small Catechism:

“What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?

We are told in the words “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sins.” By these words the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given to us in the sacrament, for where there is forgiveness of sins, there are also life and salvation.

“How can bodily eating and drinking produce such great effects?

The eating and drinking do not in themselves produce them, but the words “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, when accompanied by the bodily eating and drinking, are the chief thing in the sacrament, and he who believes these words has what they say and declare: the forgiveness of sins.”

In recent decades, particularly under the impact of liturgical renewal, our understanding of the sacrament has been enlarged—in addition to the emphasis on forgiveness of sins, we view it as a foretaste of the eschatological (Heavenly) banquet and as a joyful event—many congregations sing hymns during the distribution.

5–So, the major questions are, “Can this forgiveness of sins and salvation” happen online? “Can this “eating and drinking” take place online? Can the foretaste of the Heavenly banquet happen online?

As we think about these questions, it might be a good exercise to ask, “Could Jesus’s Last Supper have taken place online?”

In my opinion, forgiveness of sins and salvation and joy can certainly happen online.

Can eating and drinking happen online? This deserves attention, since actually consuming the bread and wine is so important for Lutherans. In her book, Virtual Communion, Deanna Thompson (St. Olaf College) suggests that online participants might each bake bread by the same recipe and eat simultaneously. It’s a nice image, but not very practicable. Participants would likely eat and drink different bread and wine, but at the same time. We recall the sharp mid-twentieth century disputes whether non-alcoholic beverage could substitute for wine.

There are more issues here. If Zoom, Skype, or Facetime is used, participants can see each other eating and drinking. If YouTube or Facebook is the medium, they see only the

liturgist, not the other communicants. I would think that Zoom might, in this respect, be a better medium, if one’s concern is for a “valid” Eucharist.

Participants can phone into Zoom, with no video. Does this make a difference? If not, it would be possible to celebrate Holy Communion by conference call.

6-Another set of questions arises with respect to the Presider. Lutheran theology requires that an ordained minister preside, which includes words of institution, blessing the bread and wine, and distribution (actual eating and drinking).  The following questions arise in my mind:

Can the Presider bless the bread and wine of each participant via cyberspace?

Is the Presider necessary? If people find online Communion to be meaningful, might they not decide to preside themselves, in addition to or instead of online communion? This question arose in the 60s and 70s when house communions were popular.

With regard to issues surrounding the Presider, I tend to say that only the Zoom context is possibly viable.

Pastor Tom Ford has written, concerning the Presider: “People being able to see each other does not certify that a real Communion is taking place.  I think that is certified minimally by the Pastor being in a live broadcast, the congregant watching live (not a recording), the congregant believing “given for you” and the Holy Spirit’s actualizing the Presence of Jesus in the spoken words of the Pastor and the faith of the congregant—the same as in a “private Communion.”

7–The question arises in my mind whether we make too much of Holy Communion, even a fetish. Our salvation is not dependent on our receiving Holy Communion. For the first 21 years of my life, I shared in Holy Communion only four times per year. Weekly, or even monthly, Communion is a relatively recent development in the ELCA, and it is not universally observed.

8–My opinion is twofold: (a) Watching a Eucharist, on TV or YouTube, can be spiritually rewarding. (b) Zoom and comparable technology should be used regularly to foster communion (with lower chase “c”). The Saturday afternoon Zoom Chats are a good start, in my opinion.

9–What are the strengths to our online efforts? In my view, there are two strengths in online efforts: interactive presence between participants, conveying information, and symbolic portrayals. I suggest we build on these strengths. The service on YouTube or TV is not interactive, but it can have great impact—it is a strong symbolic portrayal. The music provided by Padraig, the readings and prayers, and Nancy’s sermons can be central to Augustana’s life in this period of time. At present, the Service of the Word is portrayed. I have also found the masses from Holy Name Cathedral to be meaningful. The bread and wine are blessed by the Archbishop, and two deacons (maintaining social distance) consume bread and wine with him. I can envision the Augustana YouTube services following this example, perhaps every other week or monthly.

Perhaps the combination of Zoom chat and the Sunday YouTube service would be the best solution. These could be supplemented by events at which social distancing is possible.

The major challenge in this period of shelter-at-home is to keep the flock together, to maintain the congregation’s identity and centeredness. There may be disagreement on whether cyberspace can sustain valid Eucharist, but it is clear that online experience does bring people together in meaningful ways. And that is its strength.

I quote the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church,

“Sacraments are communal actions that depend on “stuff”: bread and wine, water and oil. They depend on gathering and giving thanks, on proclaiming and receiving the stories of salvation, on bathing in water, on eating and drinking together. These are physical and social realities that are not duplicatable in the virtual world.”

The question is in the last sentence—are the physical and social realities of the sacrament really “not duplicatable in the virtual world”? I think they are duplicatable if the criteria you (Tom Ford) set forth (in the comments I quote in my statement) are observed. Your statement is very individualistic and it does not include the eating and drinking, but I think that could be remedied rather easily. Still virtual reality omits participants “touching” each other physically, but there can definitely be a spiritual touching.

I am also concerned that the Service of the Word not be debased; just as I am concerned with making a fetish of the Eucharist.  After all, there have been many millions of Christians, past and present, who seldom celebrate Eucharist, and they are not in any way inferior Christians.

I would create a category: “unnecessary and often undesirable, but in itself, under definite criteria (live zoom),” it is valid. It should not become the norm. Under emergency conditions, lay people can ordain ministers. Under emergency conditions, a valid Eucharist can be celebrated online. Our present situation is only 4-5 weeks old, so is it a liturgical emergency? It may be over in two more months. Then it would be quite possible to celebrate in our churches and also observe the six feet of separation and even wear masks.