Grace upon grace upon grace: A response to Ryan Danker's theology of Holy Communion

April 8th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

On March 25, the Baltimore-Washington Conference webpage posted this piece by theologian and historian Ryan Danker. In the article, Dr. Danker decries virtual or online Communion as “sacramentally impossible from a United Methodist perspective.”

He augments this argument by appealing to two theological axioms and practical assertions: 1) our UMC eucharistic theology inescapably entails a physical, same-space gathering for the materialization of the Real Presence of Christ, and 2) the Communion must be administered by authorized clerics also present in the same space as the congregation.

To accent these axioms, Dr. Danker appeals to Word and Table I and the double-epiclesis, which, Dr. Danker argues, assumes the Real Presence of Christ manifests in the Eucharist when we have A) physical bread and wine, and B) a corporeally congregated ecclesia.

Before contesting Dr. Danker’s claims, it feels right to begin with a word of praise. I commend Dr. Danker for his focus on the details of our liturgy, particularly the corporeality of Christ’s resurrection and the physical nature of the assembled ecclesia. In our characteristically individualized and spiritualized social situation, sometimes seen in individualized and spiritualized Methodist theology, Dr. Danker appropriately asks us to take the physicality of the gospel seriously.

I also admire Dr. Danker’s stress on the symbolism within our liturgies. He rightly notes the beauty and value of the symbolism of receiving from one loaf and one cup. In this moment of United Methodist history, when our schisms seem as ensconced as ever, something powerful happens when traditionalists and progressives receive from the same bread and cup. We cannot undervalue such symbolism in this moment.

Finally, I want to thank Dr. Danker for simply doing the pastoral task of thinking through theological decisions. Pragmatism becomes a cruel master when it is its own telos. I do not think our bishops are thinking merely in terms of pragmatics, but Danker ought to be thanked for thinking through the theological consequences of our pragmatic determinations.

With these praiseworthy points in place, I propose that Dr. Danker’s arguments, despite his theological and pastoral aims, fail on both theological and pastoral grounds. In the following, I address each of his main arguments in turn:

1. Dr. Danker declares that virtual Communion is a theological and ecclesial impossibility because it makes clergy incapable of carrying out our God-given ordination responsibilities of guarding the elements and their use.

If pastors can maintain responsibility for all the other means of grace Dr. Danker asks us to enjoy ― participation in confession, fasting, study, prayer, meditation, etc. ― with a little effort and imagination, we could do the same with this particular means of grace, as well. For example, pastors could inform their congregations that this moment of receiving Communion does not continue beyond the time of the video. We could inform the congregation of our clerical task and ask them to appreciate the nature of our Communion by only choosing appropriate elements. We could send newsletters explaining the appropriate bread and juices for use, and provide a handy list of appropriate means of consumption and disposal. Dr. Danker rightly calls for pastors to accentuate discipleship in this moment. Well, if discipleship is our concern, these circumstances afford us an amazing opportunity to help our people understand what really goes into United Methodist Communion. If we are worried about them misusing the elements, it’s because we have not sufficiently taught them otherwise.

Further, in this section, Dr. Danker claims the pastor’s voice cannot transcend the space and time demanded by virtual Communion. This, however, seems like a rather limited understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in Communion. If the Word of God proclaimed, if the prayers of the people read and if the liturgies performed can all transcend space and time in our virtual gatherings, why, then, can’t the Great Thanksgiving? The Holy Spirit is not limited by our shoulder-to-shoulder assemblage.

I find it odd, as well, that Dr. Danker worries about clericalism as a consequence of Communion done virtually. It appears to me, rather, that his argument assumes a kind of clericalism: the pastor must be physically present for Christ to be present. That poses too many theological and pastoral problems for me to parse out here, except to say the authority of Communion does not derive from the cleric but from the Holy Spirit, whose voice can transcend space and time, whose voice is heard in the far reaches of the cosmos where no human voice has ever sounded.

Again, I think Dr. Danker rightly stresses pastoral responsibility regarding Communion. However, this responsibility is neither impossible with virtual Communion nor a slippery slope to a eucharistic free-for-all.

2. Dr. Danker argues that virtual Communion is “theologically shallow” because “the virtual community cannot replace physical community. To hug your children, your spouse, your loved ones, rather than receive a text, is exponentially greater.”

I think it worth noting that I know of no one, from any theological camp, arguing that the virtual community should supplant the physical community. No one wants that. No one argues that. That said, Dr. Danker correctly notes that hugging your children, spouse and loved ones feels exponentially greater than receiving a text. However, when, say, a virus sweeps through the globe and it is literally life-threatening to hug your children, spouse, or loved ones, a text is a perfectly acceptable expression of love. No one claims a text message is ideal, but when we cannot gather with one another, a text can be a beautiful, even if inferior, exhibition of our mutual affection. No one thinks a text message superior to a hug, but neither does anyone complain about receiving a text expressing adulation.

The analogy aside, the weaker aspect of Dr. Danker’s argument is his conception of the virtual community. For all the importance Dr. Danker places on the physicality of the body of Christ, when he discusses virtual Communion he argues as if those humans on the other side of the screen have become mere pixels, flashes of electronic current that aren’t real.

However, my presence on the other side of a screen neither diminishes my physicality nor yours. When the church gathers virtually, we still gather as physical bodies. We still orient our physical posture and praise toward the eucharistic moment. We physically watch. We physically hear. We physically touch. We physically respond. And we physically consume. Even in virtual Communion, enough physicality remains in the ritual to rightly remember both our corporeality and Christ’s.

3. Dr. Danker finally appeals, not to Wesley’s pragmatism or innovations, but Wesley’s grounding in the traditions of the church.

He says Wesley “would never have argued for a practice that rejects the very nature of the sacrament itself. He would be using this time to preach and teach and to organize the people of God in order to care for one another.” Of course, what Wesley would or would not do (and whether we should always be bound to what Wesley would do) is the very question at stake, so Dr. Danker begs the question. He assumes the answer beforehand and then appeals to Wesley’s ghost in order to ground the claim.

Further, we should remember that many of Wesley’s ministerial “innovations” were considered, by those with alternative convictions, a compromise to the preaching of the word (through itinerant preachers or women). Slaveholders deemed Wesley’s abolitionist streak an affront to the authority of Scripture and, thus, the gospel, itself. So maybe we should all be a little more hesitant to claim Wesley for our side of these things. In all honesty, I do not think any of us can directly cite Wesley on the nature of virtual Communion given that I do not remember Wesley talking about the internet. Besides, I think we might all be surprised at what Wesley would do, as a pastor, so his people could taste and see the Lord’s eucharistic goodness.

Finally, Wesley aside, Dr. Danker’s argument that we should spend our time “preaching, teaching, and organizing” strikes me as rather short-sighted. Nothing about virtual Communion necessitates we, even for a moment, forget about our call to preach, teach, organize, and participate in other means of grace. Indeed, as I stated earlier, it could be that this moment is a great moment for pastors to preach and teach our churches the beauties of our teachings on Holy Communion. Dr. Danker makes competitive what need merely be complementary.


In conclusion, I want to highlight a relevant passage from David deSilva’s commentary on Galatians. Regarding Paul’s exhortation to Christian freedom in Galatians 5, deSilva writes, disciples in every age ought to…

…take care what they bind to themselves and upon those in their charge. Traditions are valuable, decorum in worship is valuable, guardrails on behavior are valuable, but Spirit-led freedom is more valuable than any of those. There is a great deal of wisdom in the Christian tradition about Christian practice, but ‘wisdom’ is not ‘law.’ Devotion to tradition or to use our sense of decorum or our own valued guardrails can easily slide into slavery to the same – and not just our own enslavement, but we quickly find ourselves expecting other Christian disciples to shoulder the same yoke or else we judge them to be less for it. [1]

David A. deSilva, and Paul before him, rightly notes that Christian wisdom and Christian tradition, no matter how sanctified, are not law. Wisdom dictates that we understand and apply law in social circumstances with pastoral, ethical, and theological sensitivity. Our bishops have attempted such wisdom. Maybe they are wrong. Maybe Dr. Danker is wrong. But let’s not throw a yoke of bondage on each other in the name of “Wesley.” Let’s practice patience with each other in this time when our best theological and pastoral minds simply disagree.

I’m grateful for Dr. Ryan Danker’s engagement with the theological task before us. I offer these thoughts as a gentle reminder that theological knowledge always has a pastoral context.

[1] David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians. Pg. 426.

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