Virtual Communion in a Time of Pandemic

April 2nd, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

I used to be a digital skeptic, dubious that virtual connectedness could foster any meaningful relating among us. Getting diagnosed with incurable cancer, however, provided all sorts of opportunities to reconsider my assumptions about how the world works, including my certainty that virtual connectivity is incapable of enriching our lives.

Cancer broke my back and treatment landed me in the hospital, sidelining me from in-person interaction except with doctors and nurses, family, and a few close friends. Life as a university professor, involved parent, active churchgoer and participant in community events—all of it came to a halt.

But amid so much loss, I was introduced to the life-giving possibilities of virtual connectedness. Relatives and friends got in touch through a website focused on caring for those who are sick. Friends created a virtual calendar of food and cleaning needs. As news of my cancer spread virtually, others living with incurable cancer got in touch to offer resources and support. These virtual connections were not simply poor substitutes for real interaction; they filled my soul at a time of despair. I wouldn’t have survived my cancer quarantine without them.

As a theologian, I had never given the church universal much thought in life before cancer. But when cancer prevented me from being physically present at church, I was introduced to how the body of Christ exists virtually in profound, healing ways. And when I came across Pastor Jason Byassee’s insight that since the time of Paul the body of Christ has always been a virtual body, I set to writing and speaking about the important role the virtual body of Christ has always played in ministering to those who suffer, and how we might employ our digital tools to enhance our ability to live out this calling in the world.

These days it’s not just the very sick or the very frail who are connecting with the virtual body of Christ; it’s most every churchgoer. Christian communities are scrambling to offer online worship, virtual youth group, Bible studies, and more in response to the call to avoid physical contact with one another.

This is new territory for many Christian communities. My graduate school advisor, Dr. Sallie McFague, often said that Christianity is an incarnational religion par excellence. As congregations live into what it means to be the body of Christ virtually in a time of pandemic, there’s a lot of talk about the loss of in-person gatherings and about what aspects of worship can and should be brought into virtual spaces and what should be saved for in-person gatherings only. Currently the conversation is focused on whether or not to offer Holy Communion when we’re unable to gather physically to receive it.

"The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World" by Deanna A. Thompson. Order here:

Leaders of denominations like Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the church body I’m a part of) recommend that, for the time being, congregations fast from communion, proposing that temporarily foregoing the sacrament allows us to focus renewed energy on how the Word of God comes to us. Those who advocate for fasting emphasize that faith is not in jeopardy when we don’t have access to the sacrament. God’s Word is sufficient for the nourishing of faith, they say, an important point that is no doubt comforting to many in this time when access to the sacrament is mostly non-existent.

While it is valuable to stress the sufficiency of the Word for nourishing faith, the fact that Christianity is an incarnational religion means that we also emphasize how God comes close to us through actual material elements like bread and wine. 

One of the main reasons for counseling against the practice of virtual communion seems rooted in the conviction that virtual gathering do not qualify as real gatherings. Those who counsel against providing communion at this time of physical distancing say, “We should wait for communion until we can gather again.” Suggesting, of course, that our current gatherings virtually for worship, for evening prayer, for Bible study or youth group differ in significant ways from the times we’re physically together.

I’m hoping that this time of forced quarantine from one another might encourage us to reflect more deeply on what being present to one another in virtual spaces actually means. While conventional wisdom tends to view virtual spaces as disembodied and therefore inferior to embodied, in-person presence, theologian Kathryn Reklis insists that our theology must move beyond “seeing the real versus virtual divide in terms of embodied versus disembodied,” and we must think more creatively about “the new permutations of digital and virtual technology informing our lives as particular ways we are embodied.”

Just as it’s possible to be in close physical proximity with others while simultaneously being absent mentally or spiritually, so it is also possible to be virtually present to one another in profound, meaningful, and real ways, even when we’re physically distant. The tears running down my cheeks as I participated in my church’s virtual worship service this past Sunday, or the fact that a friend found herself “on her knees” in her living room during her participation in virtual worship illustrate the embodied impact that gathering together virtually with the body of Christ can have on our physical bodies. Virtual gatherings for worship over the past few weeks, for many of us, have been real experiences of gathering, connection, and worship.

So if it’s possible to be really present to one another virtually during worship, and if God’s Word comes near to us through prayer, confession and absolution, hymns, the sermon—even when they are done within the context of online worship—it is worth reflecting on the theological possibility of the presence of the Word incarnate in, with, and through the experience of virtual communion.

Despite recommendations to fast from communion at this time, many churches are nevertheless experimenting with how they might celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually. And while fasting in all sorts of ways is a common Lenten practice, Lent will soon give way to Easter. In anticipation of getting to that great feast of victory in the church year, I encourage churches to consider the potential power of Holy communion through virtual worship to nourish and heal.  

What might it look like to do communion well at this time of enforced physical distancing? We could start with preparing members beforehand, encouraging them to prepare the table in their own homes. Send along the recipe for the bread regularly used in communion; invite people to consider what cup and plate they might be meaningful to hold the elements; remind them of the confidence we have that God is the one who acts in the sacrament; affirm what so many already know: that Christ comes to us even when we gather virtually. In this brief video created for her Canadian Lutheran congregation, friend and Pastor Kayko Driedger Hesslein illustrates so well how such preparation might be done lovingly and thoughtfully.

Many Christians understand the sacrament of Holy Communion as a means of grace that nourishes and strengthens our faith for life and ministry in the world. Communion is a ritual that draws us into a longing for God’s justice to find its place on earth. It empowers us to hope in the coming resurrection and new life. At a time when physical contact is so limited, communing together virtually with our faith communities can affirm the reality that our bodies are engaged in worship even when we’re participating from our living room, that we’re still connected to the other bodies gathered virtually for worship even when we can only see photos of them online, and that Christ comes to us in the gifts of bread and wine even when our pastor’s setting of and inviting us to the table is mediated by a screen.

As I learned during my cancer quarantine, virtual connections can mediate the body of Christ to those who suffer. This time of mass quarantine invites creative theological reflection on how we might faithfully gather, worship, and be nourished in spirit and body at a time when we need such nourishment more than ever.

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