Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options

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So, communion. I'd better start writing down these thoughts before the pandemic chips all the options away. I'd like to show there are options for regular, Maundy Thursday and Easter communion services.

My thinking has gone from we can be especially hygienic, to perhaps we can hold the service outside, to perhaps we can have walk-by distribution with social distancing and now I don't think any public, in-person service is likely to be safe by Easter. Safety in distribution has long been a communion ethical concern, especially among Protestants, so this isn't exactly a new thought. And even if we (collectively) don't refrain, it's possible civil authorities might stop any meaningful gathering.

If I can, I'll show some of my influences later, but as of March 26, 2020, I think these are the best options for a communion service to minimize risk for communicants and presiding ministers. Please comment, because I'll spell out the effective conduct for those options that grab your attention.

There are four likely options:

  1. The pastor, and perhaps any other ordained ministers of the church, presiding over communion at home, praying for the congregation and informing them of this.
  2. The church having a service of spiritual communion by phone or video conference; that is, a guided visualization which expresses the desire for communion, using the rite (text) for communion, but without the elements or any physical artifacts. It may also take on elements of a eucharistic fast, paradoxically, to stir desire and make the consummation (the return to normal communion practice) that much richer.
  3. The church having a "purely symbolic" communion service, by video conference where participation by the laity in by observation and prayer. The presiding minister (who might broadcast from home or church) might or might not commune by mouth.
  4. The church having a distributed service where communicants provide their own bread and wine, and are led remotely by the minister. More akin to some prayer breakfasts, but with people at home. This assumes the "lowest" ecclesiology of any option.

#1 needs no special technology as such. Only #3 absolutely requires a video broadcast. #3 and #4 are not mutually exclusive.

I can hear you saying "I don't like any of those." Fine, but these are the options I can think of, unless you count "don't do it" or "risk infecting your people" as good options, and I don't.

Please comment and, as I said above, we can work though the details. (Don't comment minimizing the pandemic because I will delete those.)

5 Replies to “Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options”

  1. So this is some substantive food for thought. I’m coming from a tradition without a high theology of the Eucharist, but some thoughts…

    Option #2 > I see a lot of potential in both ritualizing the concept of a eucharistic fast, and communicating about it. I think it needs to be accompanied by some amount of “preaching” (by video, or e-mail, and/or postal mail) to explore this concept with the community. One needs to attend to this as a matter of spiritual care, but also hold out the anticipation of the day when we can all break that fast together. Off the top of my head I’m wondering about making use of Hebrew Bible readings covering topics of exile and return?

    Option #4 > If I were in a tradition with a very low eucharistic theology (in relation to the role of the ordained in the rite)… Perhaps a UCC church with history from the O’Kellyite Christians… This might be very appealing. One could lead it by video. Or as a low-tech option, the rite with instructions could be sent to each household, inviting everybody to participate at the same time on the given day.

    Option #1 > Prompted me to think of an issue with all options, of communicating how we will be the Body of Christ to each other during this period of exile from meeting. We need to hold a space open in our now highly distributed spiritual practice so that we are working towards the day when we can worship together without leaving anybody behind. Even if the road there may require gradual use of small groups, considerable patience and care, and various pauses or reductions in meeting. The ultimate, long-term goal should be the re-gathering of the physical Community of Christ (lest we become disembodied).

  2. Speaking only for myself of course, Option #1 isn’t my cup of tea, and Options #2 and #3 seem to be neither one thing nor another.

    I’m wondering if the assumption that Option #4 is inherently low is actually correct. I mean clearly someone with “low” theological understanding of the eucharist will be more flexible from a practical perspective, and I’m not really qualified to say how Roman Catholic theology or say a high Anglican theology could be applied.

    But if we took an approach from the ‘higher’ end of the Reformed tradition, aren’t there still all the elements necessary for the eucharist to ‘work’? There is the shared meal in the (electronic) meeting of the brethren and the proclaiming of the words of institution by a minister ordained and authorised by the congregation. What’s missing? A physical shared cup isn’t necessary in this tradition. Nor is there anything essential which the minister does physically to the particular bits of bread and wine to be eaten.

    The outward elements can be spread over the ends of the earth, or the end of an internet connection, but to quote the Westminster Confession “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.”

    Or something like that 🙂

    I wonder whether there is a difference between a video conference and posted instructions?

  3. Being married to an Anglican, I can say from his perspective that option #4 violates a few aspects of Anglican eucharistic theology concerning the role of ordained clergy. There must be physical continuity between the ordained priest (lest the priesthood and the sacrament become trivialized in their connection), and the substance being consecrated (although the consecrated elements could later be distributed by a eucharistic lay minister).

    I personally have mixed feelings about option #4, (I worry about badly prepared ritual at the hands of badly educated lay people) but can imagine congregational settings with strong lay theologies (or a strong practice of the priesthood of all believers) where a highly distributed eucharist, or a lay-led eucharist would have significant integrity. It would also have stronger echos between Christian eucharist and Jewish Passover meal (which also requires no ordained leadership).

  4. I hear you on those traditions where there is a focus on a change (however conceptualised) in the bread and wine. That’s not my background so I don’t have much to contribute.

    I suppose my thoughts were around the possibility of an Option #4 rite in traditions which are not exactly purely memorialist, but which focus not on the elements changing but on the shared experience of the participating believers.

    I am less worried about badly prepared rituals as long as the intent is there, and I’m assuming a minister leading, although personally that is less important to me. With a bit of planning and explanation, surely it can be done decently and in good order…

  5. I worry about badly prepared ritual, because it can also communicate “bad theology”. It’s easy to forget that ritual has a powerful preaching voice all its own.

    Thus the need for excellent instructions.

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