July 2020 Credo
The “circuit-breaker” measures introduced by the Singapore government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to our churches encountering unprecedented situations, at least in living memory. One pertinent issue is whether the sacrament of holy communion can, and should, be conducted in the context of church services being held online. Different churches have made different responses.
For the churches who have decided to proceed with (what we might call) “online Holy Communion”, the practice usually involves church members bringing their own bread and wine (or permissible substitutes) to the computer where the online service is projected, for these elements to be consecrated (in a virtual manner) by the pastor conducting the service, before consuming them. Some churches insist that such virtual consecration can only take place in the context of a “live” service, while others are comfortable with each household presenting and consuming the elements at their individually chosen time while viewing a pre-recorded service. There are also more “extreme” forms of online Holy Communion, which (thankfully) do not seem to have caught on with our churches in Singapore.
The legitimacy of online Holy Communion is a complex issue, involving many theological and pastoral considerations. I wish, in this article, to raise only one theological objection to such a practice, which is that online Holy Communion results in a significant change in the symbolic representation of the sacrament.
On this point, I place substantial reliance on a report issued by the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in Britain entitled “Holy Communion Mediated through Social Media” (available at https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-2015-37-Communion-Mediated-through-Social-Media.pdf). Although this report was issued some years prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it purports to deal with the legitimacy of online Holy Communion, and thus has relevance for our discussion.
Although I draw on the content of a document produced by the British Methodists (and am myself a Methodist layperson), it is not my intention to give a strictly Methodist perspective on this issue. I seek, as far as possible, to base my arguments on a basic understanding of the sacrament, which most churches and denominations subscribe to. However, the diversity in Christian perspectives on Holy Communion is well-known, and it is the leaders of the various churches and denominations who remain best placed to decide the best course of action for their churches based on their particular theological heritage and congregational context.
A Significant Change in Symbolic Representation
Sacraments, at their most basic level, are symbolic representations of truths proclaimed by the Christian faith. (Many churches and denominations teach, of course, far deeper theological implications to sacraments.) For a sacrament to convey its intended truths well, its symbolic nature should not be radically altered.
For example, if someone requests to be baptised using his favourite soft drink (e.g. Coca Cola) instead of water, theological considerations would dictate that we turn him down, since the symbolic representation of washing and the new birth would be severely undermined by the substitution of water with a soft drink.
To cite another example, some churches have adopted the practice of selling the consecrated elements of the Lord’s Supper in bulk for Christians to purchase and subsequently consume privately in their homes. Such a practice constitutes a significant change in the symbolic representation of the sacrament. From a corporate meal in which Christians, as a community, encounter the living Christ and receive his grace, the Holy Communion has become the source of quasi-magical “vitamin pills” which individuals consume on a daily basis to enhance their well-being. The sacrament is individualised and commodified to an extent that its original significance is lost.
What effect does online Holy Communion have on the symbolic representation of the sacrament? The report “Holy Communion Mediated Through Social Media” mentions three significant changes.
Changes to the Symbolic Representation of the Sacrament
The report makes the observation (paras 27ff) that a physical gathering of God’s people is an integral part of the symbolic representation in Holy Communion. A physical gathering allows us to prepare ourselves as a community for the sacrament through corporate liturgical acts like the confession of our sins to God and to one another and the exchange of the peace.
It is also within the context of a physical gathering that the symbolism of a “common meal” is adequately brought forth. This is evident to anyone who has tried to “share a meal” with family or friends online, with each party bringing their own food to the computer screen. It is an entirely different experience from sharing a meal in the physical presence of our loved ones.
The report (paras 36ff) mentions a second way in which online Holy Communion is unable to replicate the rich symbolism of the sacrament. The “presiding minister” at the ritual has the privilege and responsibility of representing Jesus, the true host of the meal. In that capacity, he or she performs a “fourfold action”: Taking the bread and wine, giving thanks over the elements, breaking the bread and distributing the elements with words that declare the significance of this action.
In online Holy Communion, the presiding minister is unable to perform this fourfold action in its entirety. The taking and preparation of the elements, breaking of the bread and distribution of the elements have to be done by the church members individually in their own homes. These variations compromise key messages the sacrament intends to convey: That Jesus is the host who graciously prepares the meal for our partaking and that we receive his generous provision from his own hands.
There is a third way in which online Holy Communion significantly alters the symbolic representation of the sacrament. When a physically gathered community partakes of the Eucharistic feast, we share in “one bread” and “one cup”. This is symbolised by the use of a single loaf and a single cup for the ritual or, more commonly, by the elements (which could be discrete wafers and cups) being physically gathered together at the communion table.
Paras 39ff of the report highlights the significance of there being “one bread” and “one cup”. It represents, firstly, the “unity and integrity” of Jesus’ body and blood. The apostle Paul also teaches, in 1 Cor 10:16, that our partaking of the bread and wine is a participation in the realities which the elements signify. He goes on to say in v.17, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” The “one bread” and “one cup” therefore also represent our oneness in the body of Christ. It is a sign of the unity of the church.
It is clear that this symbolism of the “one bread” and “one cup” cannot be realised in online Holy Communion. The elements we consume do not come from a single source, gathered at one location, but are prepared separately in each household. The truths of the unity and integrity of Jesus’ body and blood and our unity in the body of Christ do not find representation in this modified form of Holy Communion.
I would argue that these three variations, taken together, significantly impair the effectiveness of the sacrament as a symbolic representation of the truths it seeks to convey and make real. It also leads to a substantial shift in the way the sacrament is understood.
Online Holy Communion is likely to lead to an individualisation and commodification of the sacrament, in a way analogous to what happens when the consecrated elements are sold in bulk for our private consumption (although not to the same extent). The meaning of the sacrament undergoes a subtle reductionism: We become overly focus on the consecration of the food items we bring to the computer screen and our consumption of them for our blessing, at the expense of the communal aspects of the meal.
I would argue that we, as the church, have no authority to alter the symbolic representation of the sacrament in such a significant manner.
Two Common Counter-Arguments
I wish to mention, in this context, two common arguments I have encountered when reading the views of those who favour online Holy Communion. The first points out that our current conduct of Holy Communion has already, in some ways, departed from its ideal symbolic representation.
For example, for logistical reasons, many churches use individual wafers and communion cups instead of a single loaf and chalice. There is also the long-standing practice of serving the elements on home-visitations to those who are unable to be physically present during the church service. As the argument goes, since the ideal symbolic representation has already been compromised to some extent, moving to online Holy Communion is a permissible step, since it is a path along the same trajectory.
Such arguments are based on the “slippery slope” fallacy. There are variations to the conduct of the sacrament which constitute a minor departure from the ideal, but which do not fundamentally undermine its symbolic representation. I would argue that the variations seen in our pre-Covid 19 conduct of the sacrament fall within this category. For example, the placing of our discrete pieces of wafers and cups together at the communion table is a variation which, in my view, still adequately upholds the “one body” and “one cup” symbolism.
But there comes a point where the line between permissible and impermissible variations is crossed. We should not engage in hazy reasoning and lump all these variations together and claim they are equivalent. We must instead examine each variation on its own, to see what its effect is on the symbolism of the sacrament.
The second argument is based on the ability of the Holy Spirit to work across time and space. Proponents of online Holy Communion argue that the Holy Spirit is not bound by our human limitations of having to be in one location at the same time, and is fully able to consecrate the elements presented in each individual home and use them to bless us.
Such arguments, however, say little. Of course, the Holy Spirit, as the almighty God, is able to do as he pleases. But sound Christian theology teaches us that the Spirit has chosen to work in accordance with the proper conduct of the sacraments Jesus has instituted. We should not presume upon the Spirit’s work if we have conducted the sacraments in a way which adversely affects their ability to symbolically represent the truths they convey and make real.
We must not drive a wedge between the Spirit (who makes the sacraments efficacious) and Christ (who instituted the sacraments and taught us their proper meaning). The Spirit must not be treated as a kind of deus ex machina to resolve all our problems and difficulties at a stroke. Such a use of the Spirit as the “problem solver extraordinaire” due to his ability to transcend time and space can conceivably lead to us sanctioning all manner of innovative practices, such as online water baptism and the partaking of holy communion through online avatars.
Who Should be Concerned?
Who should be concerned about this impairment of the symbolic representation of Holy Communion? It is often stated that churches who hold on to a more “symbolic” view of the ritual (as compared to those who have a more “sacramental” view) should find the transition to its online conduct more palatable. I would like to offer a different perspective.
For churches with a “symbolic” view of Holy Communion, the symbolic representation of the various aspects of the ritual, rather than the actual consumption of the elements, becomes correspondingly more important (since it is believed that no grace is conferred through the eating and drinking as such). These churches should have a greater, not lesser, concern that such symbolic representation is compromised.
This article has tried to set out one argument against the practice of online Holy Communion, which is that the changes necessitated by its online nature significantly impair the symbolic representation of the sacrament, to the point that it is no longer able to effectively convey the truths it was designed for.
As mentioned in the introduction, this is just one issue amongst many we have to consider in this complex matter. There are, for example, also legitimate concerns over the extent to which pastoral supervision is possible for online Holy Communion.
The maxim that “hard cases make bad law” is also applicable here. Once sanction is given for online Holy Communion, we establish a universal theological principle, which should apply even after the Covid-19 crisis ends. Will we then have any strong theological basis to oppose the continued practice of online Holy Communion, either in our own church or denomination, or in other sectors of the Christian community?
Does the rejection of online Holy Communion mean that our church members are necessarily denied the grace that is conveyed through this sacrament during the period we are unable to gather physically? The answer given by the rich heritage of the universal church is a clear “no”. The Covid-19 crisis might be a new experience for us, but the church, in her two millennia-long history, has encountered numerous situations where Christians could not partake of the sacraments, and has devised theological explanations for how God’s sacramental grace might still be conveyed to us in such situations.
An example is the practice of “spiritual communion”, which has been established since the Middle Ages. This is the conduct of certain prayers, through which Christians express their deep desire to participate in the Lord’s Supper, in situations where they are unable to do so. The church has taught that God responds to these prayers by conveying his sacramental grace to these Christians in their unusual circumstances.
Although such a practice is emphasised the most strongly in our present time by the Roman Catholic Church, there is no reason why Protestants should not avail themselves of this precious resource, which forms part of our common Christian heritage prior to the 16th century Reformation. Our instinct when we encounter a new situation is often to innovate. But might it not be wiser to first explore our rich theological heritage to see if there is something there which might speak to our situation?
The challenges posed to our churches by the Covid-19 pandemic are indeed formidable. We pray to God for wisdom and theological discernment to cope well with these challenges.
Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.