From Australia to Ireland to America, Presbyterians have been discussing, at times quite passionately, the wisdom and the propriety of “online communion.” Different Presbyterian churches around the world have taken different positions on the matter. Among those who have allowed or even endorsed online Communion services are the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (though for the latter not without some serious “pushback” from a number of pastors). However, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is an example of one of those churches that has not allowed such services.
Though belonging to a denomination where the practice is now allowed, my own congregation has not embraced it. The notion of “online Communion” has some real problems to it. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems for an “online” administration of the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord is the absence of a body.
In what is certainly a play on words, the apostle Paul wrote:
When Paul uses the word “body” here, he uses a word that refers first to the body of Christ himself, and then to the Church. Given Paul’s own theology of the Church, this dual association, this double entendre, is purposeful. A person becomes guilty of profaning the “body and blood of the Lord” if he or she fails to “discern the body” at the Supper. Many understand the primary meaning of “body” in this latter use to be the Church. When some came to the gathering of the Church in Corinth, but refused to wait on others to arrive before proceeding, they had not “discerned” the body. It seems to me, then, that for there to be a proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it calls for a “body” to be present, to be gathered, if that “body” is to be discerned. Without getting into all the details of what such “discerning” may mean or entail, we can nonetheless say that the body to be discerned ought at least to be present.
Of course, there is the rejoinder that by a virtual presence, the body, the Church, is “present,” but in a different way, a new way, a way that Paul himself, as a man of the first century, could never have imagined. Of course, such an assertion calls for a discussion as to what “presence” means. But at the very least, let us agree that a “virtual” presence and a “real” presence are not one and the same (to that point, I would refer you to the piece written by the Rev. Sara Jane Nixon).
But for Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants, there are other issues that make “virtual Communion” a problem. Historically speaking, Presbyterians have understood the actions of the Lord’s Supper to entail far more than simply the recipient eating a piece of bread and taking a drink of “the fruit of the vine” (whether wine or grape juice). Reformed worship books and service instructions, from the earliest ones of the Reformation to the present, have emphasized that in the Lord’s Supper there are a number of actions that are taken, actions which in themselves may look small but are nonetheless filled with meaning. From the Minister taking the bread (and later the cup) in hand, to the action of breaking the bread (the “fraction”), to pouring the wine into the cup, to the broken bread (and later the cup) then being passed to the worshipers for the worshipers then to pass to one another—each one of these actions was understood as a significant part the Supper, a choreographed enactment of a Gospel drama.
The breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine were taken as signs of the self-giving of Christ in his body and blood. The distribution of the elements was a sign of the Gospel being taken into all the world. The reception of the elements manifested one’s reception of the Gospel by faith. Serving those sitting to one’s side was as an act of fellowship which recognized them as brothers and sisters in Christ. In Reformed piety, these actions held profound meanings. Thus, to reduce the Supper down to a solitary act of eating bread not received from the hand of others, or drinking from a cup not connected in a material way with the cup (or cups) on the Lord’s Table—all of this truncates the Supper into a pale reflection of itself.
While a “virtual Communion” service may attempt, for important reasons of health, to remove all risk from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, one must question the notion of a “risk-free” Lord’s Supper. Can a body, much less the Body of Christ, ever be a “risk-free” venture? Given the actions themselves, the breaking of a loaf (as a sign of the tearing of the Lord’s flesh) and the pouring out of the wine (emblematic of the pouring out of his life’s blood), perhaps we should be suspicious of a risk-free, hermetically sealed celebration of a communal meal. In a day when any and every other fellowship meal has been deemed unsafe, perhaps it is something of a pantomime of the Lord’s Supper to attempt to turn it into a “safe” meal for a virtual audience. And thus, the expression “real presence” may begin to mean something else for us in these pandemic times when it comes to the Supper of the Lord.