Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:14 NRSV)
The COVID-19 crisis has created a new set of realities for churches around the world. We are experiencing limits on travel, work, and pastoral ministry in medical and nursing facilities. Limits on the size of public gatherings are now being placed on worshiping communities. These are realities no church leader in the United States has faced in living memory.
While we accept the rationale for these restrictions, they create real challenges for congregations.
How do we respond to these expanding restrictions? How do we do church when it is likely that we will not be able to assemble together for weeks if not months? What of pastoral emergencies and crises? These front-line conversations quickly move into thoughts about the nature of community. Is there a distinction between services streamed into homes where the watching congregant is largely passive versus utilizing interactive online media such as Zoom where the presider and the congregation can interact in real time? These new questions are no longer thought experiments; they are a present reality.
One pressing question concerns the practice of Holy Communion in the context of virtual worship. We may be tempted to stake out hard positions on this topic, rejecting all who disagree. My hope is that we can grapple with these questions together, discerning an orderly way forward. We are facing this adaptive challenge together. To arrive at a suitable solution, we need to take stock of the technical resources we possess while thinking deeply about our Lutheran theology of the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament, a means of grace, while recognizing pastoral concerns surfaced within our present global health crisis.
Luther is clear in the Small Catechism that the “Sacrament of the Altar” is something shared in a communal setting. In his terse style Luther makes it clear that the sacrament is not made efficacious by the person presiding or receiving or even in the consumption of the elements.
Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.’ These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sin.’
The sacrament is an interplay between the proclaimer of the promise (the presider), the faithful believer (the receiver), and God’s Word as the central actor in it all.
Given that understanding what then shall we do when communities are separated from one another and “virtual communion” is being promoted as an option?
In doing this theological discernment there are some points to consider:
- Jesus was incarnated in a flesh and blood Jewish body in 1st century Roman occupied Palestine. The sacrament is a physical embodiment of that incarnation that took place in a particular time and place. As such the sacrament involves human bodies speaking words and sharing the physical elements in particular times and places.
- Distance does not define a community. We are currently encouraged to practice “physical distancing” yet we also are called to practice “social solidarity.” While this commitment calls us to extend solidarity beyond our existing congregational communities, we must also build solidarity within our congregations.
- God’s Word and promise are efficacious when proclaimed and received in faith. Distance or means of transmission does not diminish the efficacy of God’s Word. The spoken word of the presider transmitted through air is no more effective than those same words transmitted through electronic means.
- Physical connection between presider, elements, and every congregant is not required. It is accepted that during in-person liturgies the presider may not touch and elevate every loaf or wafer or every chalice or tray of juice or wine nor physically serve each congregant.
- What is made clear is the proclamation of God’s promise “for you” and the presence of those particular elements of bread and wine/grape juice. It is in the proclamation of those words given by Jesus that the elements are transformed by the Word and work of God for the salvation of those in whom faith has been formed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.
Given these criteria and our current unique and ongoing crisis it seems that there are a few options for our communities that pastoral leadership, in conversation with elected lay leaders, should discern together. This list is not exhaustive but illustrative of various options; many already being practiced in congregations across our church.
1) Fasting from the Eucharist until such time as congregations can gather again together and celebrate in physical assembly. This faithful counsel has been suggested by many in our church. However, the ongoing and extending nature of this crisis, and the concerns and requests for counsel from you, our NT-NL leaders, gives rise to the need for additional options to be explored.
2) Providing Eucharistic elements to homes to share together or providing a “drive-thru” option. Consecrated elements have long been shared from the assembly to homebound or sick parishioners when visitation is allowed. This could be extended in that elements could be provided in individual packages for pickup to be used in the home with an established liturgy. Drive-thru options also could be considered similar to drive-thru ashes. In this situation care must be taken as the contact of the pastor with a series of parishioners may violate public health calls for physical distance.
3) Authorizing household leaders to consecrate the Eucharist in their home community under the guidance of their pastor/authorized leader. Luther intended the catechism to be a tool for the parents to teach their children in the home. In similar fashion given the nature of this crisis a pastor/authorized leader could provide training, in consultation with the bishop, for home communion within family units. This option however provides no assistance for those who live alone or must be quarantined alone.
4) Engage in online “virtual communion” liturgies through streaming technology or online meeting software.
Within our communities some version of all four of these options are being explored. Each has limitation but all, when prayerfully discerned within the community, are faithful responses to this ever-changing crisis. As the vast majority of requests for counsel in this time have revolved around option four I will be address that in greater detail.
Given the changing nature of this crisis my counsel at this time is that communities that practice online communion do so in ways that engage both the presider and the receiver and ensure reverence and right practice around the sacrament. Care should be given in instruction about what elements are appropriate for this holy meal. There is then a preference for Eucharistic celebrations in which both presider and receiver are interacting in real time together through electronic means. Ideally this would be through a medium in which the presider and receiver can engage one another and can experience the words “given and shed for you” spoken in real time as the bread and wine are consumed.
In situations of live streaming where the presider is not engaging with those online in an interactive way (the receiver sees them but the presider does not see the receiver) then again a real time consecration and participation is preferred. In this way there is an integrity of the community and the words being spoken in a place and time for that place and time.
The situation I counsel avoiding is the case of recorded messages that can be replayed time and again in which the video of the presider becomes a virtual avatar consecrating virtual Eucharist for perpetuity. In the case where video recording of services is preferable for technical reasons the video could be made available for a time but not archived or the Eucharistic portion done separately from the rest of the worship experience.
All of this is a matter of adapting and learning in our current context. We must balance pastoral concern and care as well as making sure the theological decisions made in this time are carefully and faithfully discerned. The priority we must keep is that just as Jesus was incarnate in a real, flesh-and-blood body, flesh-and-blood community remain a central feature of how we experience the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament.
As this crisis continues to evolve, I appreciate your communication and requests for counsel on this and other matters. There is no simple solution to these challenges and no one answer for our diverse communities. But we must engage them as we adaptively learn how to be faithful leaders in our communities. In all this we trust that God’s Holy Spirit is guiding us in this work together. Thank you for your prayerful deliberation and thoughtful leadership.