With the advent of this virus, the worldwide communities of faith along with the idea of community itself have both been changed fundamentally, perhaps for decades to come. As society has had to contend with isolation, shuttered stores and closed church facilities, Christian congregations have been unable to participate in the rituals of worship as they have been understood for hundreds of years.
Due to these restrictions upon congregating, the church has had to reconsider what it means to be in community. We have had to reconsider what it means to celebrate and worship God. However, we have also come to realize that God’s presence is not, nor has it ever been, confined to the church building. Wherever we are, we are not away from God. God’s omnipresence is something that becomes more important in the times of exile.
As Christians, we also hold fast to the Christological idea expressed by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20). Let me propose that this statement is, perhaps, more vital for the Christian faith now than it has been in centuries.
Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, Bishop of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, in a letter just before Easter 2020 wrote:
Bishop Greg Palmer of the West Ohio Conference has introduced many of us to a new word describing these days. ‘In Extremis is a Latin term that came out of the European Black Death plague. It means ‘in an extremely difficult situation’ and came into being around the year 1530. In Extremis; arising out of contexts marked by extreme suffering and/or injustice…is marked by a willingness to respond to the invitation to go beyond one’s own situation and capacities, to accept overwhelming and powerlessness, (and) to adopt the undefended posture of Christian hospitality…. In Extremis is the position of engaging in ministry because we are dealing with an extremely difficult situation that requires us to assume the posture of Christian hospitality.
It is my understanding as your Bishop that I have the authority to grant permission during this extreme season for our clergy to consecrate the elements of bread and juice, online, as their congregations are gathered at home, so that all may receive the means of grace it alone supplies. The Holston Conference Cabinet supported the action on April 2, 2020. This is not a license to continue this practice when life returns to normal. Within our United Methodist heritage, when we can gather once again, we will return and remember the place of our Elders, Deacons, and Local Pastors licensed for sacerdotal (priestly) ministries.
I am in awe of this decision because it was not reached easily or lightly. Perhaps, had it not been Easter, this decision would not have been made. Rather, we may well have placed communion on indefinite hold. However, the decision has been made. What we have done in extremis may not be able to be undone, and that may not be a bad thing.
One could easily argue what I suggest would put tradition on its head. True, Bishop Taylor did articulate after “life returns to normal” we will “return and remember the place of our Elders, Deacons, and Local Pastors licensed for sacerdotal ministries.” I am not articulating we forget their roles or their roles within the context of the church. What I am articulating is communion online may not be something we can simply undo. Nor should we.
Georgia Harkness wrote, “If the Church is more than a social group; if it is a worshipping fellowship of those who seek to have the mind of Christ, then the mind of Christ affords a regulative principle by which to judge its action."  What I would suggest is that because of the COVID-19 situation, the church has had to prayerfully and diligently consider how to bring communion to the congregation and, more importantly, to the world.
This, I feel, demonstrates the church as an institution, often lambasted for its inflexibility and resistance to change, has in fact been quite willing to reconsider long-held theological understandings to make new allowances which, in turn, have actually reached people who otherwise would not have participated in these rituals.
We have, in this instance, suddenly been able to reach people with the offer of the means of grace found in communion that might never darken the doors of a church, but who find Christ offered to them via the internet in a way that is clearly an outreach of the church and its claim to have Good News to share. Not only this, but in this instance, we have suddenly offered communion to our shut-ins in ways that have been unavailable in the past and, even more so, we are able to celebrate communion with persons all over the world at the same time.
It should be a moment of profound reflection and rejoicing. We have allowed ourselves to not only invite Christ to the table and accept Christ’s invitation to the table, we have allowed families to gather around their tables and invite Christ to be with them where they are. What an amazing act of evangelism in its truest sense: publicly proclaiming the Gospel with the intention of sharing the message and teaching of Christ to the world. With online communion we are not only carrying on a tradition of broadcasting sermons, we are now enabling sacramental and liturgical activities to be participatory in the homes of those we seek to reach.
The location of communion is, I would imagine, less important than the act of communion. St. Augustine wrote that “if you wish to understand what is meant by ‘the body of Christ,’ you must attend to the words of the apostle: ‘you are the body of Christ and his members.’ So then if you are the body of Christ and his members it is the mystery of yourselves that is placed on the Lord’s table; it is the mystery of yourselves that you receive. It is to what you are that you make the response ‘Amen,’ and in making that response you give your personal assent. You hear ‘the body of Christ’ and you answer ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s body and make your ‘Amen’ true.”
It would stand to reason, then, if we are willing to remain in the tradition of the church when it comes to who offers communion, the idea of where should not matter. Those receiving communion in the church building, in a hospital, or even at home are receiving a means of grace and in their participation, we can only hope that their “amen” is genuine – but it is no less genuine if it is made at home as if it was made in church.
So, why would we abandon the practice of what I would call online communion? From what I read in the Bishop’s letter, it sounds as if we would be seeking to return to a degree of control over the distribution of sacraments, specifically communion. By this, I mean the idea of in extremis is rescinded and whatever good it did would be relegated to a past anomalous event, not to be reconsidered. It also seems as if we are saying “back to normal” means “normal” in returning communion to the confines of a building. This, in turn, allows for us to place theological, Christological, and ideological boundaries on its dissemination.
As our liturgy reminds us, this is not the table of any particular church, nor of our denomination. This is Christ’s table and the invitation is for all to receive. Like the people on the road to Emmaus, at the table amazing revelations can take place: hence our desire to call it a means of grace. Paul reminds us, though, that there is responsibility on the part of the individual regarding communion. In 1st Corinthians 11:27-29, he writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine themselves, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon themselves.” The responsibility of communion, wherever it is taken, still rests in our hearts.
Regarding those who are allowed to serve communion according to the Book of Discipline, we would have to consider those who viewed services online as a part of the congregation. In that way a Licensed Local Pastor could serve communion online as could an Elder. The officiant is not outside of their approved location. Likewise, there could be the argument that the elements that a person utilizes in home while watching service online are not truly blessed by the officiant since they weren’t in the same building. Do officiants have to specifically lift, touch, or point to each loaf of bread or cup? In communion services in our Annual Conference setting, the Bishop holds one loaf and one cup. The bread and the cups sitting around the auditorium are included though they are not specifically distinguished in the actual liturgical service.
If communion requires that the elements all be present in the same room, then what about churches with multiple viewing locations? Certainly the same thinking would apply in this case: the elements in front of the person within hearing distance of the words of institution should be considered consecrated. Thus, communion elements would not need to be restricted to a location and those ordained for the sacraments continue to be the ones who offer the service of Holy Communion.
So, why have we not opened communion to online services prior to this moment? Because we have not had to. The institution of the church and the nature of society was such that there was no need to consider such a radical position. However, now that we have made such a leap, even in extremis can we truly return to thinking as we did before? It would seem problematic to do so, especially in light of the people we could reach in addition to those within the church building.
What we have done in extremis has opened an avenue of evangelism and proclamation that has enabled us to be more inclusive and more welcoming. We can offer communion to the world. The responsibility for those offering communion in a building or online has not changed. What we proclaim must be specific, doctrinal, and in keeping with our theological statements and history. All that has changed is that we now extend that proclamation and action to people where they are.
What we can now do, should we decide to continue this practice whenever life returns to the nebulous idea of normal, is find new life and new means of outreach in an online, digital world. In isolation we have learned how powerful the Good News is and to offer it in a new fashion can shape a new generation and bring new life to an old institution without sacrificing sanctity with the need of place.
The church, as Irenaeus wrote, is always renewing itself by the Spirit of God. “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.”
We cannot limit the power of God, and we have seen it working online – even through the service of communion. While this is a new concept, having communion around a table in a home is itself not a new idea. It is an ancient one. The responsibility is still upon those who serve as officiants and liturgists to offer sound theology and doctrine as the sacrament is done. That does not and has not changed. Recognizing we are in a time of tremendous change and potential renewal, we find serving communion online retains the heart of our Christology as found in the Gospel of Luke: “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20). We are remembering Christ. In communion, Christ is with us. That has not and cannot change. Only the method or, more to the point, the location of that remembering has changed.
Our communion has now become a means of grace in ways that 100 years ago, even four months ago, would have been inconceivable. Yet, in this moment of trial, the Light to the World shines forth in a new way. What an amazing moment to have the opportunity to consider this new avenue in offering Christ as well as expanding our theological understanding of the presence, power, and grace of God in Christ.
The qualities of God may not change, but our understanding of God and God’s activity continue to evolve. We do not think God resides in the institution of or the physical building of the church. The Church is the body of Christ and, especially now, we have to recognize the body remains the body even if we gather via an online format.
It should be remembered that the church has, in recent years, begun to worry about losing its connection with the generations that have grown up online and outside of the traditional church. We have often sought ways to “get them in” to the church. I would have us consider the following idea: Daniel Boorstin, in describing the reaction of Christian Europe to the work of Ptolemy, writes:
The leaders of orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge about the earth. Christian geographers in the Middle Ages spent their energies embroidering a neat, theologically appealing picture of what was already known, or was supposed to be known.
[…] These were Ecumenical maps, for they aimed to show the “Ecumene,” the whole inhabited world. Designed to express what orthodox Christians were expected to believe, they were not so much maps of knowledge as maps of Scriptural dogma. The very simplicity that offends the geographer testifies to the simple clarity of Christian belief.
[…] At the center of the map was Jerusalem. “Thus saith the Lord God; This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her” (Ezekiel 5:5). These words of the prophet Ezekiel overruled any trivial earthly needs for latitude or longitude. “Navel of the worlds” (umbilicus terrae) were the words of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible. Medieval Christian geographers obstinately kept the Holy City right there. New conflicts between faith and knowledge would come when explorers expanded the map eastward, then westward. Dared Christians move their Jerusalem? Or could they ignore the discoveries?
Boorstin’s description is analogous to the questions faced by the clergy and the current landscape of the church. The geography of the religious landscape is changing we are having to face the question of what that means as well as learning how to relate to one another. Therefore, when confronted with the challenge of relating to the established church congregation as well as reaching to those online, clergy are forced into the final questions of Boorstin’s passage in trying to decide how to reach both.
In 2014, Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. wrote:
History teaches us that innovative movements become, in time, more structured organizations that can often stifle creativity and suppress innovation. As these organizational structures develop and mature, other new and emergent forms of Christian experience begin to arise, some from within established systems and others alongside them.
[…] It is not yet clear how well mainline Protestant denominations will adapt to changing patterns of congregating. But many denominations are trying, creating new experiments of their own and blessing those that have arisen on the margins.
Although an encouraging sign, such innovations are still more the exception than the rule. Leaders in mainline Protestantism need to shift our default mindsets beyond the stereotypical congregation to envision new ways of gathering as God’s people. We must explore the many ways in which this disruptive innovation can be a force for renewal, a sign of the Spirit’s fresh wind blowing to offer revival and renewal for the church.
While Bishop Carter was addressing megachurches and what we might now call “fresh expressions” in this article, the point is still shared by the disruptive innovation created by the situation of COVID-19. In line with these comments is the observation from Robert Wuthnow who stated that we have become a nation of “seekers” of spiritual experience, rather than “dwellers” in a firm religious location. Can the “dwellers” reach out to the “seekers” and vice versa? I would answer that with an affirmative. Without the COVID-19, though, we may have continued to overlook the option before us.
We are being offered a challenge to reconsider ourselves. I recognize the difficulty and the weight of the decision that was to begin sharing in the sacrament of communion online. I suggest there is the opportunity to weigh the decision concerning rescinding that decision. I do not believe it would damage the church, nor would it take away from the office of Elder, Deacon, or Local Pastor. Those defined positions within the established church need not be affected.
I would close with an observation by the ancient Christian writer Cyprian:
As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. […] Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness; from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.
Bishop Richard Looney once said in a sermon, “The Church is of God and will continue.” What we see now is, with Cyprian, an opportunity to create a new ray of light that shines not from some new doctrine but that exudes from the Light of Christ. May we not squander the opportunity to venture into the world with this new idea. From in extremis comes renovatio. From extremes comes rejuvenation. From extremes comes renovation.
Rev. Dr. Charles Ensminger (D.Min from MTSO), is an ordained Elder in the UMC and is pastor of Allen Memorial UMC in Athens, Tennessee. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Tennessee Wesleyan University and the author of the book Crafting...