Virtual Communion in the Age of Covid-19

Since the arrival of COVID-19 American church life has been disrupted. Not only are we not able to gather together physically for many of us serving in liturgical and sacramental traditions there has been a suspicion of online worship.

Anything that looks or, in this case, streams like a non-denominational church is looked at with disdain. This is a underlying issue for many in the Episcopal tradition in which I serve. In church meetings or churches I have consulted with I have heard negative comments about messaging/marketing, online giving, and a vibrant online community as important aspects of the 21st century church.

After college when I did my great church tour and tried just about every flavor of church what drew me back to the Episcopal Church was how it was something I could depend on. It was stable and in post Oklahoma City Bombing and 9-11 stability was something I sought.

The church I serve is primarily composed of people who did not have previous experience with the Episcopal Church. For many of them what drew them to the Anglican tradition was both an inclusive orthodoxy and our lack of consumer church where church felt more like a product that was being marketed to them. 

The Episcopal Church’s doctrine, discipline, and worship is guided by the traditions of the church and the richness of the Book of Common Prayer. It has been said that the Anglican tradition does not have a systematic theology like you might find in Calvinist or Lutheran branches of Christianity. The gift of Anglicanism is our contributions to aesthetical theology. Our contributions have been the King James Bible, the beauty and poetry of the Book of Common Prayer, and our hymns (many of which are difficult to sing but have deep beauty and poetry). 

So we believe what we pray and sing. There are obvious post-colonial critiques here but that will be left for another blog post.

So is virtual communion a legitimate option in the Anglican tradition? I will answer no. It is important to note that there is a difference between spiritual communion and virtual communion. Spiritual Communion, as Dr. Meyers will note in her article which I link to in the next paragraph, has a strong connection to historic Christianity. 

To respond when we cannot celebrate eucharist, Christian tradition offers us the practice of spiritual communion. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most holy sacrament and lovingly embrace him” at times when it is not possible to receive the sacramental elements.

The 1979 Prayer Book refers to spiritual communion in the form for Ministration to the Sick, directing the priest to assure a person unable to eat and drink the bread and wine “that all the benefits of Communion are received even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth” (BCP 457). 

The Prayer Book for the Armed Services suggests a prayer for spiritual communion: 

In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer to you praise and thanksgiving. I remember your death, Lord Christ; I proclaim your resurrection; I await your coming in glory. Since I cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you. May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.”

In a Twitter exchange with a scholar (siri set a reminder don’t let me debate theology on twitter), I asked a very simple question: is there an Anglican liturgical theologian who argues in favor of virtual communion? The House of Bishops, the Presiding Bishop, and my own bishop have said no. One leading liturgical scholar wrote, “A webcast or Facebook livestream or Zoom meeting can help us feel connected to our community, but it does not allow us to share one bread or one cup.” In this video teaching on Holy Communion Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reflects on the importance of the shared cup to Anglican worship.

I think the desire is driven by good pastoral reasons and a real desire to nurture and care for others. I do not think movements towards virtual communion are nefarious nor an attempt to destroy church tradition. But in the end I think they are driven more by consumer and misplaced desire rather than solid theological reflection. I have yet to see any real theological work on why virtual communion is possible in the sacramental tradition.

Generally the arguments for are: who are you to limit Jesus and technology has made this possible for the first time. The “you can’t limit Jesus” argument does undermine why we even have a sacramental tradition. Much of the reformed tradition denies the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament, the bread and wine (generally grape juice in these traditions) are simply a remembrance of Jesus.

A better phrasing of the question about how Jesus shows up sacramentally would be similar to St. Thomas Aquinas’ language of fittingness. Is it fitting for Holy Communion to only be consecrated in physical settings and proximity? 

Anglicans, some have argued, are an incarnational people, that God coming to us is core to our belief. We believe God’s created matter is essentially good. Virtual connection is good and in the midst of a pandemic we have to settle for facetime calls with grandparents but what we really want is person to person contact. What we want is to drink from the same cup of salvation. And just as this time of separation has increased my desire to see, touch, and be physically present with my parents, so it is with holy communion.

One of Henri De Lubac’s gifts to the church is the recover of the three senses of what we mean by Body of Christ: the Eucharist, the Church, and Jesus who was born of Mary. The latter is ascended to the right of the Father. De Lubac notes that the Western Church began to focus on the Eucharist as the Body of Christ (Corpus Christi) and the Church became the mystical body (corpus mysterium). De Lubac says the problem of “real presence” was that no longer was the Eucharist seen as bringing unity to the church and uniting us to Christ, but it was seen as something in and of itself. The Anglican and Orthodox churches most clearly note that the epiclesis, or the sending of the Spirit, is not just on the bread and wine but also the gathered community. 

Some have argued there is a clericalism in preventing virtual communion. Honestly there is more clericalism in someone celebrating virtually ensconcing their role and centrality in being the “gate keepers” of Holy Communion. The Anglican tradition has repeatedly rejected the idea of lay presidency of Holy Communion, so how can we uphold the idea of clergy without falling into clericalism.

Mtr KD Joyce on twitter suggested, “can we come up with some language that will let us distinguish clericalism (saying that clergy are holier, more important, and closer to Jesus) from “clericalism” (saying that it’s good that ordained ministry exists as one narrow facet of the general call to serve the church). This is an important vital distinction and I appreciate her raising this distinction. When a person is ordained as a minister of the apostolic and catholic church (see Episcopal Church) some say the person being ordained is ontologically changed, but I would argue that a more important ontological change is the change to the Body of Christ the Church which for good order ordains (the root word is similar to re-odering or re-arranging) people to particular functions. 

One function of a priest is to preside at the altar. The whole community celebrates and as we say in our baptismal liturgy are priests of the new covenant. Insisting on a priest being physically present is not clericalism it is good order. Moreover we find this in Paul’s reflection that the church has many members and each member has a different gift. We are not all to be a hand or a foot. Nor are we stay that a foot has no need for a hand. The church militant gathered, gathers lay and clergy with the church triumphant, those faithful Christians who have gone before us. None of the members are superior to one or another for we have Christ as our head. (see 1 Cor 12)

This good order in fact is a protection against clericalism. A mentor once said remember there are only three things a priest can do that a lay person can not do: pronounce the absolution of sins, proclaim God’s blessing in the name of the church, and consecrate elements for Holy Communion. Good order limits clergy power. Tradition, rubrics, and the Book of Common Prayer are also gifts of the church, when followed, prevent a priest of abusing the power the Church has placed in them.

 So how do we discuss virtual communion?

With grace and charity. There are very few of us alive who remember the Spanish Flu epidemic. But journals, service records, and letters show that the church wrestled with the questions of how to minister in the midst of a pandemic. This article reflects on our siblings in Christ who have gone without the Eucharsit for long periods of time, the article notes that Japanese Christians went some 250 years without holy communion and yet the church survived. 

Dr. Andrew McGowan, from Yale Divinity School, noted on twitter, It’s not plague or technology that’s new, it’s this level of privilege.” He has a wonderful theological reflection on virtual communion. I think his diagnosis is correct, much of this argument is a result of our privilege and expecting what we want when we want it. I would love to see how others part of the Christian liturgical world are wrestling with this problem, is this unique to an American consumer driven culture that is not used to waiting. I am every bit as guilty of this as anyone else, trust me. I am often like Veruca Salt and I want what I want and I want it now.

The role of the church and theology in general is to order our desires. We have a shared theology in the Anglican tradition and within the Episcopal Church major shifts of our litrugical theology would require larger consultation; we do this in synod and convention gatherings after theological reflection, thought, and study. 

I am reminded of the psalmist words: How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! I too long for this day when we can gather as the Body of Christ. I long for the Spirit to gather us as a mother hen gathers her chicks and share in the Body and Blood of Jesus, my savior and my Lord.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Virtual Communion in the Age of Covid-19

  1. Thoughtful blog. You said above, “The Anglican and Orthodox churches most clearly note that the epiclesis, or the sending of the Spirit, is not just on the bread and wine but also the gathered community.” Are you saying that the gathered digital Committee who have been worshipping from home as the clergy celebrates the Eucharist does not received this “sending of the Spirit!” That it can only happen to those who are perhaps only 1- 1500 meters away in the same location at the time? Ever wondered if the risen Christ Jesus had to repeat the commisioning of Thomas who was absent when he appeared in the locked room and breathed upon them and said, received the Holy Spirit?

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