The Digital Church in the Age of Corona
The novel coronavirus pandemic has sparked a flood of creative uses of technology to maintain relationship while staying at home. Churches, even those that never would have considered having an online service, have been forced to adapt and experiment.
Many churches that moved to a digital worship service during the first week of social distancing (March 15, 2020) only had time to create a broadcast-style service, but they are now beginning to think about interactive elements of worship and how to foster relational community. A few weeks ago, I posted a graphic that attempts to show that the elements of a service that are transactional or broadcast oriented are usually the easiest to move online, but the relational parts of church are often the most challenging—and most overlooked—elements of digital church.
I placed communion in the center and gave it a different color to acknowledge that it is often the most controversial elements of church online. Vicar Giles Fraser writes about the awkwardness of conducting his first Zoom-based eucharist, but among Christians, there are a variety of theological views and ways of practicing communion, and these in turn affect how various traditions approach the question of communion online.
This post attempts to sort through some of these debates and offer guidance on potential ways forward. I cannot be exhaustive, but I will do my best to give each argument a fair representation.
A Brief History of Online Church
Before addressing the issue of communion specifically, it’s worth remembering that this questions about online worship are not new. Digital religion scholar Tim Hutchings (cf TallSkinnyKiwi) documented online services as early as 1985 (Church of England), and an online response to the Challenger disaster by Presbyterians in 1986. In the mid 1990s, when the internet became public, many churches began creating websites, but they were mostly informative, not interactive. Some churches, however, began to experiment with interactive 3D worlds and services, leading some scholars began to think that religion would take radical new forms in the internet age.
In the 2000s, two main forms of church online emerged. Some continued to use new technology to its full extent and create alternate 3D worlds in programs like Second Life. This continues today with things like DJ Soto’s VR Church which started in 2016, or churches in Roblox, Minecraft, and other virtual worlds.
The other, much more common model has been churches offering an online broadcast of the traditional elements of a service including music, announcements, and a sermon. Evangelical megachurches like Saddleback, Life.church, North Point, and others have also experimented with adding interactive elements alongside the main broadcast as well as weekly small groups. Online churches are also a major part of ministry into closed countries, functioning as a more interactive form of the radio broadcast ministries that began in the early twentieth century.
Some of these churches have offered communion as part of their online efforts. In 2013, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported on various traditions were thinking about online communion, but there was not yet a consensus, and nothing like the coronavirus to urge a decision.
A Brief Theology of Communion
What Paul calls “The Lord’s Table” comes from the story in the synoptic gospels found in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:19-20. Paul recalls the story and adds additional instructions in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and 11:17-34.
From these texts and church traditional, four main views of what happens during communion have emerged.
- Transubstantiation – The Roman Catholic view is that the bread and wine objectively become the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrates them. More technically, while the accidents (or appearance) remain that of bread, its essence becomes that of the body of Christ.
- Consubstantiation – Luther felt that the Roman Catholic position meant that Christ had to die again at every Mass. So he argued that the essence of the bread does not change into the Son, but the essence of Christ comes in and around, co-existing with the elements.
- Memorial – Reformers like Zwingli went much further, preferring to see the meal as more of a symbolic and not requiring any priestly consecration or the real presence of Christ. This is the view of most Baptist, free church, and nondenominational (Bible, community, etc.) churches today.
- Spiritual Presence / Holy Mystery – After Zwingli, Calvin offered a mediating position, arguing that something spiritual happens in communion but that Christ’s presence is spiritual rather objective or actual. Similarly, Anglican and Methodist traditions argue for a real presence but prefer it to remain a “holy mystery.”
Beyond what happens to the elements, a second issue of importance is the role of ordained clergy in the ceremony. Many of the denominations above (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist) require ordained clergy to consecrate the elements. Some also require ordained clergy to distribute the elements, though this varies by tradition.
Relatedly, churches that emphasize the real presence tend to have regular, weekly or even daily communion, while Memoralists churches offer communion less often, such as monthly, quarterly, or irregularly. Churches that emphasize the real presence also tend to perform communion in such a way that participants receive the elements directly from a clergyperson, whereas memorialists have a more self-service approach where the elements are passed on trays or where participants walk up to a table of prepared elements and take them at their own pace. In some cases, the concept of a shared meal is portrayed through the use of a common loaf of bread that participants pass around and take a piece from. Similarly, some traditions take wine from a shared chalice while others prepare individual servings of wine or grape juice.
Methods for Conducting Online Communion
Before the corona pandemic, it appears that the majority of churches that had online services did not have regular communion as part of their weekly worship. This was not because they opposed the practice, but because most of the churches with online services tended to be from Baptist or nondenominational evangelical backgrounds. These group tends to have a pragmatic, entrepreneurial orientation toward technology, so they are open to online communion, but because they have a memorial view of the sacraments and do not offer it regularly, online communion also tends to be infrequent or not offered at all.
There are some exceptions to this including several Anglican churches, which hold a consecrated real presence view of the elements, but whose bishops argue this consecration can happen remotely through technology. There are also Anglican churches that hold services in Virtual Reality (VR) and which offer regular communion in closed countries around the middle east.
Of the churches that have offered communion online over the last several decades, these are the most common models:
- Self-Service: The early practices of communion online were often asynchronous where visitors either read or watched something as they took the elements they prepared. For example, Alpha Church’s instructions have been up in some form since 1998, and several churches are doing the same today such as the Cathedral in the UK (2020).
- Live within Service: Contemporary expressions of online communion tend to be within a service where everyone watching takes the elements at the same time. For example, here are Life.church’s instruction (2010) and Saddleback’s instructions (2014), and several churches have followed this model during the corona virus pandemic.
- Spiritual Communion: Some traditions that reject the idea of conducting communion online shift to the practice of spiritual communion, which involves a shared prayer, but not a shared meal. The Pope is currently offering spiritual communion (defined as “a uniting of oneself to the Sacrifice of the Mass through prayer, and can be made whether one is able to receive Communion or not”) via livestream and spiritual communion is also practiced within Anglican traditions.
- Other Options: Some traditions hold separate Eucharistic services and some churches that do not require consecration encourage communion in small groups apart from the main service or churches. Today, popular pastors like Tony Suarez offer separate communion services on facebook.
Arguments For and Against Digital Communion
There are articles scattered around the internet arguing for and against online communion, but it’s important to note that most of these are pre-coronavirus. This situation may persuade some to change their views or to try something that they did not feel was necessary before. Below, I will summarize what I have found to be the key arguments for and against communion online.
For Communion Online
- Memorialist Flexibility – Those with a Memorialist view of communion tend to be the most open to online communion. This is both because their orientation toward technology and methods is flexible and because they do not believe that the real or spiritual presence of Christ needs to be enacted through an ordained clergyperson consecrating the elements. Nondenominational and free-church traditions also tend to emphasize the importance of individual believers, and this is reflected in their communion practices which involve individuals taking their own elements from a tray or table. Since there is no interaction with a priest or others through a practice like a shared cup, both their theology and practice translates well online.
- Real Presence over Time and Space – However, some of the first churches to advocate for communion online tended to emphasize the real presence of Christ. Although it is rare, there are Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist churches that offer self-service or in-service communion. Unlike memorialists who practice irregularly, real presence traditions believe that regularly partaking of the elements is so important that it must be moved online. Celine Yeung expands on this, arguing that the “16th-century reformation of the Eucharist was in fact a relocation of power,” and that it this is continuing in our present situation. (Cf. Clink Schekloth’s Lutheran perspective)
- Digital is Physical, Too – In early science fiction like Neuromancer and The Matrix, the online world was portrayed as a separate place that we “jack into.” But religion scholars like Heidi Campbell have argued that online and offline aren’t two different, inseparable realms. Instead, people move fluidly between online and offline throughout the day, using calls, emails, and video chats intermixed with live meetings and other gatherings. These technologies certainly reshape our relationships and practices, but they don’t create an alternate reality or a place where God cannot be present. So, when worshippers are online at the same time, they are still physically located in time and space, not in a separate “virtual” world. The church, after all, is not a place or a building, but a people, who are always physical even when connected digitally.
- “Presence” is Complex – Additionally, discussions of “presence” usually point out that physical presence is not the only kind of presence. Paul talks about being “absent from the body” while being “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Lutheran Deanna Thompson, connects this to virtual communion, arguing that, “it’s also possible to be virtually present to one another in profound, meaningful and real ways even when we’re physically distant.” Conversely, we have all experienced being physically present but emotionally or mentally “not there.” However, some draw a distinction between physically consuming elements while being connected online versus having one’s digital avatar consume digital elements in a virtual reality type service.
- Mission and Outreach – One other argument focuses on reaching people who cannot attend a physical church, because they are sick or in or in countries where Christian worship is prohibited. In the case of the sick, the elements are brought to the person, and James Emery White argues that, “Today it’s just the internet “taking” it to them and they self-serve the elements.” Online church (and communion) are then validated through this missional need to go and make disciples. White, however, argues against online baptism, while other churches have experimented with online baptism (2008).
Against Communion Online
- The Incarnation – The core argument against online communion is that central event in salvation history is the incarnation of Christ, the eternal Son of God made flesh. When Jesus says, “This is my body,” his words envision a physical ritual, not a digital one. Online communion, then, represents a kind of Gnosticism that, even if unintentional, denies the reality of Christ’s body and his fully human nature.
- Uniqueness vs. Commodification – Related to the Incarnation is the idea that the Lord’s Table is the one Christian practice that cannot be commodified, packaged, and put online. Sermons and songs often draw on influences from popular culture, making them relevant in the moment but then forgotten. The meal, however, is uniquely significant in the life of the church. This argument holds more weight among churches with regular communion practice because not having it online means there is something to miss out on, while churches with an irregular practice might not notice its absence.
- Physically-Proximate Consecration – For Roman Catholics, who believe that a priest must consecrate the eucharist in the presence of the taker for it to transubstantiate into the real body and blood of Christ, online communion is impossible. Instead, Roman Catholics who cannot attend Mass are granted absolution for a short time. In other real presence traditions, the issue of the clergy being nearby seems to be less problematic and consecration by distance is possible.
- Physically-Proximate Practice – Many traditions believe that for communion to be a meal in any meaningful sense, the giver and all takers must be in the same room at the same time. One might also argue that the participants who partake should have some form of relationship for the commands in 1 Corinthians to make sense. For example, My colleague Michael Svigel argues that Paul’s command to “wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:33) assumes a physical gathering. For churches whose communion practices do not involve any pastoral or relational ritual, this argument may hold less weight.
- Online Church is not Church – There is a larger debate, beyond the issue of communion, on whether church online is actually church at all, or should be considered normative. Almost everyone agrees that broadcast services and websites are helpful and important for the sick or in closed countries, but not everyone agrees if these ministries constitute a “real church” where the participants do not need anything else. Some ministries see their online presence as wholly sufficient ecclesiologically, while others emphasize the importance of finding a local body of fellow believers (even in dangerous areas like Iran). This continues to be a hot topic in several mission organizations and will likely continue with renewed interest during and after the present pandemic.
- Validation of Longing – In his writings, Paul regularly expresses his longing to be with the churches he was writing (Rom 1:11; 5:13; 2 Cor 1:15; 1 Thess 2:17; 2 Tim 1:4). Similarly, John writes about his desire to be “face-to-face” (2 John 1:12), and the author of Hebrews reminds his readers not to give up meeting (Heb 10:25). Along with the Incarnation, these longings can be understood as further evidence that physical presence is an essential both for a gathering to be a true church and for the practice of communion. In addition, the sick and the persecuted often experience a similar longing and desire to be able and allowed to meet together, and arguing that that online church and communion are sufficient could be seen as diminishing these experiences and feelings.
- Exceptions Should Not Be Normative – Another point of argument is that exceptional situations should not dictate theology or practice. That is, even if someone grants that it is theologically permissible to perform communion online in exceptional cases like closed countries, this does not mean that online church or online communion should become normative when and where there isn’t a clear limitation.
- Community is the Real Issue – Others avoid the communion question and focus on reminding churches that doing church online needs to be about relational community rather than merely broadcast experiences. Here are two examples, one from my PhD advisor, Pete Phillips Community, community, community and one from Chris Smith called Churches Should Think Twice Before Webcasting Their Worship Service.
A Summary of Positions
1. Full Theological and Practical Rejection
For some traditions, communion is simply not communion if it is not practiced according to the tradition. There is simply too much theological weight behind the embodied experience of sharing a meal in close proximity that prevent it from being moved it online. Communion, then, is the one unique practice of the church that cannot be commodified or fully digitized. To miss church is not just to miss a sermon or a song that can be listened to later, but it is to miss out on the grace of God present in the elements. This time of pandemic creates a painful loss, but it also makes Christian gathering an important expression of faith and hope.
Some within this category shift to spiritual communion in cases of sickness or the present pandemic.
2. Theological Acceptance, Situational Rejection
There are some who may be persuaded that online communion could be a valid practice (especially in closed countries), but that the current pandemic does not warrant practicing it online. If stay-at-home regulations remain in place for several months, then communion will need to be suspended for that length of time. This will create a longing to return to the practices when it is possible and make the experience all the richer. If conditions worse, however, they may reconsider. (One might also place the practice of spiritual communion here, although that practice does not involve consuming elements.)
3. Theological Acceptance, Temporary Embrace
Likewise, some churches may be persuaded that online communion is theologically acceptable in exceptional cases and that a pandemic is just such a situation, analogous to a closed country. In previous plagues, the Church did not have the technological means to celebrate the Table simultaneously online, and this is a unique and fresh expression of God’s grace. However, when the pandemic lifts, they will cease offering this as a regular practice, preferring to make the physically gathered body the unique place to participate in the elements.
4. Full Theological and Practical Acceptance
Finally, there are those who have already accepted communion online, either in a self-service form or through a simultaneous worship experience. These include memorialists who have little objection to symbolizing Christ’s death online together and those who believe the mystery of Christ’s presence in communion is not limited by technology, time, or space. Some churches who are moving online in this season may adopt an online practice that they continue, while others might not want to continue with any online practices in the future.
I hope and pray this relatively long, but still over-simplified summary of the question offers a helpful starting place for such an important discussion. As one who comes from the American evangelical tradition which has not historically placed much weight on communion, I sincerely hope that the pandemic is an opportunity for us to think more carefully about our sacramental theology. Vicar Giles Fraser
For Christians from any tradition, I hope we can ask questions like: Why do we take communion the way we do? What does it really mean and why? What do the practices and frequency we have chosen mean and communicate? In what sense are we participating in a shared meal if are individually taking prepared pieces? What do we, the church, offer our people and the world that cannot be easily moved online?
Finally, if your church is considering these issues, I do not think there is any need to rush to make a decision, nor does any decision have to be permanent. But if you have made a decision and are modifying your practices for the pandemic, please share your experiences and any other resources in the comments below.