Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky briefly discusses some of the arguments for and against Online Communion. She reminds us that the WJ College of Bishops’ guidance does not require clergy to offer Communion online, and reiterates her trust in clergy to make good, reasoned decisions.
Good afternoon. Yesterday after the webinar, a number of questions came to me about online communion and whether or not it’s appropriate for people to serve, for clergy to consecrate and invite people to receive elements in their own homes while we’re doing worship remotely. And so I wanted to just give you some quick responses.
As you know, United Methodist bishops in the Western Jurisdiction have given permission, with care, for this to be done during the virus epidemic. But I want you to be clear that the bishops are not prescribing that this must be done, or that everyone may feel comfortable, or it may be appropriate in every setting.
We understand communion to be a means of grace, that it’s a converting ordinance meaning that through communion God works through us as we confess and as we affirm our faith, and as we receive the elements of communion around the table or in community. When we come to the table, we’re inviting God to change us, to work on us, to make us more the people that we are intended to be, that we can be in the fullness of God’s grace. So changing the practice is a big deal and we should do it thoughtfully and prayerfully, if we do it at all.
So I’m going to give you the arguments, at least some of them, the pros and cons, of online communion.
In favor of online communion is Wesley, John Wesley’s admonition that communion is a duty. He talks about the duty of constant communion. It’s a commandment, “do this in remembrance of me. “Do it as often as you eat it and drink it.” And he doesn’t talk about frequent communion. In fact, he corrects himself and talks about constant communion. We must be in constant communion with God and Jesus our Savior. He talks about communion as being a blessing, as food for the soul, as a mercy from God to humankind.
Therefore, those who argue for online communion say it is disobedient not to constantly offer communion. And it’s a refusal of God’s gifts of love and mercy not to find ways to be engaged in communion. All that’s required, they say, is that we repent of our sins, that we seek to lead a new life, and that we live in charity with all.
Now the arguments against are a little more focused. They’re about the embodiment of the sacrament in the physical presence of the gathered community. The gathering of the community, God speaking and working to us in relationship with the people around us is absolutely essential for those who argue against online communion.
I want to offer you a word of grace. I’m not going to tell you what to do.
Communion is a means of grace and a blessing and so I’m not too worried about guarding it too closely. What if the means of grace got loose? Hmm, something interesting might happen.
And in our polity, in our church, clergy are entrusted with the sacraments, with baptism and communion. I trust the clergy with them. I ordained those clergy, at least some of them. I trust the clergy with them. I trust you clergy, my colleagues, to make good judgments and discernments and to practice appropriately in your context God’s means of grace.
I believe that God can work through what we do in faith. So if you offer online communion; if you don’t offer online communion; if you offer a love feast as an alternative; God can adapt. The Holy Spirit can find a way into the gathering of your community online as well as in person.
But I don’t want any clergy person to feel that they are being asked to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, they don’t feel has integrity with their faith and their understanding of the gospel.
I leave you with this line from one of Charles Wesley’s hymns, “the Spirit saves, the letter kills.” So be of good spirit, act faithful to the witness of the Holy Spirit with your holy spirit. Lead your communities with confidence and trust that God will make up the difference if we have fallen short.
God bless you as you prepare for worship on Sunday and in the weeks to come as we continue to practice safe distancing so that the coronavirus can touch and harm as few people as possible. God bless you all.
For Further Study
- The Sermons of John Wesley – “The Duty Of Constant Communion”
- Western Jurisdiction Bishops offer guidance for the Observance of Holy Communion
- Discipleship Ministries: “The Online Communion Dilemma”
- This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion
- UM&Global: Global United Methodist Views on Online Communion