Does Corona Mean Communion on Your Owna? image

Does Corona Mean Communion on Your Owna?

What does the Coronavirus mean for Communion? It is relatively easy to see how churches can continue to have preaching, sung worship, prayer and even kids work online (even though the lack of physical presence means we are missing out on a vital component of church life, as we are all now discovering). But what about the Lord's Supper? Should churches celebrate it in this strange, virtual world we now live in? And if so, how?

Bobby Jamieson (who is one of the smartest guys I know) says a simple no.

That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).

But is this just what they happened to do, or what we must do? Is the church’s physical presence with each other essential to the ordinance? Paul would say yes. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. (So if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many one.) So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.

So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.

Physical presence is not an optional extra in the Eucharist. It’s not a “nice to have.” It is an integral part of what the Lord’s Supper is. I can remain married to my wife when I am abroad, and we can still do many of the things that marriage involves remotely, but there are some things we cannot do without being physically present, and they matter. The sacraments—visible signs and seals of the covenant—are like this, for the reasons Bobby has just given. (It seems to me that the recent CT article defending “online communion” does not address these arguments at all.)

In a more detailed article from an Anglican perspective, Ian Paul (also no fool) says similarly: “What does all this mean for ‘online church’? That the whole event of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is something that can only be done at the gathering of the whole people of God, since the reception by them of the elements is integral to the meaning of the whole event.” Again, I agree.

The question, then, is what we should do in the meantime. Bobby’s answer is simply to wait: “Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.” Ian’s answer is that we may be able to share bread and wine as Christian households, while recognising that what we are doing “falls short of the full sharing of Communion together in a church building.” This latter idea raises all sorts of questions (what about people who live on their own? what about people whose families do not believe? should we include unbaptised children? etc), but it does have the advantage of being what the Jerusalem church did in “breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46, though admittedly in larger households).

Notice, though, that this is not an argument for taking the Eucharist while looking at a screen because physical presence doesn’t matter. It is the argument that physical presence is so important that the context of the Eucharist can change, from a whole congregation to a household, based on who else is in the room. This is where I differ from Bobby, I think; he maintains that the whole church must be gathered for it to be the Lord’s Supper at all, whereas I think (based on the Jerusalem church alone) that this is overstating it, and that smaller gatherings of believers can share Communion as long as they share a common loaf and drink a common cup, in faith, with thanksgiving. This is the main context in which house churches have shared the Lord’s Supper for decades.

Having said that, those smaller gatherings draw their meaning (as Ian points out) from their association with the gathered, church-wide sacramental meal, and should not become substitutes for it when we are once again able to gather. If that means that some of us cannot celebrate it for a few weeks or months, because we don’t live with any other believers, then we should look forward with eagerness to the day when we can—like a married couple separated by work, or war—and enjoy that experience all the more when the time comes. And while we’re at it, we should spare a thought for the old Scottish churches that only celebrate the Eucharist once a year. Literally: Crumbs.

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