Online Communion, The Body of Christ, and The Anti-Luddite League

I’m about as techie as they come. I really enjoy technology. Not only is it “fun” but I believe that technological advances represent progress. Many problems have been solved and chasms bridged because of some leap in technology. Implementation of technology is as fascinating to me as the pure science itself or even more so. For example, computers are cool. I remember the day I received my first Apple II+.  As enchanting a moment that was, smartphones, social media, and the way movements have been started, altered, or ended by these tools blows my mind. I love leading workshops teaching churches how they can use the free tools provided by social media to share their stories. And I love the way communities form and reform through these tools.

Part of the story of the church has been to adapt to technological changes. The primacy of Scripture coincided with the invention of the movable type printing press. The church’s growth as a people’s movement happened as a response to the industrial revolution. Evangelists as well as downtown and county seat churches leveraged radio, especially with the freeing up of airtime when music stations took the leap of moving to FM. The same could also be said in television and the internet.

But the internet, like any other tool, has its limits. I might be able to drive a wood screw in with a hammer, but it’s not easy. And extracting a nail with a Philips head screwdriver is silly.

And there are ways people try to leverage the tools of the internet in ways that they were never intended. Telling your story? Yes, Extending your reach? Yes. Online teaching and small groups? Most definitely. But much like these little jewels which were meant for hospitals and immune suppressed situations but have caught on in churches that don’t want to be bothered with baking or cleaning up afterwards, I’m afraid we’re on the verge of using the internet for something that is not ultimately helpful, even if there are analogous stories of deep meaning to share.

Enter: Online Communion.

The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry held a consultation on September 30, 2013 asking the questions, “should the church permit online Communion?“. In this proposed practice, people can observe a worship  service via their web browser. Then, when the celebrant blesses the elements, you bring your own bread and grape juice or wine, place them in front of the screen, and boom–your own personal Jesus (all due respect to Depeche Mode). Or, better yet, The Truman Show meets Leap of Faith. Maybe a more fitting image is holding your prayer cloths to the television screen.

This conversation has raised many thoughts and emotions among United Methodists and more than a few scoffs from mainline Protestants. Check out the conversation on my own Facebook page as well as the #onlinecommunion Twitter thread. But be warned, there’s much intense debate.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that though the circumstances are new, the themes traced here are endemic to United Methodism. Some would want to say that this is a continuation of the effort of clergy to elevate themselves into a position of prominence and, even necessity. Maybe.

The script I think we are rehearsing, again, is this notion of just how expedient and pragmatic should Methodism be. Many would point to Wesley and his field preaching as if it were Exhibit A showing that Wesley would shed everything he held dear to preach the Gospel. And while it is true that he initially considered field preaching something vile, he never let the 1662 Prayer Book be metaphorically pried from his hands. Even the sending of Coke to be bishop superintendent for the people called Methodist in America was a last gasp effort because no other solution could be found to Communicate, Baptize, and Confirm faithful persons following the retreat of the Anglican clergy at the conclusion the War of Independence. And lets not forget that he sent Coke to America with not only a hymnal but also a prayerbook.

But back to Remote Celebration Communion….

Before we ask the “does it work” question,  I believe that we need to look at what we believe about The Eucharist and the many layers of symbol and meaning present in the meal.  This Holy Mystery  serves as the United Methodist Church’s statement on what we believe and practice about Communion and I commend it. What we need from this book is this: Communion is more than just a personal religious experience and its more than just remembering the Last Supper (but it is, in part, those things).

For me, the question is not “is the church saying that God cannot work through the internet?” I’ve witnessed enough to know that God can work through the internet. In his sermon The Means of Grace, Wesley used the concept of the “usual means of grace” to differentiate the practices by which God usually moves among God’s people and what are the usual patterns and practices people participate in to receive God’s grace from the extraordinary situations which are, by definition, outliers. Works of piety and works of charity are enumerated… Holy Communion being among the list… but Wesley was never one to exclude any activity as one in which God could never act. Furthermore, let us remember the distinction between the many means of grace and Protestantism’s observance of two sacraments.

Therefore, I’m not going to say that God cannot move through the internet during a celebration of Holy Communion. But what I am saying is, how are we forming people as a faith community? How has tradition passed down the practice of communicating people who could not be present at the celebration? And before we go off wrecking ecumenical understandings and flattening something as rich as the Eucharist into something far less than what it has been in our tradition, lets remember our ecclesiology–why do we gather as an assembly? Let’s also remember all the angst that happened because we (thankfully) adopted the reforms that spread through Protestantism post-Vatican II but we did this before articulating what we believe about Baptism and Communion. And, most importantly from a doctrinal perspective, let us remember that our Anglican-Methodist tradition finds the practice of “ocular communion” (watching the celebration going on without being an active participant) as abhorrent.

Who knows, if we adopt rubrics around online communion, maybe we can resurrect Sanctus Bells in a new day with a copyrighted “ding” that played on every computer when an elder elevates the elements so that we all know when to watch and join in with our eucharistic snack packs.

Update: I want to include a link to Larry Hollon’s fine commentary as a follow-up

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