[Dear stillvoicing reader: today’s post is a bit different in genre. Next week regular programming will be resumed.]
These Coronavirus days are strange indeed as we find ourselves moving through uncharted territories – or at least uncharted for many of us. In the church community in which I live, the Lutheran or more specifically the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, questions have been bouncing about concerning how will we worship when we cannot gather. Most churches are working at making resources available online.
But what sort of service will we have? My church community has chosen to do a service of the word while some communities have opted for a communion service, inviting folk at home to provide their own bread and fruit of the vine for consumption. This has raised questions among some wondering whether this is legitimate communion, or not. Some theologians, many whom I deeply admire have responded with the suggestion that this is a time to fast from communion. Some beg to differ. So, some thoughts from this theologian.
To start with, let me assert that in the Lutheran church communion is not necessary for salvation. It is, however, a means of grace and so one of the ways by which and through which Christ is embodied and proclaimed as God’s unconditional love for us. St. Augustine helpfully described the sacraments as visible words, and so this is a concrete and tangible word that we consume. But its absence is not to be considered detrimental for salvation. It is, however, a balm for souls in troubled times.
Also important for a Lutheran theology is the assertion that communion presumes community. Luther argued against the medieval catholic practice of priests communing by themselves. Many who have argued against online, or virtual, communion claim that this element of community is missing when people take bread and wine at home. In a way, I think, the language of “fasting from communion” is incorrect under this premise. There is, in this perspective, no real communion to fast from and so there would be no fast possible. Contra this my friend Deanna Thompson has argued, quite cogently, in The Virtual Body of Christ that community exists virtually. She points to her experience of battling stage four cancer, underscoring how an online community made Christ present to her. When two or three gather in Christ’s name online, Christ is there in the midst of them. I am thoroughly persuaded by Deanna’s argument. Christ mediates relationship between believers in many ways.
Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, famously identified Christ as the “between” that enables believer and believer to be in fellowship. Christ is the “between” that enables me and my colleague to be together when we chat across the space of the hall and is also the between for us when we meet online. And let me add that I am very glad for this latter between even while I wait for the former in hope. If you want proof of the reality of this virtual communion as truly communion, then simply step away from the internet until Covid 19 has finished its strange work among us. I suspect that you will notice something missing.
I think that online worship is truly a coming together, and so I think that Luther’s proviso regarding coming together is met. But what of the fact that the bread on my table at home is a different loaf than the bread at the table in the church? Can we say that we are eating from one loaf? Are we really having communion in Christ? Not if we understand that the physical coming together of brother and sister is required for the one loaf to be the body of Christ. But perhaps this can be reframed so that we see that it is the coming of Christ who enables the many loafs to be one and so the coming together of brother and sister. It is coming Christ who enables me to meet brother and sister in Christ in the loaf at my kitchen table. It is Christ who makes many loaves one.
Lastly, some argue against virtual communion claiming that online communion supports clericalism, that is, the practice of centering the life of the church around its clergy and their activity instead of around the living word, encountered in word and sacrament. The argument goes, I think, that online communion communicates that we have to have communion and it has to be celebrated by an ordained minister. The implicit message, then, is that legitimate worship involves communion and communion requires an ordained clergy and so clericalism is subtly promoted. This is not a simple argument to unpack, but I think we would do well to ask how Lutherans can commend weekly communion outside of these strange Corona days without falling into the same charge. I think there is a need to revisit our understanding of communion, whether it be in our normal experience, or virtual. Here I want to draw on an experience of my own.
Some years ago at the school where I work – Martin Luther University College (formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary), Bob Kelly, professor of Systematic Theology, presided at a communion service in which he invited the whole assembly to join him in proclaiming the words of institution. His rationale was that the pastor speaks in the stead of the whole community, a point made by Luther rather dramatically in his 1520 To the Nobility of the German Nation. Bob wanted us to remember that we are a common priesthood. The singular voice is the voice of the whole. Luther, in the same document, suggested that if a group of pious Christians were to find themselves on a desert island without a priest, they could in good conscience choose a person from their midst to be their priest. There was no need for an episcopal ordination on that desert island because we are a priesthhood.
It seems to me that we are on desert islands rather than on one desert island. But our islands are connected by the grace (and I use that word advisedly) of technology, by “the virtual Christ.” One way in which we could make clearer that connection would be by considering having the faithful in their homes join the pastor in saying the “In the night in which he was betrayed our Lord Jesus.. ” together and so echo the practice of saying together “Our Father…” This would help underscore that this really is a communal rather than clerical event.
Lastly, I want to underscore that the above are ideas for debate rather than a finished treatise. I have read many explain why we ought not to practice on-line communion, but I have encountered little from the other side, apart from Deanna’s post which inspired me to write this. I also note that I am firmly convinced that Lutherans will not come to agreement on this, and so I wonder whether it might be prudent to allow communities to follow their conscience on this matter. Thankfully, in the posts I have read there has not really been mud-slinging, bur rather measured and pastoral considerations. For this I am glad. Perhaps what is best is a willingness to agree to disagree lest the supper become a cause of division, yet again. We have been down that road far too many times.