Since 2013, the United Methodist Church has placed a moratorium on online Communion. Because of COVID-19, Bishops have taken a varied approach including lifting the moratorium as well as allowing for temporary exceptions for Holy Week. Because of the variety of responses to online Communion from bishops, pastors, theologians, and congregants, COVID-19 has raised the debate over the subject to a new level. This paper shares ten reasons why United Methodists should advocate for online Holy Communion amid COVID-19. To be clear, these are not arguments for the church to become more cursory or flippant about the Sacraments, quite the opposite. I contend the Church must become more thoughtful and fervent about extending the sacraments to those who currently have no access to them. Here are ten reasons why:
First, Jesus told his disciples to, “Do this” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). Obviously, the legitimacy of online Communion is up for debate because Jesus was silent on the issue. While Jesus did not specify or require that this must be done in the physical presence of one another, Jesus was clear when he commanded his disciples, “Do this.”
Second, a moratorium on online Communion is contrary to the United Methodist ethos characterized by our open table. We United Methodists have traditionally and adamantly advocated that Holy Communion “should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love” (BOR p875). Moratoriums, or proclaiming fasts from this means of grace, do not communicate the grace and love available to all that is embodied in this Holy Meal. The moratorium on online Communion essentially closes the Table to all of those who do not have physical access to a congregation as well as those who are more than one-person removed from the physical presence of ordained or licensed clergy.
Third, John Wesley taught that the Holy Communion should be taken frequently. Wesley believed and taught about Holy Communion:
The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: this gives strength to perform our duty and leads us on to perfection. If therefore we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord's Supper (Sermon 101: The Duty of Constant Communion, 1787, emphasis mine).
In maintaining a moratorium on hosting the Lord’s Supper online, the Church neglects an opportunity to receive the Lord’s Supper.
Fourth, online Communion is the safest way to take it today. Many persons cannot, and others will not, physically enter into a church building or gather with what they consider an unsafe number of persons. Currently, local orders are preventing most churches from physically gathering. These restrictions are starting to be relaxed in some areas. However, in order to do no harm and keep people safe, online Communion should be an alternative to those who for safety reasons should not or will not physically congregate, particularly those who are more vulnerable if exposed to an illness.
Fifth, United Methodists have a heritage of seeking to make the means of grace available through unconventional ways. The most obvious of Methodist ecclesiastical adaptations is granting licensed local pastors’ sacramental authority. This too was initially controversial, but we Methodists side with seeking to extend sacraments to those who have little to no access to them. Now is a time to embrace and live into that heritage.
Sixth, online Communion can be very meaningful and sacred. I have read arguments that online Communion cheapens it, takes away its sacredness, is an empty ritual, is less holy, and is irreverent, illegitimate, indifferent, and trivial. Clearly, any Communion service in any setting or context, including online Communion, has the potential to be cheapened, irreligious, or irreverent. However, Online Communion also has the potential to be as holy, as scared, and as reverent as any Communion service in any setting or context. Just as field preaching did not cheapen preaching and as worship outside of ornate buildings does not make it any less reverent, online Communion can and should be holy.
Seventh, online worship services allow space for full Communion liturgies. In contrast to “drive-thru Communion” or even the extended table (although I am a big fan of the laity taking communion to the homebound), an online Communion service has the ability for participants to engage the full Communion liturgy with an online congregation/community and with ordained or licensed clergy presiding. I have heard and read false assumptions that online communion services are necessarily perfunctory, as if communal confession, reconciliation, thanksgiving, and the sending forth are not integral to an online Communion service.
Eighth, the 2013 formation of the United Methodist moratorium on online Communion did not take into account adequately those who have no access to a congregation or clergy. While I was not a part of the 2013 conversations that led to the UMC’s moratorium on online Communion, my guess is that very few if any voices in those conversations ever spent years in an area of the world or in an extended season where Holy Communion was unavailable to them. From 1996-1998, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the rural Western lowlands of Ecuador. The only church in the area had prohibitions against serving me since I was not a member of their denomination. Therefore, I know what it is like to not have access to Holy Communion for an extended period of time. Now, on account of COVID-19, lack of access to the Lord’s Supper is becoming almost a universal experience, which brings me to the ninth reason.
Ninth, the Church should take serious sacramental deprivation. I remember being so desperate for the Lord’s Supper in Ecuador that I bought some bread and travelled over an hour to purchase a bottle of grape juice to have my own, lonely communion service in my hut. While I do not condone solitary Communion, my desperation demonstrates the reality of sacramental deprivation that I and others experience. In times of crisis, many believers experience desperation for the communion and connection with Christ and with the gathered community that the Lord’s Supper embodies. Now is not the time to deny hungry souls this manna.
Tenth, finding the practice to be strange is not a theological reason to prohibit it. I am confident that most who promoted the 2013 moratorium on online Communion and support its moratorium today have little experience with it and thus find online Communion to be strange or indecent, much like John Wesley initially found field preaching:
I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields ... having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church (Journal of John Wesley, March 29, 1739).
Today, too many pastors, theologians, and bishops can scarce reconcile themselves to this strange way of offering Communion on account of their personal hang-ups, perceptions, or preferences. Therefore, the moratorium is being upheld in many areas and in a variety of ways by persons who have little experience with it.
While I am not seeking to equate preaching with the Sacraments, John Wesley was able to move past his personal hang-ups, perceptions, and preferences against field preaching only after he fully engaged and experienced it. He later wrote about the practice:
Being thus excluded from the churches and not daring to be silent, it remained only to preach in the open-air; which I did at first, not out of choice, but necessity; but I have since seen abundant reason to adore the wise providence of God therein, making a way for myriads of people who never troubled arty church, nor were likely to do so, to hear that word which they soon found to be the power of God unto salvation (A Short History of the People Called Methodists, emphasis mine).
Amid this extraordinary COVID-19 season, almost the entire Church is now excluded from her buildings. Technology has provided a way for the Church to reach and provide Sacraments not only for her congregants, but “for myriads of people who never troubled arty church” as well as those who are encountering Christ and Christian community online.
Wesley believed the Eucharist is “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God” (Sermon 26: Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount). This grand channel is needed in the world during this time. Therefore, United Methodists should advocate for lifting the moratorium on online Communion for this extraordinary season, and perhaps beyond this season, “not out of choice, but necessity.”
Rev. Owen K Ross, DMin, is the Director of The Center for Church Development of The North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church and previously served for fifteen years as the founding pastor of La Fundición de Cristo/Christ's Foundry United Methodist Mission.