Virtual Communion: Treading New Ground
Rev. Alex Lee-Cornell is the pastor at Lakeview Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The BCW is clear that the act of home communion should be conceived as a continuation of the larger congregation’s worship service, an “extension of the table.”
When possible, those who participate in virtual communion should receive communion elements prepared by a team from the congregation rather than being instructed to furnish their own elements or just “use whatever is at hand.”
In 2018, I was serving as the interim associate pastor for a medium-sized congregation in north Texas. The congregation was in a time of transition, and the head of staff and I began leading the session in discussions about how the congregation celebrated the Lord’s Supper.
All the congregations I had previously been a part of served communion in one of two ways. “Communion by passing” involves trays of miniature cubes of bread and cups of wine or grape juice being passed among the worshipers, who serve one another while remaining seated. “Communion by intinction” requires communicants to exit their pews, form a line in the aisle, and approach the chancel one by one to be served by the clergy and elders, who offer a common loaf and common cup.
I value the practice of passing the elements along the pews because it emphasizes the priesthood of all believers, giving each worshiper the opportunity not only to be served but to serve someone else rather than restricting the privilege of serving for only the clergy and an elder or two. I value the practice of intinction because of the way it emphasizes the unity of the gathered body—members of the congregation share a common loaf and cup rather than each individual taking their own single and personal serving of the elements.
The congregation I served in north Texas, however, didn’t subscribe fully to either method. Indeed, their communion practice combined what I once described as “the worst of both worlds.” When they observed the Lord’s Supper, worshipers would exit their pews and form a line to come forward to the servers, who stood in front of the chancel holding trays containing pre-sliced personal cubes of bread and pre-filled personal cups of juice or wine, thereby eliminating the symbolic reminders of both the priesthood of all believers and the unity of the body.
“Why would any congregation elect to administer communion in such an impersonal, theologically-impoverished manner!?” one may ask. As is the case with any community we may serve, the reason is highly contextual. Even back in 2018, public health was a concern for this congregation. Multiple members of the congregation were survivors of blood cancers or had immune systems that were otherwise compromised. During cold and flu season, they went so far as to require servers to use tongs when distributing the bread! Though it may have been easy for me to judge the theology these communion practices connoted, the community’s pastoral concerns were at work in them. Their custom for celebrating the Lord’s Supper meant to protect, include, and show hospitality toward the most vulnerable members, those who otherwise would not have felt safe to participate in the sacramental meal. This, too, is sacramental theology at work in this particular context, embodied in the materials and practice of communion.
Admittedly, in 2018 this rationale sounded far less poignant and persuasive to me than it does in 2022, having since been forced to become a public health policy expert as part of my pastoral vocation during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I still believe the theological concerns I had in 2018 have merit today. The Sacrament of Communion, by definition, is a messy, incarnational act. It inevitably involves close personal contact and the microbial cross-contamination of shared surfaces, air, and elements. Indeed, the decision to follow Jesus involves a degree of risk; any “health and wealth” gospel is antithetical to the cross of Christ. There is a theological balance to hold as we consider how our practices reflect what we believe and the Jesus we seek to follow.
In 2018, the session of my north Texas congregation, after months of conversation, study, and experimentation, finally did adopt a new method of serving communion: by intinction, with a single, common loaf of vegan, gluten-free bread and common cups containing either grape juice or wine. They decided to offer the option of single-serve miniature cups and bread cubes for those with concerns about shared elements. While I’m not sure John Calvin—much less our liturgics professors or immunologists—would have given full-throated approval, we were certainly doing the best we could.
Of course, by the end of March of 2020, doing the best we could took on an entirely new meaning. Looking back more than two and a half years later, I’m struck by the way that, when the pandemic began, we mostly acted as though it would be a ninety-day interruption with a definite end. For a couple of months, everyone would hunker down, shelter in place, and fast from our everyday routines. Then, one day soon, we would collectively reemerge to our former routines at the moment the Powers That Be declared the “all clear.” It certainly didn’t dawn on me that our improvised, trial-and-error adaptations to fulfill our professional, educational, social, and spiritual commitments in a virtual and socially-distanced world would create the new normal we would eventually live in. It is a new normal we devised one day at a time with limited knowledge in response to evolving rules and guidance. We “built the airplane while flying it,” as the saying goes, constructing new customs and paradigms at lightning speed.
Before we pat ourselves on the back for our quick thinking, we also have to remember that we were not, for the most part, inventing a new world ex nihilo. As my experience in north Texas demonstrates, there was precedent for how to handle health concerns in the practice of communion. Many navigated similar concerns during the outbreak of the novel H1N1 flu virus of 2009. Many communities were taking many of the same measures prior to 2020 for a variety of reasons, and many had a set of best practices to modify in a new pandemic. In 2021, when COVID case numbers were still front-page news but it was safe to return to in-person worship, the chair of the worship committee of the congregation I was serving at the time came to me in a state of alarm about how to administer communion now that we were going “back in-person.” Luckily, I already had a model to work with thanks to the congregation I served pre-pandemic in north Texas. Though it seemed sterile, impersonal, and theologically impoverished from one perspective, the conversations about communion customs I had there were perfectly applicable for our new reality.
The same principle may be applied to the question of what has come to be called “virtual communion.” First, it’s important to note that congregations have gathered exclusively online long before 2020. Second, we do well to remember that the PC(USA) Book of Common Worship (BCW) has for decades provided guidance for including members of the congregation unable to attend worship in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We have long been serving communion to our home-bound members and to those who are hospitalized, for example. I believe this framework for offering home communion serves as the best available starting point for developing guidance for offering virtual communion in the pandemic.
The BCW is clear that the act of home communion should be conceived as a continuation of the larger congregation’s worship service, an “extension of the table.” Thus the offering of home communion should happen on the same day as the larger congregation’s worship service, or as soon as possible afterward. The elements should be taken from the same bread and wine/juice used earlier by the larger congregation. They should be offered by no fewer than two ruling and/or teaching elders, accompanied by the reading of Scripture, the Words of Institution, and a prayer of thanksgiving.
In the same way, virtual communion, when possible, should be an extension of an in-person communion service. The same Spirit that we call upon to overcome space and time to unite the gathered congregation with the body of believers in heaven, throughout the ages, and across distance and culture can surely unite us with believers across the World Wide Web. The celebration of communion online should be simultaneous with the in-person service in the physical gathering space of the congregation, live, not prerecorded.
When possible, those participating in virtual communion should do so in the physical presence of other communicants. This may be achieved simply by having a family observe communion together in front of a television or computer screen “with” their congregation while they are away on vacation and unable to attend in-person worship. This may mean including a home healthcare worker who is not a member of the congregation but who wants to participate in communion with a homebound member. It may mean that a couple of members or elders worship at the home of a communicant who is unable to attend worship while practicing safety precautions.
When possible, those who participate in virtual communion should receive communion elements prepared by a team from the congregation rather than being instructed to furnish their own elements or just “use whatever is at hand.” Preparing home/virtual communion “kits” is a wonderful opportunity for ministry and service for all ages. The work of preparing bread and wine or juice for communion and delivering these elements (perhaps enclosed with a personal note, written prayer, or some other gift or symbol of the congregation’s mission and ministry) represents a beautiful example of liturgy: the work of the people.
What is clear both in the guidance for home communion offered in the BCW (as well as to anyone who has personally participated in a service of home communion) is that one of the primary purposes of this ritual act is pastoral care. It is described within the context of “Ministry to the Sick.” Accordingly, depending on the pastoral needs and circumstances of the context, parts of the guidance for the service may be changed or omitted. I would guess that most services of home communion do not utilize the same physical elements used in the greater congregation’s worship service and do not occur on the same day or even in the same week. I admit that I have used cranberry-apple juice for home communion when grape juice was not available and said the Words of Institution over a sesame seed bagel when that was what the accompanying elder provided. And for those of us who have attempted to celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually during the pandemic, these scenarios likely sound familiar.
Again, we all are doing the best we can. We do the best we can with bagels and apple juice, with proper prefaces omitted, with the Words of Institution garbled, with lines of the Lord’s Prayer forgotten, with latent prayer petitions hastily offered following the “Amen,” while home healthcare workers take phone calls and the dining hall television blares in the background—and all other manner of indecency and disorder. Thank goodness that, not by our effort but by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is present and encountered, the Word is proclaimed and sealed, faith is strengthened, grace is mediated, and God is glorified.
Shell, ink on paper, Jennifer Bunge
Her Sunday school teacher stood close by with one hand on her arm. Her sponsoring elder and her mothers took their places around the font. Kaela’s mothers had renounced evil, affirmed their belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, and made public their intentions to teach Kaela the Christian faith. I held the seashell Kaela had chosen for me to dip into the water. The prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water was printed in the binder I held in my other hand. As I began my rehearsed, formal words, she began to show signs of agitation. I gave up on the lengthy prayer from the Book of Common Worship, closed the binder, and said, “Kaela, this water is just like the water from creation and Noah’s flood and the water that baptized Jesus. Now we’re going to baptize you.” She slipped her hand into the font.
As we had practiced in the sanctuary the week before, I dipped the shell into the font and sent a little trickle of water down Kaela’s forehead three times, baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I handed her the seashell to keep as a momento and declared her a member of the household of God, welcoming her into the body of Christ. By this time, Kaela was making noises of distress, as many children do at this point in the liturgy. But unlike many children, Kaela was in distress in part because of her different abilities, since she had an intellectual disability and autism. Though she needed time back in the nursery after the baptism, when the service concluded she agreed to come back for a picture with her moms and me. The photo shows Kaela with her hand in the font and her head thrown back laughing.
It was neither an infant baptism nor an adult one. Kaela’s parents and the congregation made promises to guide and nurture her; yet Kaela was also nurturing us. In some contexts, she could easily have been labeled someone who “couldn’t understand” enough to be baptized, yet it was clear that she understood God better than any of us. The vocation she received at baptism was as profound, unique, and necessary as any of ours, yet I was aware that some churches would have placed several boundaries in her way, since she was the daughter of lesbians and a person with an intellectual disability.
For the sermon I preached from Acts 8, the story about the Ethiopian eunuch who said, “Look, there is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What a loaded question. What is there to prevent me? Status? Socioeconomic background? Age? Sexuality? Denominational background? Gender? Intellect? Disability? Health? Doctrine? Doubt? Like the eunuch we may have been taught that there are certain boundaries that dictate who is in and who is out. Who can be denied the sacrament of baptism? Who can be denied full entry into God’s family? What is to prevent me from being baptized?
As Presbyterians, we have inherited the tradition of infant baptism as well as baptism on profession of faith. Our embrace of infant baptism makes the beautiful statement that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith. It was with that claim that Kaela’s parents brought her to be baptized that day. The sacraments are the sign and seal of God’s reconciling work. They are not intellectual propositions to be parsed out and understood; they are sensory experiences, real connection to God through physical, earthly elements: bread, wine, water. We encounter truth beyond anyone’s ability to understand. We all experience the water of our baptism in just the way that Kaela did, as a gift, a surprise, a shock, a blessing, and not as a theological treatise.
Baptism, even with adults, is always more about God choosing us than about us choosing God. Baptism is a strong claim of the identity bestowed upon us by God: child of God. When we recognize this identity as primary, we are able to put our other identities and categories of belonging in perspective. Rather than deriving identity first and foremost from being white or a person of color, being male or female, being rich or poor, educated or uneducated, straight or gay, cisgender or gender nonconforming, neurodivergent or neurotypical, we are able to see ourselves realistically. In Christ it all falls away and our belovedness is obvious. Baptism is a sign of the coming realm of God, where those distinctions will never divide us again and we will see each other as beloved siblings of the same parent.
Imagine the joy of the Ethiopian as his chariot approaches water. “Look! Here is water! Here, within my reach, are the promises of God.” There before him is entry into the community of faith and participation in the death and resurrection of the Jesus about whom Philip had been telling him. “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me, even me, from God’s grace and all that promises?”
What is to prevent you from living out your vocation, from participating in the faith to which you have been brought or freely come? Look! Here is water—water of renewal, of grace and surprise and promise! Let’s celebrate the bounty of God! What is to prevent us? Nothing, beloved ones, nothing.
- Wendell Berry, “Like the Water,” Famous Poets and Poems website, accessed April 29, 2022, https://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/wendell_berry/poems/134.html.
- James Donovan, Catechism of the Council of Trent (Dublin: Duffy, 1829), 100.
- “Baptism and Reaffirmation,” in Book of Common Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 403.
- John Ylvisaker, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 488.
- Berry, “Like the Water,” https://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/wendell_berry/poems/134.html/.
- Julia Esquivel, “I Am Not Afraid of Death,” in Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1994), 67.
- “The Baptismal Covenant I,” Book of Worship, accessed April 29, 2022, www.umcdiscipleship.org/book-of-worship/the-baptismal-covenant-i/.
- Book of Common Worship, 409.
- “Wade in the Water,” Spotify, track 3 on The Blind Boys of Alabama, Higher Ground, Omnivore Recordings, 2002.
- “The Afterlife,” Spotify, track 2 on Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What, Legacy Recordings, 2011.
- “PBS Newshour Classroom,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, March 30, 2022), last modified March 30, 2022, accessed April 13, 2022, www.pbs.org/newshour/classroom/.
- Mike Ferguson, “A New Suit and an Act of Contrition,” Presbyterian Mission Agency, last modified February 25, 2019, accessed April 22, 2022, https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/a-new-suit-and-an-act-of-contrition/.