My prior post was the letter I published online for my congregation addressing our acts of worship and communion during the current pandemic. This current post is an addendum responding to discussions being held online among clergy colleagues and leaders of the church.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has said that this pandemic might be a time for fasting from the sacrament. And, the worship resources posted on ELCA.org/publichealth recommend that congregations do not administer Holy Communion during online worship gatherings.
The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 39, states that “the gathered people of God celebrate the sacrament. Holy Communion, usually celebrated within a congregation, also may be celebrated in synodical, churchwide, and other settings where the baptized gather.” Furthermore, Application 39A: “Authorization for all celebrations of Communion in a parish setting where there is a called and ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is the responsibility of the pastor in consultation with the Congregational Council.”
Parishes around the country are currently “gathering” as an “assembled” people of God across the pixels and network cables. Our extraordinary gatherings in this time recall the great canticle, “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you. Let this be a foretaste of all that is to come when all creation shares this feast with you” (As the Grains of Wheat, ELW 465). By God’s grace we continue to gather as the scattered grains of wheat. These virtual assemblies of the scattered are no less legitimate than in-person gatherings.
Many of our parishes are assembling at an appointed time via livestream or Zoom videoconference. Worshiping at the same time and in the same way reinforces the unity of their assembly despite the physical distance.
Certainly gathering in this manner is not ideal, and in contagion-free times virtual assembly certainly would not be the preferred method of coming together as God’s people. The normative practice of the living Body of Christ is and always will be to gather together in person. Yet a “normative” or “preferred” practice need not be the exclusive practice of the church. Exceptions prove and are derivative of the rule.
Our church teaches that “Holy Communion is celebrated weekly” (UMG Principle 35). We celebrate communion frequently “because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church’s fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained” (Background, 35A). As we meet through digital means, parishes can continue the church’s practice of gathering weekly at the Lord’s Table in response to “Christ’s command, his promise, and our deep need” (Background, 35A).
Even as we gather online, “Holy Communion is consecrated by the Word of God and Prayer” (UMG Principle 43), and “a pastor presides at the Holy Communion” (UMG Principle 40). Authentic gatherings of God’s people through digital means provide for a pastor’s leadership, the proclamation of God’s Word, and the elevation of our prayers.
I respect the preference spoken by our Presiding Bishop, some of our church’s theologians, and many of my peers. Refraining from administering the sacrament during these times is a faithful means of waiting with hope-filled anticipation for that day when parishes can gather again, in person, as the Body of Christ. It is a waiting that reflects our faithful waiting for the promised Day of the Lord when the world will be set to rights.
And perhaps the wisdom of Ecclesiastes applies here, that there is “a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces” (3:5b). Certainly we are avoiding our in-person embraces during this pandemic. Maybe the same goes for our sacramental embrace.
Ultimately I have made a different pastoral decision, one that seeks to continue our parishes’ need to hear those most important words of the sacrament: that Jesus is given “for you” (Small Catechism). I think there’s room in our church for different and faithful responses rooted in pastoral care for our congregations and trust in the living, sacramental Word which dares to come to us in our fear, nourish us, forgive us our sin, and make of us a body gathered together not in any given location but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
May the God who is Spirit and Truth continue to bless and keep our church in these days.