Until a friend asked me, I hadn’t given much thought to whether churches should practice ‘online’ communion. The possibility hadn’t crossed my mind. But it seems that the question has become a bit of an online thing during these strange days and so I thought I’d share my view. My view on the question of whether churches should practice online communion is: ‘No.’ I should probably explain why.
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic meal. It’s not just that the bread and wine are symbols but the whole thing is a symbol, the gathering of the church to share the bread and the wine are a symbol of the reality that these are the Lord’s people, drawn together by his covenant, enacted by his blood. Of course, the bread and the wine have particular symbolic significance but they become symbols not because of their breadiness or that wine looks a bit like blood but because they are bread and wine shared in this particular gathering, the gathering of God’s people as a church.
That’s why, when Paul has to rebuke the Corinthians for the way they practice the Supper, he bookends the discussion with the phrases ‘when you come together as a church’ (1 Cor 11:18) and ‘when you gather to eat’ (1 Cor 11:34) in which the same Greek verb is used. Paul doesn’t particularly care when or how the Corinthians eat around the family meal table or at a friend’s. No, his concern is confined to the gathering of the church because it is then that the way congregation share the bread and the wine takes on particular significance because it is then that their table becomes the Lord’s table, as His people gather round it. It is then that the bread and the wine become symbols of the body and the blood of the Lord Jesus.
And not empty symbols, either. Paul and the Corinthians understand how powerful symbols are. In 1 Cor 10, he asks the Corinthians, ‘Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?’ Paul obviously expects that the Corinthians will answer, ‘yes, of course they are.’ His point is that, therefore, the meals celebrated in honour of pagan deities are not just empty gestures but, in fact, makes them ‘participants with demons.’ For Paul, gatherings, particularly gatherings around meals, especially gatherings around symbolic meals, are of the utmost significance. When the church is gathered around the Lord’s table, taking up the bread and the wine as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, they partake in fellowship with the Lord.
What has all this to do with ‘online’ communion? Well, it’s a long way of making the point that, if gathering as a church is essential to having the Lord’s Supper, then doing it online is not just mistaken but impossible. Words and music and pictures can be transmitted via the internet, thank God for that in these troubled times, but physical presence never can be, neither the presence of bread and wine, nor the presence of each other. We cannot really gather online, we can only synchronise ourselves in separation.
But aren’t we commanded to practice the Lord’s Supper? Indeed so! But not with any particular frequency. I’d have it every week, personally, but the Lord hasn’t said how often just ‘whenever’, which seems deliberately indefinite. What about if we all share bread and wine in our households and watch each other eating and drinking? This seems to me to be worse than anything else. For then we are saying that we can ‘come together as a church’ in our individual households. No, the church is not the household and the household is not the church. This is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Cor 11 and 12, each Corinthian needed the others to make up the body. The Lord’s Supper is for the gathering of the church and the church should be made up of many households. Since we cannot gather, we cannot have the Lord’s Supper. It is not merely a mistake, but an impossibility. Whatever we might be doing on Zoom or Youtube with bread and wine, we are not seated at the table of the Lord.
We live in a society in which the answer to the question, ‘Why not?’ is often ‘I can’t see why not.’ We are happy to innovate in order to remove the obstacles to our desires and preferences. And what could be a more noble desire than to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of the Lord Jesus? But the weighty significance Paul places on symbolic meals should, I think, make us very cautious in changing and tinkering with the symbolism of the Supper, as if we can see what the real essence of it is and simply shift around some accidental features. It seems to me that ‘online communion’ gives at least two messages that sit uncomfortably with a Christian profession of faith.
First, if we practice online communion we suggest that the physical presence of a person can be abstracted, digitised and substituted for an image on a screen. Do we want to say this? These may be unprecedented times but the decisions we make now will reflect principles that will endure for long after the coronavirus crisis. What argument will we have for the person who prefers to log in to church via Zoom in April 2021 when we said that we could all do that, no problem, in April 2020? Presence, unlike words, cannot be digitised because humanity cannot be digitised. Hence why Paul and John, who both accomplished so much with their letters, longed for the time when they could be face to face with their correspondents. Christians have always confessed their belief in the resurrection of the body and we should be wary of taking any step that seems to treat the body as an unnecessary appendage.
Second, if we practice online communion, we send a message about time. We cannot now gather face to face and we do not know how long this state of affairs will last. If it were just for a week, I doubt this debate would have arisen. But it may be longer: it may be months, several months even. Are we really going to have to go without the Lord’s Supper, all that time, just because we cannot be in the same room? If we say, no, no, we can get round it, overcome it, do something about it, then I suspect we reveal our attitude to waiting. I am terrible at waiting, I hate the feeling of indefinite time stretching out in front of me. But so often, the Lord calls on us wait because in waiting we demonstrate our recognition that we are not masters of time. We cannot control when, let alone if, things will happen. Our culture uses technology to create the illusion that we can control time, that things can come to us when we want. The coronavirus has shattered that illusion and it would be ironic if the one of the first people to try and recreate it are Christians trying to find a workaround to be able to share the New Covenant meal as soon as they would like. We would be better to wait. Waiting will remind us who we are and what power we really have. We are creatures who have nothing we did not receive. The Lord’s Supper should be a reminder of that, a reminder that creatures and creator have been reconciled and now share fellowship. It would be a shame to subvert that reminder by seeking to transcend our time-bound creaturehood. Yes, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. Gloriously so. But it is a means of grace, and grace, like any gift, can never be snatched but only received.
The Apostle Paul thought symbolic meals were significant and he thought that the symbolism was so important that those who took part in an unworthy manner were liable to judgement. We should not skip too lightly over these words. How we practice the Lord’s Supper really matters. In my view, that means we should be very, very cautious about thinking we can leave out an integral part of the symbol, the gathering itself, and leave the rest intact. Better, I think, to use this time to build our anticipation for the next time we can partake of the symbols, symbols designed to sharpen our anticipation for the time we partake without need of symbols and see, not just each other, but our Lord face to face.