Chris Ridgeway on How Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental

Chris Ridgeway writes at the intersection of faith and technology. He is the cohost of the Device & Virtue podcast about ethics and everyday tech and lives in Chicago.

an ministers bless the Lord’s Table over Zoom? The worldwide pandemic provides all-new context for this theologically untested—and for some unthinkable—question. It may be time to consider what we mean by “presence.”

National guidelines now limit gatherings to 10 people. Churches have transitioned to online services and Zoom meetings. The sermon livestream is no problem—we’re comfortable with the Word transferring digitally. A recent study from the Pew Research Center easily pulled together 50,000 online sermons from Pentecostal to Catholic. Eighty-three percent of American protestant pastors agree that viewing a livestream is an acceptable option for the sick.

The controversy is with the latter half of Word and Table. “This is my body”—Christ’s words make our faith explicitly physical. But COVID-19 has transformed our physical bodies and gatherings from blessed unity to social-distanced partitioning. Hugs and hands convey fear instead of love. The bread and the cup elicit worry of viral transmission.

With physical gatherings canceled, congregations with quarterly Communion may slide the schedule a bit. But many evangelical Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians celebrate with bread and wine weekly. The shared Table is ordered and integral to worship. What now? Do you have to be present to partake of the presence?

Some “low church” nondenominational churches like Saddleback have long offered instructions to follow along with your own grape juice and livestream. Never mind 1990s HTML wonders like eHolyCom. While the United Methodist Church wrote exploratory papers in 2013, most sacramental denominations have relegated online Holy Communion to an exotic theological issue—akin to “Can extraterrestrials be saved?” (or to virtual cathedrals in the immersive Second Life video game). John Dyer offers a recent and extensive John Dyer offers a recent and extensive survey.

For many, online Communion is untenable. The Westminster Confession 27.4 forbids it. A conservative reformed professor told me, “The situation you describe is essentially private Communion.”

Today’s situation forces a reconsideration. COVID-19 may be the spark, but the kindling fueling the fire burning isn’t theological discourse. It’s in that last “I love you” text message you sent your spouse. The white-on-blue bubble carries an instantaneous reality, a moment of intimacy and presence that moves our heart and mind more than any adjacent physical stranger in that coffee shop (or perhaps that pew).

The means of digital communication have become ordinary and invisible to our most meaningful relationships. We laugh and cry and express intimacy and frustration with a cross-cut of iMessage and emojis, FaceTime and Instagram stories. We challenge our best friend on workout apps and ask private medical questions via telehealth.

The essential word is presence—along with the dramatic and sustained cultural shift in our understanding of it. A daily digital culture has shaped our interactions to the point that human presence is not synonymous to physicality.

Communications scholars have long understood this. It’s our words, yes, but also the verified identity of our interlocutor—that photo and number so you “know it’s them.” It’s real-time interactive signals like those three dots that appear when your relation is typing a response. It’s both low-resolution icons like a thumbs up and high-resolution facial expressions when we switch to video—those incredibly important nonverbal eyebrow lifts!

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Source: Christianity Today