On virtual communion: A tract for these COVID-19 Times (Part II)

"God’s active presence remains in our midst. Yet adopting virtual communion risks undermining the corporate nature of the Eucharist. There is a significant possibility that such celebrations will establish divisions between those with and without internet access, or even, for example, between those who receive a Zoom invitation to join and those strangers and neighbours left uninvited." Photo: wideonet/Shutterstuck
Published May 25, 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, several Christians are advocating for the practice of online “virtual communions.” Virtual celebrations of the Eucharist are a gathering of individuals on a social media platform, during which participants place a piece of bread and some wine in front of their computer screen while a priest recites the prayer of consecration. The gathering then eats the elements and describes the service as a celebration of the Eucharist.

Brittain. Photo: Contributed

That many mainline churches, including a number in the Anglican Communion, do not generally permit virtual communion has come under criticism in the wake of the present lockdown. There are many distinct issues interwoven in this debate, which is why it is so complicated and controversial. The discussion that follows pulls apart some of the thorny strands related to the topic. Note that these remarks are focused specifically on the question of “virtual communion” and are not concerned with broader practices of “virtual worship.” Although there has been some criticism of online prayer services during the pandemic, there is more widespread support of this practice than there is for virtual Eucharists.

Listening to the advocates

There are at least four distinct threads among recent arguments employed by advocates for virtual communion. Some accuse anyone who resists this innovation of elitist clericalism. Others insist that resisting online communion is due to the church being out-of-date and failing to innovate. A third concern is to provide church members with the access to the sacrament that they yearn for. Finally, those who highlight the centrality of the sacrament in the life of the church argue that the very eucharistic identity of the church necessitates virtual communion when in-person celebration is not possible. Below, I consider each of these positions in turn.

Thread 1: ‘Deliver us from clergy’

For Jonny Baker, a Church Mission Society pioneer, virtual communion is a way to “resist the power of religious control” imposed by clergy and bishops. Even though the Church of England refers to “sacramental theology and other clever sounding ruses” to place restrictions on the Eucharist, Baker suggests that, “really it is an issue of control. These are things the church has constructed, made up, nothing more.” Similarly, Diana Butler Bass accuses the US-based Episcopal Church of “hoarding the Eucharist” from the laity when it prohibits virtual communion.

From the perspective of Anglican tradition, arguments for the adoption of virtual communion on such anti-institutional grounds come very close to implying support for lay presidency at the Eucharist (i.e. no need for priests) and doing away with bishops. If having clergy and bishops oversee the practice of the Holy Communion is dismissed for being inappropriately controlling, and when resisting church discipline is largely presented as an inherent virtue, then what is the purpose of priests and bishops? While some congregationalist denominations have made such a conclusion, it has not been the tradition of sacramental churches like Anglicanism. Moreover, there is no evident sacramental theology in evidence when the discussion takes on such a tone.

Thread 2: Against a church ‘behind-the-times’

Diana Butler Bass argues that churches have failed to recognize that new technologies “have extraordinary capacity to create community, to connect people, to set up moral frameworks in which people make decisions about the actions they’re going to deploy in their own lives. This is what denominations have not yet gotten their minds around.” Along similar lines, the Lutheran theologian Deanna A. Thompson challenges dualisms she considers problematic, such as real/virtual or embodied/disembodied. For her, virtual gatherings are “real experiences of gathering, connection and worship,” so there should be no distinction between a physical gathering of people in one geographical space and an online assembly of individuals in cyberspace. On such grounds, both theologians suggest that virtual communions are equal to in-person celebrations of the Eucharist.

Arguments like this are helpful for highlighting the fact that many people value connecting with others through the internet. For those who are house-bound or living with debilitating illness, for example, engaging with others through social media can feel like a lifeline. What is problematic about claims such as those of Bass and Thompson is not the idea that virtual gatherings can be experienced as a “community,” but the assertion that they are the same kind of community as a physical gathering of people.

There is a substantial amount of academic literature emerging on the effect of new communications technology on human relationships and identity. Increasingly, such research raises concerns over the negative influences of the internet and social media. Some studies suggest that online networking can impact negatively on human emotional life. Beyond scholarly studies, newspapers regularly refer to surveys that report the majority of users regret posting something online, document changes to attention span and memory, and caution that the internet fosters impatience and a desire for instant gratification. Such evidence does not imply that one should not use the internet or deny that it brings substantial advantages; my point is simply that digital media and online engagement bring costs as well as benefits.

The claims of theologians like Bass and Thompson thus require greater critical scrutiny and theological reflection. Comparing online “dating” to a romantic dinner spent getting to know a potential partner helps illustrate the significant difference between virtual and in-person encounters. Some examples from the present pandemic also offer pause for thought. A recent New York Times column highlights the extent to which many are discovering how much they miss working with their colleagues in the office. Online meetings are increasingly experienced as being qualitatively different to in-person interactions. Similarly, in recent weeks I have heard clergy lament the challenge of conducting funerals and offering online pastoral care to those mourning. As one pastor said to me, “Nothing can replace the power of touch and a hug.”

Moreover, those we interact with online experience us only in the ways in which we present ourselves on the screen—not according to how we relate to others in a public space where we cannot hit “mute” or turn off our camera when we feel like it. Online networks may indeed be a form of “community,” but they are a very different form of gathering. Theologians advocating for virtual communion generally fail to address the difference this has on the practice and meaning of the Eucharist.

Thread 3: Pastoral concern for church members

An appeal to the needs of members of the church is a more compelling defense of virtual communion. When the English priest Dana Delap describes offering the Eucharist over Zoom (and, by her own admission, disobeying her bishop’s authority), her reason is straightforward: her fellow Christians needed it to “sustain them on their journey of faith.” Although it is clearly a key function of the priesthood to administer the sacraments and to respond to human needs, the issue is not as straightforward as Delap implies. Consider the following details, which complicate Delap’s account.

First, moratoriums on the Eucharist are not simply due to the clergy deciding to withhold the sacrament from the laity. It is the COVID-19 pandemic that is preventing Christians from safely accessing Holy Communion. Second, is it helpful to imply that God is not able to feed God’s people if they don’t have access to the Eucharist? Is the work of the Spirit really so restricted? Third, not every need or desire expressed by church members should necessarily be delivered exactly as requested. Recall how, in Exodus 32, while Moses was on “sabbatical,” the pastoral response of the high priest Aaron to the people’s spiritual yearning was to deliver them a Golden Calf as requested. The outcome did not prove pleasing to God.

When Delap suggests that her practice of a Eucharist-via-Zoom “made a holy space for God into our Sunday to Saturday lives,” she expresses a curious understanding of the sacraments. The worship of God doesn’t “make space” for the God who is already present; instead, eucharistic worship is an embodied participation in God’s presence and pattern of relating to Creation. The Eucharist doesn’t conjure God’s presence like a magic spell; instead, Holy Communion invites us to “make space” by not only remembering, but also enacting, our true identity as a people called together as the body of Christ, whose vocation is to participate with God in the building of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. This is why Episcopalian theologian Scott MacDougall cautions that the idea of watching a virtual communion online threatens to overturn the “liturgical reforms that ended the medieval practice of ocular communion because it disempowers the laity and insults the priesthood of all believers.”

Thread 4: The eucharistic identity of the church

At this point, we arrive at what I consider the most compelling reason to consider virtual communions: the centrality of the Eucharist in Anglican theology and spirituality.

It is noteworthy that for some Protestant denominations, Holy Communion is understood only as recollection of the ministry and death of Jesus, rather than as a participation in the “real presence” of Christ. If that is one’s understanding of the sacrament, it is less difficult to develop a theological argument in support of virtual communions (although I still disagree with such a conclusion). For liturgical churches that confess a sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist, however, the notion of a “virtual Lord’s Supper” is much more difficult to make sense of. This is due to an understanding of the Eucharist as the presence of Christ in a physical gathering of the community (the “body of Christ”).

That said, among some who hold a strong theology of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it is difficult to conceive of the Church and Christian ministry without access to the sacrament for an extended period. As an example of a very strong link between the church and the Eucharist, consider this statement by the Roman Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac, “the Church produces the Eucharist but the Eucharist also produces the Church.” Rowan Williams offers a similar view, “the Church is most truly itself when it is engaged in sacramental worship; that when above all it meets for the Eucharist, it…expresses its deepest identity.” Do such statements imply that a moratorium on Holy Communion imperils the existence of the church? If, as the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas suggests, the Eucharist is “the key to ecclesiology,” then some might claim that the church must practice virtual communion during the COVID-19 lockdown in order to preserve the church’s identity and mission.

I think that it is a mistake to leap to this conclusion. It is noteworthy that de Lubac, Williams, and Zizioulas make such strong statements about the Eucharist in order to challenge individualistic tendencies in the modern age. For them, the sacraments are not geared chiefly toward personal internal piety; instead, they are integral to the church’s communal nature as the gathered people of God. Williams argues, “Sacramental practice… speak[s] most clearly of loss, dependence and interdependence, solidarities we do not choose.” Such an understanding does not encourage the idea that Holy Communion should be offered on the basis of an individual desire for it, or the presumption that the church cannot exist if the Eucharist is not currently being conducted.

Furthermore, it would be a mistake to imply that the existence of the church depends in the first instance on the decisions of human beings. To do so neglects John Webster’s emphasis on the fact that, “the church has its origin in God’s goodness.” As much as the Eucharist and the church are called into being and shaped by the incarnate Jesus Christ, this point should not be developed to the exclusion of the work of the other two persons of the Trinity – God the Creator and God the Holy Spirit. Rowan Williams underlines this point when he states, “the sacrament does not bring Christ to a place where God is absent.”

This explains why I am unmoved when those who advocate for virtual communion do so based on a claim that God can be present to those interacting through online media. Clearly God can be present in such encounters! Because this is true, I have no issue with the practice of holding prayer services and worship online. But whether God is present or not does not decide the debate over virtual communion; instead, the issue has to do with how we are present to each other and to our neighbours.

On virtual communion as a practice

In Anglican tradition, debates over the Eucharist have often heeded the counsel of the 16th-century English theologian Richard Hooker, who urged Christians to “meditate with silence what we have by the sacrament, and less to dispute of the manner how.” This does not imply that it doesn’t matter how one celebrates the Eucharist, but rather that Christians should focus primarily on the fact that Christ is present in Holy Communion instead of feuding over how or where Christ is present (In the physical elements? In the heart of the believer?)

The debate over virtual communion risks tipping over into a dispute over how the sacraments function (Can Christ be present in a Zoom meeting?) as opposed to focusing on what the Eucharist is, and what it is for.

Anglican sacramental theology generally emphasizes how, through receiving the body and blood of Christ, the people of God are drawn ever-more intimately into unity, not only with Christ, but also with each other, as well as with the church throughout the world, and with all of God’s Creation. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry summarizes, “mainstream Anglicanism has insisted that the Holy Eucharist is to be celebrated in community.”

This suggests that the Eucharist is not chiefly for the individual believer (although of course it is also that). The tradition also discourages the idea that any form of gathering fulfills the criteria for a eucharistic meal (which is one reason why a priest is required to preside). The emphasis on a certain kind of gathering is also found in 1 Corinthians (as I noted recently), when Paul argues that consuming the body and blood of Christ while disregarding the needs of others in the community represents eating in “an unworthy manner.” This is because it introduces “divisions” into the body of Christ by making the celebration less accessible to some than it is others.

In my view, these considerations discourage the practice of virtual communion for the following reasons:

  • Anglican tradition has consistently taught that God can be present through the Holy Spirit in any human situation, and that those unable to attend the Eucharist due to a health crisis have access to God through “spiritual communion.”
  • Although social media and online video conferencing enable people to interact during times of physical isolation in helpful ways, such forms of “community” are distinct from a public gathering of people in a physical space. This has a substantial impact on how one understands and practices the Eucharist. If one recalls that the Eucharist not only unites participants with the sacrifice of Christ’s death on the cross but also with the table fellowship that Jesus shared with outcasts and sinners, then a substantive limitation of virtual communion comes into view. It would be one thing for Jesus to chat with the Samaritan woman over Skype; it is quite another thing for him to violate social boundaries by meeting directly with her at the well (John 4:4-26). Similarly, while the disciples of Jesus might find it curious that Jesus has Zacchaeus as a Facebook friend, they cannot misunderstand the message that is communicated when Jesus agrees to eat with this tax collector at his home (Luke 19:1-10). Virtual communion makes it easier to diminish such key dimensions of celebrations of the Eucharist than do in-person gatherings.
  • Scripture and tradition present the Eucharist as being inherently communal. It is not merely something one watches passively but it requires the active participation of those who have gathered (which is why most churches do not permit communion by watching a liturgy on television). Moreover, as Paul emphasizes, there can be no divisions among participants over who has access to it (for example, excluding those without reliable internet access, such as the poor and marginalized).

Combined, these considerations suggest that there are insufficient grounds for the church to embrace the practice of virtual communion. The risks far outweigh the benefits. An interruption in the practice of the Eucharist does not impair the individual Christian or the essential nature of the church. God’s active presence remains in our midst. Yet adopting virtual communion risks undermining the corporate nature of the Eucharist. There is a significant possibility that such celebrations will establish divisions between those with and without internet access, or even, for example, between those who receive a Zoom invitation to join and those strangers and neighbours left uninvited.

While I am mindful that Jesus scolds the disciples when they impede access to him (“Let the little children come to me”—Matthew 19:14), I also note that Christ counseled his anxious followers, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink…. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:25-26). The second passage should guide the church’s discernment over practices of the Eucharist during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rev. Christopher Craig Brittain is Dean of Divinity and the Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.


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