Posted by: dacalu | 20 July 2020

Just Say No to Virtual Eucharist

“Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be, will be.” – St. Augustine

Sometimes anger is the right response.

I rarely write in anger. My first calling has always been to help people think both critically and communally. And so, I work hard to remove the anger from my words. It robs them of their force, but I accept that. I care more about fostering community than winning particular battles.

This time is different. This time the battle is about community and about where we place our hope. Arguments don’t change minds, experiences do. Serious engagement and time spent together change people’s minds. And so, I hope, and I work, to set the foundations for that kind of conversation. When people threaten that, I get angry.

I am profoundly angry about our inability to talk about race, about wealth, and about our responsibilities to one another. In the US and the UK, people have been working hard to destroy any shred of common ritual, common language, or common identity that stand in the way of their ideological agendas. Words like racism, privilege, and liberty have been so twisted as to mean radically different things for different groups of people. And those people are invested in their inability to communicate. It allows them to ignore one another and feel justified.

The Church has a solution to this problem, one that sits at the very heart of Christianity. We eat together every week. This is not an abstract solution, but a concrete one. God, made flesh, ate with us. God who never needed a body became one, so that he might sit with us. God who never needed food ate with us: fish and bread, wine and water. God in person, God in flesh, God incarnate makes Christianity what it is.

God asks many things, but this first: eat together. Feed the hungry. Don’t cast scraps from your table. Go and eat with them. Share a holy meal. “We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.” (I Corinthians 10:17)

We call this meal Holy Communion because it involves being joined together with God and one another (com + union). It is also called a sacrament because, in the words of Augustine, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. By theology and by tradition it must involve a physical interaction between people – many hands holding one cup.

The meal is not adiaphora. It is not something extra. It is our identity. We are the people who eat together with God. Lest we somehow miss the carnality of this feast, Jesus said, “This is my body.” It is tangible and visceral; hands touch and tongues taste. It happens in human bodies. The value of touch is not a product of our theology, but the foundation of it. We encounter God in the flesh. We meet one another in the flesh so that, even when our minds are at odds, we learn from our bodies. We state, with word and deed, that we are concretely and physically one body. And, although we abstain from physical meeting right now, we must not forget that physical meeting is our identity – just as God incarnate is our inspiration.

Virtual Presence

Virtual Communion refers to rituals of communion that take place online, where the presider claims to consecrate bread and wine remotely, so that it may be consumed by the faithful.1 Christians have other sacred meals, most notably the Agape Feast, practiced in the early church and revived by the Moravians and Methodists. It can have many of the same features as Holy Communion or Eucharist but makes no claims to sacramental union.

To name an event “Communion” is to make a very particular claim. Virtual Communion or Virtual Eucharist should not be considered a new thing. It explicitly invokes the theological grounding and the historical centrality of Holy Communion. It equates the online service with the core rite of the church. And, as such, it denies a central Christian truth. It is not an alternative form of worship, but a public rejection of core beliefs. It claims boldly that our faith is founded on ideas and images, not incarnation. It pretends that intellectual and emotional food suffices. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual lie.

We live in dangerous times and there are many things to be angry about. Many of us are tired of the anger and tired of the competing claims to our emotions. Why this? Why now? Because, as a Christian, this is the path home. Although we will not, in this lifetime, know all the answers, we have this promise. If we eat together physically, all else can be resolved.

Shouldn’t we deal with race first?

If you genuinely feel this way, go with God. Stop reading my words and go immediately to Ruha Benjamin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Kelly Brown Douglas. They know what I do not and say what I cannot.

I promise I’m trying to follow where they lead. Black lives matter. Black bodies matter. I do not think we can seriously confront racism until we understand that it occurs on bodies, in bodies, and to bodies. Racism follows the social imaginary far more closely than it follows any biological distinctions. Ideology and technology drive; flesh bears the consequences.

The path to reconciliation lies in sitting down together, sharing the same space and eating the same food. Salvation can be found in bodies. At times like this, it must be found in bodies. And so, I turn to Jesus, to love incarnate, to the physical rituals of the church. Surprisingly, bodily needs can save us from ideological temptations, when we remember the Christian message: grace is tangible. Tangible Eucharist responds to racism. It is not enough, but it is a start. For a Christian, it is always the start.

To replace physical communion with virtual communion is to turn our eyes from the concrete to the imaginary, from practice to ideology. And, while there is a time for that move, we must first ground ourselves in bodies, acted with and acted upon.

Shouldn’t we deal with virus first?

Yes. We should. We should stick with the traditional ritual and make changes to core Christian practices when we are not beset by Pestilence, Death, and Vainglory. Virtual Eucharist has been debated by theologians and liturgists as long as we have had television, if not longer. Their consensus has always been that it is a bad idea.

Suddenly, we cannot meet in person. We must reach out virtually. We must celebrate bodily and mindfully. No, we should not meet in person until we understand the virus far better than we do. And yes, we must be present for people, even when we cannot be present in person. We must not use our ritual, even Eucharist, as an excuse to neglect the needs of bodies, particularly the bodies of the poor and the sick.

This does not justify switching to virtual Eucharist. It certainly doesn’t justify change in weeks or months. Such changes usually take decades. I worship with two communities on a regular basis. Both introduced virtual Eucharist in the same week. Both have savvy members, informed both theologically and scientifically. Both pride themselves on thoughtful worship, responsible to history and modern knowledge. Both took me completely by surprise. I understand the frustration, even desperation, pastors feel. All of us suffer from the uncertainty of the times and keen sense of isolation. We want something to address our hunger. We want to be able to do something. But good decisions are more difficult in a crisis, they deserve more time and more care.

Christianity is a long-term endeavor, one that will be served by recognizing the significance of the current fast, even if it lasts for a year or more. We should begin thinking seriously now about how to maintain our bodily ritual and bodily identity when we cannot meet in large groups.

Eucharist is a sign of unity.

The Body of Christ manifest in bread and wine becomes the Body of Christ manifest in the gathered assembly. It speaks to the heart of the Christian mystery; it defines our practice and shapes our identity. Pastors who change the symbolism change the fundamental character of their community. They have an obligation to engage with all the people whose practice and identity will change when they change the ritual.

I am a theologian who spends most of his time on science and religion, specifically biological metaphors like the Body of Christ. For millennia Western societies have tried to divorce body and spirit, to say that we are essentially minds, and only accidentally fleshly organisms. Consistently, the church has replied, “no.” We are bodies essentially and God redeems flesh as God redeems spirit.

We celebrate with one cup to represent one body, one blood, one people, and one God. Multiple cups will always send the wrong message. We make allowances when they are all poured from the same vessel on the same altar by the same person, when any member of the congregation might receive from any cup. We must not make allowance for multiple cups (or loaves) of diverse quality. The service stands opposed to justice when the privileged have better quality elements, when some may partake and some may not, when the presider may not even see all the people. Eucharist recognizes the truth that we experience God together, in the flesh.

Virtual Eucharist sends a different message: that grace is fundamentally an idea or a packet of information to be transmitted by wire. While I do not deny that this can occur, it is something other than Eucharist, something other than the core tradition of the Church. When we equate virtual Eucharist and traditional Eucharist, we announce that physical bodies and actions are only the appearances of Divinity and not Divine substance. We reinforce dangerous beliefs that souls are saved, but not bodies; that we are saved individually by thinking about God, not collectively by joining with God and one another in action. We hint that physical truths may contradict spiritual truths and physical harm may lead to spiritual health. One belief follows from another; disembodied ritual creates disembodied faith. To eat together online is right and good and a joyful thing. To make it the center of Christian faith is something else entirely.

Can Virtual Communion be a type of Holy Communion?

Some have suggested that Virtual Communion is a place holder, a second-class communion while we wait to return to normal, but there can be no classes of Eucharist. It is tempting to say this is a lesser communion, but that is something we must not say. It is incompatible with the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” We say that Christ made the sacrifice once and that we, in this act, participate. Once we claim that you can participate more or less, we start classifying Christians as more and less united to Christ, more and less adopted into the household of God, more and less saved. The Eucharist will be tangible always and essentially or it will be tangible accidentally. It cannot be both, or even one ideally and another nominally. Eucharist is or is not. And so classes of Holy Communion simply will not work. If we make this change now, we make it in earnest and will, likely, hold on to it for decades to come, if not centuries.

“The people want it/need it.”

Some pastors view the change as a pastoral necessity but changing the Communion without community reflection harms the congregation. It favors one faction (“people who really want this”) over others. It imposes their theology (implicit or explicit) upon everyone. There may be times for that to occur, for leaders to lead, but the process takes time as well as emotional and intellectual space. Sacramental changes usually take decades if not centuries to institute because they touch so closely on Christian self-understanding.

Virtual Eucharist already denies that physical unity is central to Christianity. Making the change suddenly only exacerbates the problem. It imposes division on a rite whose primary purpose is peacemaking. It allows some to continue without bringing everyone along – intellectually and emotionally, but also physically in the provision of bread and wine and a place to celebrate. The practice of celebrating communion behind locked doors or charging a fee for entry has long been viewed as deeply offensive. How is it different to celebrate in a way that requires both computer and internet? Not everyone shares these opportunities. “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” (I Corinthians 11:33-34)

I do not deny the tragedy of the situation, the physical and emotional hunger. The virus forces to make tragic choices and no answer will be fully satisfactory. And yet, the physicality of communion cannot be sacrificed to any short-term desire. It witnesses to the central mystery of Christianity, a profoundly counter-cultural claim about the role of bodies in our lives. More is lost than could be gained.

Grace incarnate.

I have faith and hope for the Church. I think that people do and will receive worthily whatever rituals we perform. I think that God will continue working through the Church and that the Church will continue reaching out to the world in person and online. For now, and for the near future, we must persist in our fast, however. With all the wonderful things we do together, for God, and for the world, there is one thing we must not do.

Virtual Eucharist should not be adopted. It does not simply fail to send the right message; it actively sends the wrong one. It denies the tangible unity of God with humanity. It denies the perfection of Christ’s offering. More dangerously, it lets us off the hook by allowing us to retreat into individual minds and personal ideologies. God has given us a concrete solution to our problems. We can sit and eat together. We may not be able to at the moment, but we must not forget it is our foundation, the core of our identity, and the only path home: God made flesh.


  1. Note on “spiritual communion.” When I say “virtual communion” I mean to suggest that members of the online congregation bring bread and wine to their computers to be consecrated remotely by a priest and consumed locally. I have no objections to the practice of spiritual communion, a tradition where a priest consecrates bread and wine, physically touching both paten and chalice, before sharing them with others. Individuals who cannot receive or, in extreme circumstances, cannot even be present may nonetheless pray for God’s grace through observation of or meditation on the act. With the Reformers, I believe that spiritual communion should not replace communion in anyone’s life, though it may be appropriate for a season. There is little risk of confusing spiritual communion with physical communion; thus, it does not trouble me as virtual communion does.

Responses

  1. I attended a virtual Mass online today. I sat at my computer and sang along with the Hymns and Psalms and prayed the prayers and listened to the Sermon and Confessed and was one with the Priest as he prepared the Eucharist. And when the moment came for the Priest to receive the proxy of Bread and Wine, I recited the prayer (below) as my proxy.

    Spiritually I was fully there and in communion with Anglicans literally around the Globe. I was energized, connected and joyful that in these distancing times such electronic miracles can join us together in the name of Christ. For that, and more, I am grateful.

    AN ACT OF SPIRITUAL COMMUNION
    I believe in thee, O my Jesus, present in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar; I love thee above all things, and I desire to receive thee into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive thee sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace thee, and I unite myself to thee as if thou wast already there. Never permit me to be separated from thee! O Lord Jesus Christ, let the sweet and consuming force of thy love absorb my whole soul, that I may die for the love of thee, who wast pleased to die for the love of me. Amen.

    • Thank you for sharing. I think spiritual communion is a fineidea. The bread and wine are offered in one location and others participate remotely. To me, this is really communion located in a specific place. It is, to me, the same as attending a Eucharist, but not receiving. What troubles me is the practice of bringing bread and wine before the computer and having a priest bless them remotely.

      • I agree. That somehow my computer can sanctify is more than quite a stretch for me. What’s next? Bread and Wine on Amazon Prime? Delux packages include Holy Water and Insence… free shipping, of course. Oy veh!

  2. […] https://dacalu.wordpress.com/2020/07/20/just-say-no-to-virtual-eucharist/?fbclid=IwAR1BO3ggHl9oeB7l2… […]

  3. I agree in the main and, in fact, I have not celebrated the Eucharist at all since mid-March, despite being in charge of a congregation and the requests I have received to do so through “consecration at a distance” or, alternatively, even with just myself consuming the consecrated elements. We “meet” online for morning prayer and classes. However, I find that this article portrays a caricature of those arguing in favor of “virtual Eucharist”. Such polemical style has been typical of Christian theologians for centuries but, in my view, it’s time we stop and repent. Please recognize that those who argue in favor, or practice, “consecration at a distance” are not dismissing the importance of the physical. If they did, they would not need physical elements at all. Also, several of them perceive the creation of a real “space” of meeting through the internet, which in fact is an experience that I also have when I meet with people I know well. My resistance remains, but I am searching for a better description of what “kind” of communal space is necessary for the Eucharist.

    • Thank you for the input. I do not think it is a caricature. It is precisely the issue of equating virtual space with “real space” that raises the problem. Virtual space is conceptual space; it is not physical. Although both are real, one of the key elements of Christian theology has been its persistent and unpopular insistence on a physical God. That we encounter God in conceptual space is, for me at least, undeniably true. That we also encounter God in physical space is counter-intuitive. Tangible encounter with God an one another is, if you will forgive me, crucially important. The significance of Eucharist >as a tangible connection< cannot be overstated.


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