A Real Debate Over Virtual Presence:  #OnlineCommunion in Historical Perspective

One of the most fascinating aspects of John Wesley and the movement he and his friends started was that it was delightfully eclectic.  As Paul Chilcote has noted, Wesley was a “conjunctive” theologian; he held things together that other Christians tended to pull apart.  For instance, the sacramental and evangelical strands of the Wesleyan revival were aspects of Christian life that few Churches in Wesley’s day – and in our own! – managed to honor equally in a dynamic (i.e. powerful) tension.  The origins of the recently reignited online communion debate lie in Methodism’s historic tension between these two strands.

Communion LetterpressMore evangelical-leaning United Methodists can point back to Wesley’s apparent disregard for the norms and decorum of the Church of England in his own day.  When refused a pulpit, he preached on his father’s grave.  When the poor and working class people would not come to church or the society meeting, Wesley went to them, famously “consent[ing] to be more vile” through field preaching.  Because of his evangelical fervor, this former leader  of the “holy club” at Oxford was labelled by some an enthusiast, and thought by many contemporaries too radical for the Anglican establishment.  Moreover , he insisted that communion was a “converting ordinance,” a means of grace for anyone who might come to the table.  (We do not have space here for the story of how this “converting ordinance” became an “open table” with almost no church discipline attached.)  This pragmatic emphasis on evangelism above all else provides a deep well from which contemporary advocates of innovations such as online communion might draw upon.

But that is not the whole Wesley, nor the whole story of Methodism.  Tradition and liturgically-oriented United Methodists can also point back to Wesley as an authority to reject the notion of an online sacrament.  Though he certainly pushed the envelope, and was not always appreciated by the church of his baptism and ordination, Wesley and his brother Charles both lived and died Anglican priests.  Throughout his lifetime, he insisted that the British Methodists never separate from the Church of England – whose worship and order he defended vigorously unless a case of extreme missional necessity arose (for instance, the need of elders to celebrate the sacraments in the new world, which led to ordaining and sending Asbury and the epically second-fiddle Coke).  This classic Wesleyan concern for the unity of the church is a major reason that online communion has thus far been rejected. Moreover, the evangelical movement that Wesley started was also a sacramental revival.  It is believed that he received the eucharist, on average, twice a week throughout his life.  He encouraged Methodists to receive the sacrament regularly, during a time when the typical Anglican communed only once year (Sermon 101, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” speaks to this emphasis).  Thus today, UM advocates for an improved and more regularly celebrated Eucharist can point to Wesley as an Anglican ahead of his time whose reverence for the sacrament, in some ways, anticipated the liturgical reforms of the mid-20th century.  Therefore the sacramental United Methodist, no less than the evangelical, can point to Wesley and our ecclesial inheritance for cause to give a firm “no” to the proposal for online eucharist.

Today, there are many United Methodists who represent the best of these strands in the Wesleyan revival, and some intrepid souls who still seek to combine both.  Evangelicals (and here I intend no ideological content to that descriptor) push the envelope in worship style, messaging, small group ministry, and missional engagement: they worship in arenas and bars, at train stations and schools, and serve their communities in a myriad of ways, just as Papa Wesley did.  At the same time, United Methodists have taken part in the liturgical renewal of the church catholic. In a generation, many local UM congregations have transitioned from quarterly to monthly communion.  On the world stage, my own professor, British Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright, was instrumental in the World Council of Churches document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry that did so much to shape the sacramental theology of the ecumenical movement.  Our newest hymn and worship books reflect United Methodist participation in and assent to this broad liturgical renewal that has taken place in recent years. Lastly, Methodist interest in liturgical renewal and sacramental scholarship was formalized in 1946 with the founding of the Order of St. Luke, whose ministry (now ecumenical in scope) continues to this day.

It is not without irony, however, that calls for online communion have come from more “traditional” corners of the church than one might expect.  Greg Neal, whose website has extensive information on worship and the sacraments, did for a time offer a kind of online communion.  My friend Andy Langford, whose name you’ll find listed as General Editor in the UM Book of Worship, brought this conversation to national attention last year when it was learned that his church’s new online ministry would include communion. The conversation around this proposal led to an ad-hoc consultation in Nashville and the (recently extended) moratorium on online sacraments from our Council of Bishops.  Now another leading voice in our denomination, Adam Hamilton, has returned this discussion to prominence.  LIke Langford, Hamilton is not fully identified with either sacramental or evangelical United Methodists and is exploring new needs and possibilities with online worship communities.

Bishop Ken Carter

Bishop Ken Carter

The debate, it seems, will go on.  An international task force of Bishops led by Florida’s Bishop Ken Carter continues to explore the implications of online communion.  Whether this proposed practice represents a) the logical next step for an evangelical-sacramental church seeking to be true to its dual heritage in the digital age, or b) a desperate capitulation to the reigning cultural idolatry of our day (virtual relationships substituting for actual life) will largely depend on the stream of Wesleyan history which one emphasizes.

Not long ago, I heard an interview with Lutheran church planter Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She discussed the unique approach embraced by her own church, in many ways a traditional Lutheran parish that has drawn in many outcasts, addicts, and artists.  In describing her methodology, she said, “I believe that one can innovate with integrity only when we are deeply grounded in tradition.”

Is it possible for online communion to be an innovation with integrity, grounded in both our evangelical and sacramental traditions?  The jury – or rather, the task force – is still out.  For now, my humble suggestion is that we take this opportunity to revisit our church’s teaching as expressed in This Holy Mystery, and rededicate ourselves to that same Eucharistic piety that so animated the ministries of John and Charles Wesley.  Discussion over the last year, while heated and occasionally interesting, has made it clear that too many UMs, lay and clergy, have difficulty speaking of the sacrament outside of Western individualist and Zwinglian memorialist terms – neither of which represent our liturgical tradition.  Regardless of whether online communion gets a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in the future, such a reappropriation of our own theology and practice of the sacrament can only benefit the people called United Methodist and the world we seek to transform.

drewmcintyre

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
.

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12 Comments on "A Real Debate Over Virtual Presence:  #OnlineCommunion in Historical Perspective"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Ed Phillips
Guest

Thanks, Drew, for a well-reasoned and generous essay.

Peter Harris
Guest

How does “on line communion” work? How is bread broken? How is the cup shared? What constitutes confession and forgiveness? How does this “embody” community?

How we “do” the Sacraments speaks to our “thinking”, and perhaps, vice versa, too?

Drew McIntyre
Guest

Friends,
Thank you for your engagement on this piece. I share many of your concerns with this practice. While I attempted to explore, in this article, the questions in a more objective fashion, my own feelings are pretty clear in the essay to which I link at the end. I believe we should absolutely embrace technology and social media in most aspects of church life; for me, however, the sacraments are a Rubicon which I hope we do not cross.

james
Guest

Ah, should have include “RISEN!!” That is the most important part of His unfathomable Love that makes reconciliation back to the Father possible…………………!!!

Wes Andrews
Guest
I agree completely James. Perhaps I should say discipled so that those participating would be lead into the communion experience by one who appropriately honors the body and the blood. (1 Cor. 11:23-34) I was once scolded by another clergy for even suggesting that “laity” should be able to serve communion in their homes without the “clergy” consecrating the elements. First, limiting communion to being lead exclusively by “clergy” is not Biblical. Second, there is no guarantee that any particular clergy are even consecrating the elements in a means worthy of them. I can’t tell you the number of times… Read more »
james
Guest

Amen and AMEN!! The Walk to Emmaus forever changed my Communion celebrations. I think that weekend has done that for a lot of folks–and will continue to do so if “they” don’t try to put the Holy Spirit in a box………………………….

Wes Andrews
Guest
james, the Walk has been revolutionary. And we have people of all denominations in our area participating, Baptists, Christian Church, Disciples, non-denominational charismatics, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, etc. It has been revolutionary in bringing the Body of Christ together. And Communion (The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist) pointing to our common faith in Jesus is central to this. The sad reality is that the progressives in the UMC will RUIN this. The more they push for unBiblical marriage, eventually all these brothers and sisters in Christ WILL walk away from Emmaus. UnBiblical marriage in the PCUSA is destroying… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Hmm, I see no reference to “unbiblical” marriage in the article, but just like the “Good News” right-wing Methodistic rag, everything boils down to “gay, gay, gay” with the critics of social change and the notion the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Richard Hicks
Guest

As J.B. Phllips wrote in the 1950s “You’re God is Too Small.” Thank you, Richard Hicks, OKC

Mark
Guest
Not a good idea. It’s one thing to enjoy sermons or Christian teachings online, it’s quite another to administer a sacrament. This is something that should be done in all soberness and with a certain reverence typically shared by others in the same locale. I am afraid this trivializes rather than edifies. I am all for judicious use of digital technology, but I think your second option is more descriptive of what’s going on; and you put it well: “a desperate capitulation to the reigning cultural idolatry of our day (virtual relationships substituting for actual life)”.
Wes Andrews
Guest

It would be FAR BETTER for UM pastors to train United Methodist disciples to serve communion within the context of their families and their small groups. I believe laity certainly can consecrate the elements just as authoritatively as clergy, if well trained. Making it available online is antithetical to the concept of “communion”. We need to be more face to face, not less.

james
Guest

I agree with you Wes, but, wonder what “well trained” might mean. In my mind, a person who has had a personal encounter with the Crucified Savior and has been Washed in His Redeeming Blood and has invited The Savior into his heart is “well trained” by this encounter. In many instances–folks who have been “well trained” have forgotten their first love and the wonderful instant of rebirth.

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