2013: Debating online communion

Editor’s note: This is part of a series about the issues and events that were front and center in the lives of United Methodists in 2013.

By Heather Hahn

After a week of tense talk about sexuality, the United Methodist Council of Bishops broached a topic that in Christian history has been even more contentious — the sacraments.

At issue: Should United Methodist churches be permitted to offer Holy Communion online? Put another way, can people truly have the communal experience of the sacraments with the click of a keyboard?

After a 10-minute conversation, the bishops by a voice vote approved a recommendation to halt for now the practice of Holy Communion online and study further online ministries. The recommendation originated with an unofficial group of United Methodist theologians, bishops, church agency executives and pastors that met Sept. 30–Oct. 1 in Nashville.

So far, the church discussion on online communion has sparked conversation in social media and made national headlines in the Religion News Service and the Wall Street Journal.

(From left) The Rev. Saul Montiel, Pastor Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and Bishop Minerva Carcaño share communion bread. United Methodist bishops from all over the world visit the U.S. - Mexico border to immerse themselves in the reality of life at the Southern border of the U.S. and sharpen their focus on how the church can be in ministry to persons residing there on May 7, 2013. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

(From left) The Rev. Saul Montiel, Pastor Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and Bishop Minerva Carcaño share communion bread at the U.S. – Mexico border in May 2013. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

But the bishops agreed the conversation is just getting started about what Christian community can be in these days of online community — and Eucharist is part of that discussion.

Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster was among the participants in the Nashville discussion. He spoke in support of the moratorium at the Council of Bishops meeting but also noted he wasn’t sure if the bishops could enforce it.

“We are living in a digital age, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he told his fellow bishops. “By the time we figure what we are going to do with online communion, the world will have moved on much further down the road.”

The bishops — who are charged with leading the celebration of the sacraments and teaching United Methodist theology — need to discuss not just online communion but what it means to develop online churches, he said.

Such congregations, he said, may draw people to Christ “who will never walk into one of our buildings but will engage in an online community that is just as real for them as we who are sitting in this room.”

Florida Area Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. added that he hopes future discussions among the bishops will “move beyond liturgical-scholar purity on the one hand and ‘anything goes, it’s a new world’ on the other.”

In the earlier Nashville discussion, the majority of participants agreed with the statement “participation in the Lord’s Supper entails the actual tactile sharing of bread and wine in a service that involves people corporeally together in the same place.”

The Rev. L. Edward Phillips, a facilitator of the discussion and associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, noted how important physical sharing can be in any meal.

“If you invite me to dinner, you can’t do that virtually,” he said during the discussion. “If you bring me a hot dish, you can’t do that online.”

The churchwide discussion began after Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., announced plans to launch this Christmas Eve an online campus that potentially would offer the Lord’s Supper. The new campus at centralonline.org has the support of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, which Goodpaster leads.

The Rev. Andy Langford, Central’s senior pastor, said he is disappointed in the decision by the bishops, but the new congregation will abide by it for now. The church would not be the first online United Methodist ministry to invite people watching the consecration on a computer screen to partake of bread and juice at home.

But, Langford said, Central Online aims to offer something unusual among mainline Protestants — a fully interactive online worship experience. The church will re-air its recorded Sunday worship service each day of the week, and each time, a pastor will be available to live-chat with participants, answer their questions and take their prayer requests.

Some nondenominational, evangelical churches already offer similar services but with contemporary worship styles, Langford said.

“What we are going to be is traditional, orthodox, inclusive and missional,” he said. On Christmas Eve, worshippers will be invited to contribute to three missions.

Langford sees online communion in keeping with earlier innovations. He noted that during the Cold War, pastors blessed elements by short-wave radio for Christians in the Eastern Block, and that Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion on the moon.

Online communion could bring the holy meal to another-hard-to-reach destination — the growing number of digitally inclined people who are unchurched. The new campus will be surveying online worshippers about their interest in the practice.

“We don’t just want to talk to about communion,” Langford said, “we want you to engage with Eucharist.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact Hahn at (615) 742-5470 ornewsdesk@umcom.org.

This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion

Should churches offer Holy Communion online?

Moratorium, study urged on online communion

Storify on Online Communion

Online communion sparks questions for the digital age by the Rev. Larry Hollon

Background papers for the online communion discussion


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  1. Dan Garrett

    A recent article in the journal Worship [Participatio Actuosa in Cyberspace? Vatican II’s Liturgical Vision in a Digital World], by Yale liturgical scholar Teresa Berger reminds me of the importance of grounding our discussions in the broadest ecumenical and historical contexts.

  2. Rob Kopp

    To me, the interesting part of the debate is the nature of the presuppositions held about the Eucharist. Can the mystery of God’s presence be shared in a community where all of its members can not taste and see in the same fashion? What is the essence of communal experience and community? Can a virtual experience also be real and tangible?

    As a nerdy alienated kid in the late seventies (how many pastors have had this kind of beginning), I discovered Amateur Radio. One of my first contacts was with a ham radio operator in Johannesburg, South Africa. For me, this seemed likely to be the most tangible connection with another person in that part of the world.

    Not many years later, I formed a friendship with another South African while I was travelling in England. He was fleeing the fallout of apartheid. My memory of this person is more real and tangible than the friend I made over the radio. (I ran out of money on my last day in London, and he bought me lunch. Was that a sacramental meal?) Nevertheless, I believe my experience of that friendship was enhanced by the earlier experience of talking with someone from his country. It “opened the door” to being connected.

    Is it possible for connections through electronic media to participate in the ways that we feel connected to God and each other? As a pastor who continues to explore the possibility of starting a new virtual church, I have a short-term, but very Wesleyan Moravian solution. When the distance between the Anglican and Moravian church made it difficult to receive the Sacraments together, a love feast was celebrated. While a love feast is not a sacrament, I believe it can be a sacramental means for a virtual church to experience God’s presence. Virtual food for thought.

    Pastor Rob Kopp

    Thief River Falls, MN

  3. Randy Neal, lay person

    I’m not bothered either way; do it or don’t. What concerns me more than anything is how long it will take for a decision to be made on ANY subject brought up in the UMChurch. It takes nine months to have a baby; we take years to study issues and then don’t make a decision. Let our yes be yes, no be no. And do it timely. We are losing members and one reason is because we can’t make a decision and stand by it until it is changed by whatever official means necessary. Let’s move on and stop being in a state of flux all the time. Wow! If parents parented this way, what problems would they have? Oooops! Many do parent this way. And we live in the world with the results. Praying for the leaders of the Church daily, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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