One of Charles Wesley’s great hymns based on Luke 14:16-24 brings me up short. The words are clear and pertinent: “O taste the goodness of our God, and eat his flesh and drink his blood” (verse 3)… “sup with him” (verse 5).
“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus guest.
Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.
Come and partake the gospel feast, be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of our God, and eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Ye who believe his record true shall sup with him and he with you;
Come to the feast be saved from sin, for Jesus waits to take you in.
(“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” Hymn No. 616, The United Methodist Hymnal, verses 1, 3, and 5)
As your Bishop, I erred in my theological judgment by endorsing “online” communion. The fault is mine and mine alone. I apologize for so doing to the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference, and am writing about this because I believe both that confession is important and that my error needs to be corrected and perhaps debated. More importantly, we have a teaching moment and a significant opportunity to theologically learn together by wrestling with the deeper implications of “online” communion.
In 2013, a detailed study of online communion was conducted. The outcome of that study was to recommend against the practice of online communion. This was followed by various agencies of the United Methodist Church prohibiting – or recommending the prohibition of – online communion. This prohibition goes back to the adoption of This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion in 2004. While the debate over “online” communion has continued, the official position of the United Methodist Church has not changed.
The classic definition of the sacraments is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The actual elements used in Holy Communion are to be consecrated by an ordained elder (or appointed licensed local pastor) who is physically present with the elements (bread and wine/juice). Such action ties together the three-part discipline of Word, Sacrament and Order for which elders are ordained. In succinct form, as a Cabinet colleague put it, “Christ’s Holy presence is the mystery of communion.”
A trusted friend has written me on this subject noting that the “endorsement of theological pluralism with which the UMC began” (but later rejected) along with the erosion of other sources “of authority in the canons and laws of the church” has brought us to a place where “there is nothing left to stand on except individual islands and personal experience.”
My friend is correct. My error was choosing to stand for a short-termed pragmatic answer over and against considered theological reflection and a greater respect for ecclesiastical governance and guidance. Reflecting beyond my personal actions or the actions of other bishops, the way we have handled this issue, both individually and collectively as bishops, highlights the theological poverty of the UMC.
In a document entitled “Cabinet Guidelines for Responding to COVID-19,” we responded (under my instigation) with point No. 7 approving the celebration of online communion under certain conditions. The conditions enumerated were:
- Every reasonable effort must be made to keep the sacrament holy and sacred;
- The elements may be consecrated online by an appropriate clergy person;
- The symbolic consecration of the elements online, if possible, should take place at the altar and with the use of bread and grape juice/wine.
Despite my own strong commitment to a fairly high view of sacramental authority, I decided that a pragmatic approach to “symbolic” communion was acceptable. Looking back on it, the phrase I came up with, (i.e. “symbolic”) appears to be side-stepping the issue. Even now, having given it considerable thought and reflection, I am not sure what “symbolic” communion really means. It seems that my pragmatic side over-ruled my own theological qualms.
In my thirty years as a serving pastor in the United Methodist Church, I have held to the conviction that, in a mysterious way, Christ is truly present when we celebrate Holy Communion. (I am indebted to Professor Jim White at Perkins School of Theology for coming to such an understanding.) The biblical warrants for this understanding of communion come from Christ himself.
I also recognize the value and faithfulness of communion as a holy remembrance. Christ’s words are lodged in my inner being.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take and eat. This is my body.’ He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven.’” (Matthew 26:26-28)
A part of John Wesley’s genius regarding the Methodist way of being Christian lies in the ability to hold together a “practical divinity” in Christian faithfulness. For Wesleyans, our understanding of communion has never been an either/or choice. Instead communion is a both/and conviction – a mysterious real presence (without adopting transubstantiation) and a holy remembrance.
“After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19)
I was reminded of this in a brilliant piece of theological analysis written by Dr. Justus Hunter (Assistant Professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary)
In his article, Professor Hunter carefully calls us back to the Articles of Religion, our stated doctrinal texts (see The Book of Discipline, ¶104). He enumerates:
In Holy Communion we encounter God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit feeding us and redemptively moving among us.
“Article VII of the Confession of Faith must be read alongside the longer, and more precise Articles XVI-XX of the Articles of Religion. Articles XVI-XX, on the sacraments, are carefully constructed Articles which, in imitation of Articles XXV, XXVII-XXVIII, XXX-XXXI of the Anglican Articles of Religion, lay out the Anglican view of the Eucharist shared by Methodists. In both cases, the doctrine set out seeks to articulate a position between that of mere memorials and transubstantiation. It does so by affirming that the Body is eaten, but in a spiritual manner. Methodists have described this account, as in This Holy Mystery, as real presence.”
“The Anglican, and therefore Methodist position, seeks to moderate the Lutheran and Catholic positions while remaining firmly in camp with those who hold to Christ’s presence. It does so by saying that the bread and wine are memorials, but also that Christ is really present, such that the body is actually given, taken, and eaten, and the bread we break is a partaking in the body of Christ. To read the Confession of Faith restrictively as warrant for online communion is to read it in a memorialist fashion. It overlooks the significant hurdle presented by the Methodist commitment to Christ’s real presence.”
A blog written for Maundy Thursday by Paul Louis Metzger in Patheos caught my attention. “The United States prizes autonomy and is a fast-food society. As a result, it is easy to discount family meals and hospitality. And so, we may easily bypass what occurred on Maundy Thursday as nothing more than quaint and dispensable. To the contrary, it is qualitatively all-important and indispensable for the Christian movement and what transpired on Good Friday. N.T. Wright has this to say:
In my further study, I came across various other resources which may be used. For instance, Discipleship Resources recommends use of the “Love Feast”. I have shared other resources at the close of this blog.
“When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his forthcoming death was all about, he did not give them a theory, a model, a metaphor, or any other such thing; he gave them a meal, a Passover meal. (N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (New York: HarperOne, 2016), page 182.)
Our theological scholars are often an untapped important resource for the local church. One of those scholars reminded me that “the big picture question that will have to be answered in the not-too-distant future if the line is to be held on communion requiring the presence of a gathered community is why it matters for the community to be gathered in person and not virtually.”
Another colleague, in this case a fellow bishop, remarked, “Would you baptize a person online, allowing them to put water on their own head?” This bishop went on to say, “Some people I have talked with instinctively say ‘No!’ to that, and then cannot tell me the difference.” Together, the church and the seminaries must re-engage with each other in a deep discussion on this and other pressing theological issues.
I debated long and hard about whether to write and share this confession and my further reflections. My trepidation is that it may cause even more confusion among clergy and laity. I hope that I have not. As I stated above, the opportunity for a teaching moment over-ruled those concerns. As we wrestle with the future of our shared ministry, hopefully this blog on rethinking communion will help instigate a deeper understanding of the meaning and purpose of Holy Communion. Such a conversation is central to our shared ministry.
For those already engaged in online communion, I invite you to reconsider. For those who think changing at this point would cause more harm than good, I understand. In the Central Texas Conference, my initial statement will be honored – there will be no disciplinary action brought by me against those who follow the initial guidelines as they were laid out. I wish to emphasize that “This allowance for online communion is for the duration of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and is applicable only while regular, in-person worship is suspended.”
For all of us in this time of pandemic, I commend the prayer best known as the “Collect for Purity.”
to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
that we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your name,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Further Resources for consideration:
- The Order of Saint Luke has offered “A Liturgy for When We Cannot Meet.”
- Bishop Ruben Job in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (the “blue” book) shares an intriguing option called “Communion of the Empty Hand.” (page 143)
- A paper written by Dr. Mark Stamm (Professor of Christian Worship at Perkins School of Theology) entitled “Online Communion and the Covid-19 Crisis” has a number of suggestions.
- A careful reading of This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion is deeply beneficial.