Against the Virtual Communion of a Virtual Church
The coronavirus has forced churches to stop meeting and begin taping or livestreaming their services. My own congregation has done this several times, and it has been simultaneously a blessing to have the technology to remain connected and a horror that the church is left with a facsimile of corporate worship. This unprecedented crisis and the quality of technology have led to a significant debate for the church: can we consider the livestreaming of church services, church? Followed closely behind is the question of whether or not people participating (i.e. viewing) the livestream should be encouraged to give themselves the Lord’s Supper. This issue was further complicated within my own denomination when our Stated Clerk, Jeff Jeremiah, issued a provisional opinion permitting the practice of virtual communion, an action not unique to the EPC in this moment.
This is a serious issue: the administration of the sacraments is one of the marks of the church. Not our sacramental theology, but our sacramental practice. I am sympathetic to those who wish to have the Lord’s Supper, and hunger for it myself. And I am also sympathetic to Jeff and the calls he has to make, and acknowledge that this is only a provisional decision. But the decision is wrong and should be retracted. Yes, these are exceptional times, and the church should use all available tools to minister during them. But even with the conditions being what they are, neither the teachings of scripture, nor our confession of faith, permit people to take communion at home away from the congregation of the church– even with access to a livestreamed service.
I will address the issues of virtual church and virtual communion in general, and then respond to the arguments of the EPC’s provisional opinion on the subject.
What is the Church?
The church is, broadly speaking, the kingdom and society of God’s people with their children (WCF 25.2, WLC 62).1 But that society is more narrowly defined by the church’s nature: Contrary to the faddish slogan, “You don’t go to church, you are the church!” church is a place you go; yet the church is not a building, but an assembly of people gathered (congregated, if you will) together for the worship of God. The Greek ἐκκλησία (“church”) literally means assembly or congregation. To be “in church” is not a scriptural description of church membership, but attendance (e.g. Acts 7:38, 14:23, 1 Cor. 14:19, 24, 1 Tim. 3:5). The coming together as a church (1 Cor. 11:18) is a description of Christians assembling together. People are the church only insofar as they are members of the worshiping congregation. The church is the body of Christ because he, as its head, leads it in worship (Heb. 2:5-13) and its members are united to him. The church, then, is a congregation to which its members attend, and that assembling together brings with it the rights and responsibilities of the public worship of God.
This is the logic that permeates the Westminster Standards (e.g. WCF 21.1-2, 8, 25, 27.1, WLC 62-63, 108, 117, 162, etc…). This goes a long way towards answering our first question: is livestreaming a church service actually church? The answer must be no. Arguments to the contrary have hinged on either the case that people are the church, so a livestreamed service is church service to the degree Christians participate in it, or on the other hand, that virtual services actually do constitute biblical congregating. The problem with the former objection is definitional, while the latter is more complicated. Are virtual services congregations of people? It can seem that way online sometimes, but the word “virtual” should be a dead giveaway. No one thinks video chatting with a loved one is the same as being present with them. It is better than nothing, but having a nice substitute is not the same as having the thing itself.
If the coronavirus was not an issue, would we think that virtual services were an adequate replacement for physical services? That the disembodied is comparable to the real? Of course not. Now, something being inadequate does not mean it is illegitimate, and livestreaming services for those who are prevented from attending due to the pandemic is a good practice. But it is a mistake to think that livestreaming being good is the same as it being a legitimate replacement for church. An exercise can demonstrate this well: livestreaming a service is giving people a video feed of it. If the feed were recorded and watched later, would it still be a congregation? How many people watching a recording at the same time are required for it to count as a congregation? What if the video failed, but the audio continued? Would that count as church? How long after the fact would listening to the service no longer count as congregating together? What if a transcript of the service were provided to those who wanted it? Would reading count as being assembled together? It may not feel as present as a livestream, but the reader is just as assembled together in reality as the livestream viewer. Increasing the quality of your absence does not make you present. This can be seen clearly with virtual communion contrasted with other aspects of the church’s worship, since receiving the sacrament requires the elements to be actually with you, not virtually with you. Livestreams of service are nice, but they are virtually church, not actually church.
The Administration of the Lord’s Supper
This understanding of church is necessary to answer the question of the appropriateness of virtual communion. Different groups which have authorized communion at home have taken several approaches to the practice. Some have encouraged people to have their own elements (bread, wine/grape juice) handy during the livestream, and to partake of them of them at the appropriate time. Some Anglican friends have had their priest bless the elements in advance, have parishioners come pick them up from the church before the service, and then take during the livestream.
What these practices recognize is that the Lord’s Supper is for the church and belongs to its worship. If the sacrament is really something that belong to the worship of the church, then attempting to partake of it at home even concurrent with a livestreamed service, is illegitimate and it is wrong for the church to authorize or permit this practice.
As the signs and seals of God’s covenant, the sacraments belong to the worship of the gathered church. Whether the breaking bread in Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7 refers to the Eucharist is debatable, but the context of the activity is the gathered church. In 1 Cor. 11:17-34, the context of Paul’s instructions on the Lord’s Supper is the Corinthian church coming together as the church (v. 18, 20, 34). His conclusion in v.33-34 is that eating at home is not the Lord’s Supper, but the meal shared together in the gathered the church, when administered and received properly, is. The Reformed tradition, including the Westminster Standards, confesses that the sacraments are established for the church as God’s assembled congregation (WCF 21.5, 27.1, 4; WLC 162, 164). The Belgic Confession (Article 35) puts it, “Lastly, we receive [the Lord’s Supper] in the assembly of the people of God.” It is to this visible church that Christ has given his sacraments, and the purity of the church is reflected in the propriety of the sacrament’s administration (WCF 25.3-4).
The Westminster Confession has two sections on the Lord’s Supper directly related to this. WCF 29.3 outlines how ministers are to give the elements of the Lord’s Supper to the congregation, and concludes with “…[they are] to give both [elements] to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.” This is very straightforward: no one absent from the congregation at the time of the sacrament’s administration is to receive the Lord’s Supper. The people who do receive the Lord’s Supper should be given it by the minister, which rules out giving it to yourself at home. This should be the end of discussion, and it is disappointing that this section is not addressed in Jeff’s provisional ruling on the subject.
He did reference the next relevant section, WCF 29.4, which reads, “Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone…[is] contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.” It is common to hear people interpret this as exclusively addressing the problem of 17th-century British nobility segregating themselves off from the church and paying to have private communion. That may have been the situation which prompted the inclusion of this section, but the basis of the prohibition is that isolated communion is wrong because it belongs in the church. This was the common view of the Reformed; for instance, John Calvin and the pastors of 16th-century Geneva (which did not have an aristocracy) forbid the Lord’s Supper to ever be administered privately, even for the old and sick.2 It should be noted that neither the Directory for Public Worship published by the Westminster Assembly, nor the Calvin-approved, John Knox-authored Genevan Order included instructions to administer the sacrament in their extensive guides and instructions for pastoral visitations of the sick. This may seem harsh, but scripture, not sentiment, governs the church’s worship.
Circumstances in the Westminster Confession
In Jeff’s provisional opinion he cited WCF 1.6 and said of it, “…liberty is given to work out the principle of Christian worship according to changes in circumstances. In this extraordinary circumstance, in which the church is prohibited from gathering physically to worship, the Confession grants liberty to the church in ordering its worship.” Some clarity needs to be brought to this.
WCF 1.6 says,
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
“Circumstances” does not here mean the changing situation around the church, but the ways in which the church handles its worship. The circumstances of worship are the ways in which the elements of worship are conducted, and the circumstances may be designed according to wisdom rather than explicit scriptural command as long as the biblical instructions for the elements are not contravened. Praying is an element of worship, doing it with eyes open or closed is a circumstance. Singing is an element of worship, doing it sitting down or standing up is a circumstance (“circumstances concerning the worship of God…common to human actions…ordered by the light of nature” according to the rules of scripture, which are to be always observed).3
The Lord’s Supper is an element of worship, and withholding the cup from the laity undermines the integrity of the sacrament since it strikes against scripture’s rule for its administration. The extraordinary situation in which the church now finds itself does not permit altering the proper administration of an element of worship (i.e. the Lord’s Supper). In fact, Christian liberty does not allow the church to change the practices ordained by God in order to accommodate an extreme situation (cf. WCF 20.2, 4, 21.1; WLC 93, 108-109). If the Lord’s Supper may only be administered in the worship of the church, then administering it outside the worship of the church is not a change in circumstance, but an invalid form of worship.
If “circumstance” refers to the situation of a church as Jeff suggests, then the extremity of its context has no bearing on the legitimacy of its practices, only the urgency. For instance, if a church decided to livestream of all its services, even if people also were in physical attendance, that would be its new circumstance. That’s not an extreme situation, but the logic of the provisional opinion would have no reason to deny this church from authorizing viewers to give themselves the Lord’s Supper. I suspect such practices are going to become very common in the United States in the near future.
The Constitution of the EPC and the Lord’s Supper
The EPC’s Book of Worship (BoW) states that, “The Lord’s Supper is a part of the worship of God’s people. For that reason it should be celebrated ordinarily as a part of a regular service of worship” (BoW 3-3.F). This is an affirmation that the Lord’s Supper belongs to the worship of the church, and not private individuals. It then goes on to state, “The Session may authorize the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated with those who are ill. At least one member of the Session should be present on such occasions. The Minister shall be careful to give some brief explanation of the meaning of the sacrament” (BoW 3-3.G.1).
It is this latter section that provides the constitutional basis of the provisional opinion permitting virtual communion. The physical inability of those sick is understood to be equivalent to the inability of the church at large to gather. There are several significant differences though between what the BoW states and the practice of virtual communion. The first is that the person who is ill is unable to attend the service of the church while the coronavirus is preventing the church from gathering. There is a world of difference between being unable to attend an event that is happening and not attending an event because it is cancelled. Second, the BoW does not permit an individual to administer the sacrament to themselves, but authorizes the Session to send one of its members to administer it. That is not what the practice of virtual communion entails, nor what the provisional opinion directs in its instructions. The Stated Clerk may issue provisional opinions on interpretation of the Book of Order (Book of Government 21-3.D.1), not our country’s circumstances, no matter how dire or well intended. It is unclear how using the provisions for those who are sick as the basis for permitting virtual communion is a consistent application of the BoW unless members of a church’s Session are also required to visit every livestreaming in order to administer the sacrament, which undoes the whole point of virtual communion. Third, the provisional opinion makes a significant connection between illness and physical inability to attend a service. While the underlying assumption is that a person’s illness prevents them from attending the service, the language of physical inability is nowhere used in the BoW. If physical inability to attend, rather than illness, is the basis for administering communion, and elders do not need to be present, wouldn’t a consistent hermeneutic conclude that those who are absent (e.g. traveling) may also serve themselves communion? I think so, but at this point we are far from what the BoW actually says.
The Book of Order states that no amendments may be made to it that contradict the Westminster Confession or Catechisms (Book of Government 23-1.B). How does the BoW permitting private communion with those who are ill fit that? In 2014, the EPC’s General Assembly approved a statement that the contradiction between WCF 29.4 and BoW was a “perceived one only” and affirmed the erroneous view that the Confession had the British aristocracy in sight (Minutes 34-40, page 65). The rationale provided by the theology committee was premised upon that incorrect, though common, understanding (pages 354-355). The report does not engage with WCF 29.3 (communion only for those present at church) or provide citations. Yet interestingly, the conclusion of the report held that, “A pastor, accompanied by one or more elders, on the same day that communion is offered to the local congregation, should be allowed to offer communion [to those who are sick].” The provisional opinion permitting virtual communion is not compatible with either the Westminster Confession (no private communion) or the the EPC’s interpretation of how the Confession fits with the BoW (elders must be present for private communion). Laying aside whether the 2014 GA got it right, the only way in which virtual communion is compatible with our constitution is if is given by members of the church’s Session, which defeats the whole purpose of the practice.
Do we just not have communion? Sadly, yes. In the words of Anselm, “You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin.” Sin wrecks havoc, and its consequences are terrible. Temporary loss of the sacrament is one of them, and it would be a mistake to attempt a circumvention of God’s design for worship in order to reclaim it.
Bobby Jamieson put it this way, and I can’t say it better,
“All suffering involves loss; every loss is a form of suffering. Right now, amid much other loss and suffering, Christians around the world are suffering the loss of weekly, face-to-face fellowship with one another. Compassion prompts us to mitigate that loss however we can. But we can’t erase it. And so we should learn what God would teach us through the temporary loss of these embodied, tangible, necessarily face-to-face ordinances, especially the Lord’s Supper. The house of feasting—together, on Christ, in his Supper—is closed for now. What will you learn in this providentially ordered visit to the house of mourning?
“The Lord’s Supper itself is meant not only to satisfy our hearts with Christ’s goodness, but also to stoke a desire for when we will see his face: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
“Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.”
1. An extended discussion of this subject can be found in my article Church is a Place You Go.↩
2. See Manetsch, Scott M. Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, page 278.↩
3. For more details on the definition of “circumstances” in 17th-century Puritan thought, see Muller, Richard A., and Rowland S. Ward. Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory for Public Worship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2007, pages 106-109, particularly the discussion of George Gillespie’s view on the subject.↩