Online Holy Communion

Mar 21, 2023

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

During the pandemic, I did not weigh in much on the practice of online Holy Communion. We were clearly in an emergency situation. I recall saying, “I trust you to make pastoral decisions according to the spiritual needs of your people,” or something to that effect. I stand by that. The old saw about two people stranded on a desert island, and one needs to be baptized, is fitting. In emergency situations, you make do with what you have.

Now the emergency has passed. What did we learn? What do we keep? What do we jettison? At our most recent meeting, the Conference of Bishops had an extended conversation on this. We discussed questions at tables, then moved to new tables for new questions, and then a third and final round. I found this a helpful way to discuss the issue(s) thoughtfully and get everything on the table.

It is not my intention to replicate those conversations here. I’d like to share the questions and invite you to discuss them in your conferences (and perhaps your council or worship committee). Then I’ll share my own evolving thoughts on the matter.

First the questions:

  • What are you wrestling with regarding Holy Communion in online situations?
  • Is it possible to truly have online-only sacramental communities?
  • What are we missing when we do not have online communion?
  • If online Holy Communion is practiced,
    • What guidelines would you require?
    • What guidelines would you accept?
    • What practices would you exclude?

Personally, I found the clamoring for online communion both touching and curious. It felt less than the experience of taking it communally. Consequently, Susan and I only did it once. Others found it meaningful. Some bishops had strong views for and against. Some had theological questions about whether this practice met the criteria set out in the Lutheran Confessions. One said it was like a placebo, leading people to think they were getting communion when it really fell short of a full eucharist.

Whatever you think of these opinions, I found it instructive to hear the differing views. I heard people affirm that online community is community, but a specific kind of community. When I am out of town, I have phone conversations with my wife. It’s good, and a kind of communion with my wife, but it is not the fullness of our communion. No hug, no kiss, no touch. Even a Zoom call lacks so much. Online worship and online communion feel like this for me. In a pandemic, we had no choice. Now we do. What does this suggest about our practice moving forward?

I love the fact that those who are out of town can watch church online. I myself love watching church at the congregation where my wife and I have our membership. Sometimes I’ll just listen in the car. Other times I’ll listen around to other congregations in our synod. I admit, it helps me feel more in touch. Often, they don’t know I’m there, especially if I’m listening to a recording from the day before, so it doesn’t connect us fully, just in part. If it was the only way I ever worshipped, I’d be losing a lot.

I also love the fact that homebound people (who also have no choice) can watch worship online. This makes them feel connected to a community where their faith has been fed over the years. I also wonder if watching online would mean as much if there had not been those previous years of in-person experience. Also, I wonder if this is all we want for our homebound people. Some homebound people who live alone go weeks without physical human contact. Wouldn’t we really rather have visitors coming with hugs, goodies, laughter, help changing a lightbulb, and caring conversation? Don’t we want people who remember their birthdays, offer rides, and give them communion in person? Is digital community enough? Is it the fullness of community?

And if we offer this, as many do, are we leading people to believe this is all there is? Will people watch a ritual on TV where others are in the room, drink their juice and eat their cracker, and think this is what Christianity is? Are we leading them astray?

These are the questions for us to discuss in conferences, councils, and worship committees. I don’t propose a debate. As bishops, we didn’t argue. We went around the circle and shared our own opinions, then listened thoughtfully to others, even if we didn’t fully agree with everything they said. We didn’t interrupt or critique. In this community of moral deliberation, I learned things, and even felt comfortable having my ideas tested and questioned.

I’m not proposing we ditch online worship. By no means. I like it. I also don’t mind watching communion, although it’s pretty boring watching other people line up and take communion for ten minutes unless the music is good. When the pastor says, “If you’re worshipping from home, go get some things from your kitchen and join us,” I squirm. Is this a sacred meal? I imagine Americans going to their kitchens, then eating milk and cookies while staring at the tube and imagining this is the eucharist. Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Some may think me an old fuddy duddy. Perhaps I am.

After watching communion, they could watch people having fellowship in the fellowship hall. Is that fellowship, or watching others have fellowship? Would it not be preferable to have people come and visit them so they could have actual fellowship with hugs and touch in their home? They could watch a group building a Habitat House and another group serving a meal at a local shelter. Is that the experience or watching the experience? Is it serving or watching others serving?

Is Christ present in these homes? You bet. Christ was present even before they wandered to the kitchen for “stuff.” Christ was present in the Word proclaimed. No question. Even if some feel online communion is acceptable, I would hope we could agree it is not optimal. We would hope for physical, incarnational, human community.

You are welcome to disagree. Let’s talk and share. Email me your thoughts. Talk together in your community. This is simply where I have landed post-pandemic. We did what we had to do during the pandemic. What now? I’d like people to have an opportunity to experience the fullness of the incarnational beloved community. I see online worship as a portal to that, an invitation, an opportunity to peek in, a reflection, as though seeing through a mirror dimly.

If we livestream worship (and I hope we do), after the Lord’s Prayer, instead of inviting people to take juice they bought themselves, what if we invited them to come and join us in person, where they can receive bread and wine given to them by another? Invite them so they can experience a place where they will hear the word, receive the sacrament, rub shoulders, pass the peace, dip their hands in the font, meet new friends, connect their family, find opportunities to serve, and more. Invite those out of town to find a congregation near them.

If they want to participate from home, they can. They will. Nothing is stopping them. But let’s invite them to something more.