Online Communion amid Pandemic? A Theological and Political Reflection
The time is coming when people will no longer worship the Father on Gerizim or in Jerusalem, but online? The current pandemic has brutally upheaved our lives and exposed the vulnerability of our healthcare system. It also exposes the flexibility or inflexibility of the church and its theology. In a pandemic, digitalizing Sunday worship service is inevitable. Perhaps this is not so disputable. In my own context (Hong Kong), which was stricken by the novel coronavirus already in January, the Christian community has been reflecting on this sudden digitalization of the church. There have been some cross-denominational debates concerning online communion. It seems that the pandemic has sparked interest among many Christians in their all too familiar ritual.
Is online communion permissible? A more fundamental question is whether a tradition believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran denominations (in general) believe that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the Eucharistic elements. For the former, when the elements are consecrated, the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. For the latter, such a change does not occur but Christ is present in, with, under the bread and wine, because Christ said so. In these two traditions, the consecration of elements is vital. What the believer ingests must be consecrated.
For traditions which do not believe in a physical presence of Christ in the elements, such as Reformed, Baptist, and non-denominational churches in general, there is no consecration. What is emphasized is often the work of the Holy Spirit, who works directly in human hearts. For the Reformed tradition, the Holy Spirit lifts the hearts of the faithful believer to have communion with Christ. For Baptist and non-denominational churches, the bread and wine are symbols that represent Christ’s body and blood. The congregation partakes of the elements in remembrance of him. While words said by the presider are important, they do not do anything to the elements. The elements remain symbols. The believer receives Christ by faith.
Even such a brief, over-condensed summary of different traditions unveils one point: the belief of a real presence of Christ is never just about Christ’s presence in the elements. It structurally determines the role of the clergy. And this makes all the difference.
If a tradition believes in Christ’s real presence in the elements, only consecrated elements are held as true elements of communion. In turn, because only ordained clergy are bestowed the power and authority to consecrate the elements, only elements consecrated by the clergy are accepted as true communion. In traditions that believe in real presence, online communion is thus not possible. The congregation must receive the body and blood of Christ only from the hands of clergy. At most, the lay Catholic believer can only watch an online mass, but cannot participate in the communion itself. The Roman Catholic tradition calls this spiritual communion, in which a believer who cannot participate in actual communion nevertheless prays and cultivates his/her desire for communion.
On the other hand, for traditions in which Eucharistic elements are not consecrated, and which believe that, in communion, the congregation proclaims and remembers Christ, online communion is not impossible. Church members can prepare their own elements to be ready at home, then the pastor and congregators partake of their own elements together through a live streaming platform. Because the primary action is to proclaim and remember Christ, there is nothing that prevents such proclamation and remembrance. And because it is the Holy Spirit who gives grace, the separation in space can certainly be overcome (as a matter of fact technology overcomes this too).
As liberation theologians such as Claudio Carvalhaes and Juan Luis Segundo have noted, the question of communion is never just a theological question—it is always at the same time a political question. I cannot help but notice how the current pandemic exposes how democratic or undemocratic a certain theological tradition is.
The dispute over online communion hinges on whether a tradition thinks that the lay congregation can practice communion and receive Christ only through the hands of clergy (or those appointed by clergy). While this might not be the intention, the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist necessitates that a certain class — the clergy — be granted special access to the body and blood of Christ. Because the Eucharist is seen as a means of grace, the ordinary folks—the lay congregation — in turn can only receive grace through this privileged class. When access to clergy is precluded because of a disease outbreak, the lay person’s access to Christ’s body and blood will also be precluded.
The privilege of clergy is manifest in the very architecture of high churches: the lay congregation is typically separated from the altar at a great distance, and often there is an altar rail that demarcates the altar from them, indeed designed for the lay people to kneel there to receive grace from the hands of clergy. The lay person simply does not have their own voice in the liturgy, except to repeat the “official” prayer. The Latin Mass implies that lay people do not even have to understand what’s going on.
The question of online communion exposes the politics of a Eucharistic theology. A similar analysis applies to the Catholic sacrament of confession. When social distancing precludes Catholics from going to confession, a crisis arises unless clergy offers online or drive-thru confession. The crisis exposes how sacramental theology can force the lay person’s conscience to rely heavily on an elite class.
The 16th-century reformation of the Eucharist was in fact a relocation of power. To locate power in the Holy Spirit is to dislocate power from the hierarchical ecclesial structure. At the same time, it is power to the people. The Holy Spirit is equally present to all. There is no privileged access to God’s grace.
As some Hong Kong pastors reflect, the contexts of epidemic and increasing persecution call for a rethinking of church existence and a de-centralization of authority in the church. The lay believer must be mobilized, indeed authorized, to witness God in his/her own context. Church members’ witness is the church’s witness, especially in a time of tribulation. The focus is the efficacy of the people, not of the sacrament. Allowing online communion in the midst of a pandemic speaks exactly that.
No doubt, as many in the debate have pointed out, physical fellowship is important. The question of online communion exposes yet another common problem in our familiar communion: individualism. Individuals typically reflects on himself/herself and partakes of his/her elements, with minimal interpersonal interaction. Now that physical communion is not feasible, we start worrying about its communal aspect. Indeed communion should never be an individual affair but always about a community partaking of Christ together and being called to be members of Christ. Nevertheless, online communion does not necessarily imply individualism. Precisely technology facilitates fellowship during a pandemic. The pastor and congregation still partake together on the live streaming platform, only now technology has overcome spatial restrictions. Now some who would otherwise not attend or is unable to attend church services can also participate at home. I myself was able to participate in my HK home church’s communion while living in US for the very first time because of the pandemic.
Back to Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman’s question about the rightful place of worship. Biblical scholar Ming Him Ko, upon reflecting on the recent digitalization of the church, noted that when Jesus was saying that the time has come when one must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:21–23), “spirit” specifically denotes the Holy Spirit. The time has come, therefore, and it is now, that one worships God through the Holy Spirit, and not having to be restricted by a location or institution.
Online communion does not simply speak of a technological adjustment. The church must be alive and always alert to the needs of the broken world. When there is a new crisis, the church is called to be creative. The church institution and its traditions are to serve the local community, not the other way round.