Communion in the time of Covid-19
Bishop Michael L. Rhyne, Allegheny Synod, ELCA
This message addresses the issue of ‘virtual communion’. Along with this message there are links to resources on this topic. These are a message from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton; an article from Dr. Dirk Lange of the Lutheran World Federation; an article from Bishop Craig Satterlee of the Northwest Lower Michigan Synod, ELCA; and an article from members of the faculty at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.
May God’s grace and peace be with you.
We are in the time of Covid-19. Here in Pennsylvania we have been under a stay at home order from the Governor and have been unable to gather physically as the church since mid-March. Fortunately, our leaders are finding ways for us to stay connected. Our leaders are using online worship, phone calls, letters, and many other creative means to continue to share the gospel. I thank God for you, our leaders and our members, and pray that you will be strengthened by our Lord Jesus and know his presence in this time.
Because we have been unable to gather together, questions have been raised about how can we provide the Eucharist to our people. One question that has been raised, and I believe it is out of a pastoral concern for the people of God, is whether we should have communion over the internet. This has been referred to as ‘virtual communion’. The idea being that the pastor would speak the Words of Institution and the people watching from a distance would have bread and wine with them that they could then consume.
I want to first say that I am fasting from the Holy Eucharist in this time when we can not gather as the people of God. I think that is the best practice for this time. This is the recommendation our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recommended to the ELCA. Except in cases of people who are near death, I believe we should all refrain from the Eucharist until we can gather together safely as the body of Christ. I will not receive the Holy Eucharist until we all can receive the Holy Eucharist. That is unless I come close to death and receive the sacrament as part of the consolation of the dying.
We need to discern this as the Church
I am not in favor of virtual communion. I don’t believe the church has fully reflected on what it means and the ramification of this practice for our current time and for the future. I do deeply understand the desire of pastors to care for their people and I think it a good thing that people desire the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. My concern is whether it is truly a valid sacrament if offered in this way. I fully understand Jesus Christ is in all times and all places. I cannot place limits on what our Lord Jesus can accomplish and bring into being.
My concern is, and why I would counsel refraining from this practice, I know that my Lord Jesus desires us to take and eat, but I know that in the context of the gathered Body of Christ. I cannot say that I know the will of our Lord Jesus on the practice of receiving Eucharist when we are not together. Even when we share the Eucharist with those who are hospitalized and homebound the body is physically gathered. It will take time, reflection, prayer and the body of Christ communally discerning if this is something which should happen. Until that time, until we have had the opportunity to reflect as Christ’s people on whether this is a good and right use of the means of grace, I say it is not something we should be doing. I would rather continue a fast from the Holy Eucharist until we can know if this is efficacious to the people of God.
If we are gathered together and the pastor consecrates the elements, I know that Jesus Christ is fully present in the bread and in the wine. If I am home with my elements and watching something on the computer, I do not have the same certainty. When ordained the Bishop charges the newly ordained to, “Care for God’s people, bear their burdens and do not betray their confidence. So discipline yourself in life and teaching that you preserve the truth, giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.” (ELCA Rite of Ordination). In the uncertainty of this practice I am concerned that we might be offering false security or illusory hope to God’s people. I would rather be sure that I am following the command, the tradition, and the practice of the church where I know Christ is present with the Body.
The idea of ‘virtual communion’ also brings up many questions for me. To address these, I would like to share part of an article from Bishop Craig Satterlee or the Northwest Lower Michigan Synod, ELCA. Bishop Satterlee wrote a pastoral letter to his Synod on the issue of ‘virtual communion’. I have posted a link to that article with this letter. Bishop Satterlee raises, in I believe a tongue in cheek manner, what are serious concerns and unanswered questions about this practice.
“I wonder: If I set out bread and wine when I watch mass from the Vatican or from Notre Dame, can I commune with Pope Francis or with my colleagues in the Department of Theology? If my pastor presides at 10 AM and I sleep in and don’t watch the service until 1 PM in the afternoon, does it still count? I sometimes watch my sermon videos and genuinely receive the gospel from myself. Can I do that with the sacrament by virtually presiding and then watching myself later with bread and wine and commune with myself? If my pastor gets too political and preaches about immigration or gun violence or climate change, can I become a virtual member of a congregation in another part of the country that is more in line with my values? Can I virtually preside at Holy Communion from my office in Lansing to all of our congregations? That would certainly alleviate the crisis caused by the shortage of clergy. It would also be a lot less expensive.” (Craig Satterlee, ‘Holy Communion in a Time of Crisis’).
Bishop Satterlee is reminding us that there are too many unanswered questions. I agree with his assessment and would commend his full article to you. Because we don’t know, it is wiser to abstain and fast until we are able to gather physically again, and distribute the elements in a safe way. That is unless we are nearing death and receive the Eucharist as part of our preparation to meet our Lord.
Assembly of the Baptized
Another concern I have about virtual communion is as Lutherans we have a confessional understanding that the Holy Eucharist is to be celebrated in the gathering of the baptized. The members of the Trinity Seminary faculty speak well to this in their article:
"The Lutheran Confessions teach that the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated in the assembly of the baptized, and not privately or by individuals in their own homes. In this communal celebration, we do not invite Jesus to our family table. Jesus invites us to his family table to share his body and blood, which unites and strengthens the body of Christ, the church, in faith and service. Just as Christ is present in the sacrament bodily, the community gathered to receive the sacrament is best gathered bodily." (Kleinhans, Peterson, Schroeder, ‘Concerning Online Communion’)
Martin Luther was very much against the practice of the private mass and repeatedly called people to celebrate the Eucharist in community with the gathered Body of Christ. Can one argue that in a virtual meeting the Body of Christ is gathered? Yes, I believe one could. As we have said earlier, we cannot limit our Lord’s ability to gather us. However, we are missing a major gift of the Eucharistic celebration if we choose to commune apart from the gathered body of Christ—that is the incarnate manifestation of Christ both in the consecrated elements and in the Body of Christ that is found in our siblings who sit on our left and right in the gathering.
The Eucharist is more than the meal. It is the celebration that Christ Jesus has called us into this community and made us part of himself. I learned in seminary that Saint Augustine would offer the invitation to the table by saying to the congregation, “Come receive that which you are.” Augustine recognized the gathered community of believers as an essential part of the Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist is not about ‘me and Jesus.’ It is about Jesus doing what God always does, caring for and feeding his people, and being in the midst of us together.
One could argue that this is an extreme situation in which the Body is gathering though we are dispersed. This argument takes us back to my earlier point: there are too many unknowns and much work to be done in discernment as the Body of Christ. I know that Christ comes to us when we gather as God’s people together and in community in the place we choose to gather. Whether that is in the church building or whether we take the Eucharist to someone who is homebound. Because of this, I encourage us to refrain from receiving the Eucharist until we are able to gather together again.
I also know that when I gather with my pastor and they preside at the table our Lord Jesus shows up in body and blood. There gathered among us Christ is physically present. A colleague likes to say that in the Holy Eucharist we have a guaranteed physical encounter with the Lord who made heaven and earth. There in those elements, consecrated by that pastor among God’s people I know that Christ is present. The pastor has been called by God, set apart, and ordained for this particular ministry. I know when our pastor’s celebrate the Holy Eucharist among God’s people that Jesus is there. I would lean on waiting until I can be certain of the presence of our Lord. I am not certain what happens in a ‘virtual communion’
We know waiting
Weekly communion was not a prevalent practice for many of the congregations of the Allegheny Synod in the past. We rejoice that in the past few decades we have gotten to the place where congregations receive the Eucharist weekly. That is a blessing.
It was not too long ago that many of our congregations would receive Eucharist monthly or quarterly. Many of our members probably can recall that time. It is not ideal at all. I wish we could gather and celebrate together, but we know that would be dangerous to our most vulnerable members. Also, if one of us were a carrier, we could unwittingly infect numerous people in the church, or beyond the church.
This is not the first time we have had to wait. Our Lord will see us through.
You probably know that I lean toward more traditional practice when it comes to the liturgy and worship. I am not one for Eucharistic innovation. I am discerning what God is saying to the church at this time. I am in conversations with colleagues, other Bishops, seminary faculty around this subject. Different groups have differing opinions and thoughts on this matter. I am trying to listen and hear where God is leading us and what Jesus is telling us. I ask you to join me in praying about this issue.
At this time, I recommend not instituting ‘virtual communion’. I believe there are too many unanswered questions and I will stand on the practice which I know and has been handed down through the church for thousands of years. I will follow the counsel of our Presiding Bishop and the precedent of the Church until we are able to gather as the Body of Christ, I will fast from the Eucharist. I appreciate your continued prayers as we discern the way forward together.
Bishop Michael L. Rhyne
Message from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
Lutheran World Federation ‘Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic” Dr. Dirk Lange
‘Holy Communion in a Time of Crisis’ Bishop Craig Alan Satterlee, PhD
‘Concerning Online Communion’ Dr. Kathryn “Kit” Kleinhans, Dr. Cheryl Peterson, and Dr. Joy Schroeder (Members of Trinity Lutheran Seminary Faculty)