Is it OK to have Holy Communion online?

By Rev Dr Sally Douglas

Something strange happened when we gathered – via Zoom – for worship on Easter Day. We prayed together. We read sacred text together. We sang falteringly, across the wi-fi connection together and we explored what following the risen, crucified One in our own lives might look like. None of this was strange.

However, in the worship, as I named that we would normally be gathering around the table to be fed by Holy One – Sacred Three on Easter Day, as I looked at my screen and saw the faces of the faithful people I serve, as I spoke about how we stood with others who cannot gather at Jesus’s table right now – without warning – I started to cry.

Tears sprang up and gushed over as I named this absence and reflected that by not sharing in Holy Communion we stood in solidarity with all those in our global village who are experiencing hunger: hunger for food, for connection, for loved ones, for spiritual nourishment and for the presence of God

I am not embarrassed about crying. Tears are an important way of naming deep truth sometimes. I was surprised by my tears though. Yet, as I looked around, I saw that I was not alone in crying. Many of us wept as we named the presence of this absence. We held the grief and we folded these tears together in our prayers of intercession for our beautiful, broken world.

Holy Communion is a thorny issue right now for the world-wide church. Unsurprisingly, various denominations have responded in contrasting ways to the lockdown imposed by COVID-19. Within our own tradition, I know some colleagues are vehemently opposed to the idea of having Holy Communion online, while other colleagues find little issue with this idea, and will already have offered virtual Holy Communion. The Assembly has advised that both views are valid.

At present, I sit uncomfortably with the idea of offering Holy Communion online. For me this has to do with what we understand to be occurring in this sacred feast, what the role of the minister is, what the role of being gathered together in person is about and what it means to be nourished by Jesus, the bread of life.

These are huge issues that need time and space to be wrestled with. I am also aware that my views may change – particularly if lockdown for worshipping communities drags on for months and months, but this is where I stand for now.

Amidst this personal wrestling, and within the presence of this absence, new practices and ideas have emerged for me as well. Not being able to worship in person together physically has prompted me to think deeply about theology and presence and how we practice our faith in our homes.

First, in response to the needs of our own young family (because I was not convinced that my children would experience worship-as-encounter by watching me or listening to me on a device) I wrote some simple, participatory liturgies that can be used meaningfully with young and old.

The first was for Easter Day called Come and have Breakfast, another is called a Table Liturgy for the Easter Season. These liturgies for worshipping at home include space for everyone to pray and engage with bible readings in listening, reflecting and questioning over a shared meal.

This simple worship does not pretend to include Holy Communion. So far, these have been grounded in John’s Gospel in which no Eucharist is recorded. Yet, I am realising in the practice of experiencing this kind of worship week by week at home with my own family, how we are nourished by the Source of all in a breadth of ways. I am also realising how much we lost in the Christian tradition when worship moved from being shared over messy meals in homes (see 1 Corinthians 11.18-22 to glimpse how chaotic it could be), to being conducted in big buildings and led by only a few.

While we may all make different decisions about Holy Communion in lockdown, I wonder what might happen in our own faith lives if we participate in worship over meals – in our homes – as an ongoing practice?

I wonder what might happen for us personally, and for children, and for old people, and for everyone in between, when we get to sit next to one another and hear one another pray, as we all ask our questions of sacred text and ponder meaning together?

I wonder what might change if we regularly draw close to the mystery of the crucified and risen One bringing our praise and our tears to the table?

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