By Justus Hunter
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered United Methodist Churches throughout much of the United States. Over the past week Methodist pastors have made many difficult decisions. More are still to come.
Immediately following the decision of most churches to cancel worship services for at least a few weeks, United Methodists began inquiring whether and how they might celebrate online communion. To this point, the practice has been rejected by United Methodists. In 2013, a gathering called for a moratorium for further study. Subsequent investigation led to an extension of the moratorium in 2014. By 2015, official United Methodist outlets were explicitly prohibiting the practice.
Over the past week, bishops and their cabinets have offered guidance, in many cases permitting the practice, thereby breaking the moratorium. In a striking case, Bishop Ruben Saenz of the Great Plains Conference has begun actively promoting the practice, according to Cynthia Wilson, Derek Weber, and Diana Sanchez-Bushong of Discipleship Ministries. Bishop Saenz went so far as to host an online communion service on March 23 to equip clergy for presiding over online communion. Most recently, the bishops of the Western Jurisdiction lifted the moratorium throughout their Jurisdiction. They also grant clergy license to mail consecrated elements to their parishioners.
Such actions have left some United Methodists emboldened, others scandalized, and most simply confused.
As bishops have struggled to respond to mounting requests for online communion, many have turned to the “West Ohio Conference Guidelines for Online Communion.” The guidelines derive from a West Ohio Cabinet vote on March 19, 2020. Subsequent to their publication, several United Methodist bishops appealed to the West Ohio Guidelines’ principle of “in extremis” as justification for the lifting of the moratorium on online communion. On March 21, the Louisiana conference issued approval using the same principle of in extremis and linking to the West Ohio Guidelines. On March 23, Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Annual Conference granted approval for the practice, deferring to the West Ohio Guidelines, and instructed his Cabinet to “use the language of ‘in extremis’ and the provisional and interim nature of this authorization” in an email that was subsequently circulated among Florida clergy and beyond.
Where did we get this language of in extremis?
In no case will you find the term in extremis in our Book of Discipline, our landmark document on the Eucharist, This Holy Mystery, nor, so far as I can tell, in any official United Methodist document on the sacraments. Neither will you find it in Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, the document which shaped This Holy Mystery and grounds the ecumenical commitments which shape contemporary Methodist eucharistic practice.
So where did the West Ohio Guidelines get the language? The guidelines cite an article from lay Anglican theologian and poet Nicola Slee, professor at The Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham, England. The article, titled “Theological Reflection in extremis: Remembering Srebrenica,” and published last April in the academic journal Practical Theology, at no point addresses the issue of online communion. In fact, you will find no mention of communion or the Eucharist whatsoever in the article. The article is an “autoethnographic theological reflection,” that is, a series of reflections on an experience Slee had while visiting Srebrenika, Bosnia. Major portions of the article are comprised of poetic reflections on her experience.
To say this article offers little guidance on the topic of online communion is an understatement. Not only that, but it has no connection to the United Methodist Church.
The prepositional phrase in extremis, when used by sacramental theologians, has a specific referent. It does not refer to extenuating circumstances, tout court, but more specifically refers to the occasion of impending death, when one approaches the extremity, or end, of life. One will encounter the phrase, among Roman Catholics for instance, in discussions on the proper administration of the sacrament of baptism or the Eucharist to the dying. According to Rome, it is permissible for a layperson to perform a baptism or administer the Eucharist as a Viaticum (that is, as the last sacrament of a Christian), but only in extraordinary circumstances when administration by a priest is not possible. And, importantly, the Christian tradition which utilizes this language, Roman Catholicism, has resolutely rejected the practice of online communion.
More relevant to reflection on extraordinary sacramental practices is an instance described by the Rev. Dr. Todd Anderson, superintendent of the Ohio River Valley District of the West Ohio Conference. Anderson recalls his experience of baptizing a dying child whose parents were Roman Catholic in the hospital as in extremis. This is a fitting use of the term, though it cannot be considered warrant for online communion. Anderson also recalls a time when he presided over the Eucharist while a member was on a respirator and could not partake, thus no one partook of the elements. The incident is worthy of further reflection, but whatever one makes of it, it is hard to see it as warrant for online communion. Unusual perhaps, but one licit extraordinary practice is not grounds for any extraordinary practice.
The West Ohio Guidelines and the appeal to in extremis extend episcopal authority beyond our doctrine.
Another statement moves in the opposite direction. Bishop Paul Leeland cites relevant portions of Article VII of the United Methodist Confession of Faith as warrant for the practice. This reading, rather than speculating beyond our doctrine, seems to offer a reductive interpretation of UM sacramental teaching.
Article VII of the Confession of Faith must be read alongside the longer, and more precise Articles XVI-XX of the Articles of Religion. Articles XVI-XX, on the sacraments, are carefully constructed Articles which, in imitation of Articles XXV, XXVII-XXVIII, XXX-XXXI of the Anglican Articles of Religion, lay out the Anglican view of the Eucharist shared by Methodists. In both cases, the doctrine set out seeks to articulate a position between that of mere memorials and transubstantiation. It does so by affirming that the Body is eaten, but in a spiritual manner. Methodists have described this account, as in This Holy Mystery, as real presence.
Ecclesial positions on the Eucharist are variously ramified. That is, while one tradition only affirms one assertion – that the bread and wine are memorials – the others also affirm this belief, but then proceed to say more. Lutherans, for instance, say that the bread and wine are memorials, but also that Christ is really present, and furthermore that the manner in which Christ is present is with the substance of bread and wine. Rome agrees on the first two points, but further claims that the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (transubstantiation). Everyone agrees that the Eucharist is a memorial.
The Anglican, and therefore Methodist position, seeks to moderate the Lutheran and Catholic positions while remaining firmly in camp with those who hold to Christ’s presence. It does so by saying that the bread and wine are memorials, but also that Christ is really present, such that the body is actually given, taken, and eaten, and the bread we break is a partaking in the body of Christ. This point is less explicit in Article VII of the Confession of Faith, but unmistakable when read in tandem with the Articles of Religion, and made even more explicit in This Holy Mystery.
To read the Confession of Faith restrictively as warrant for online communion is to read it in a memorialist fashion. It overlooks the significant hurdle presented by the Methodist commitment to Christ’s real presence. That hurdle is the very one which prevents our colleagues in the Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions from celebrating online communion. And it is the one that will, if ignored, cripple our relations with those communities of faith.
The United Methodist Church had an extensive and focused discussion on the practice of online communion in 2013, followed by further study, the results of which led to the current moratorium. The consistent advice of our leading sacramental theologians and ecumenists has been to avoid the practice. Even now, they continue to advise against it. Discipleship Resources suggests clergy use the Love Feast instead. The Order of Saint Luke has offered “A Liturgy for When We Cannot Meet.”
Without substantial warrant for episcopal authorization of online communion against current precedent, the preferred option is to abide the moratorium. Many have already written helpful suggestions for alternative practices. We should also look around to our ecumenical partners, particularly those with whom our understanding of the sacraments is most closely aligned. What are Lutherans saying? Episcopalians and other Anglicans? And, yes, even Roman Catholics? We can offer much to those who long for their union with Christ. He has showered us with abundant means of grace. Let us follow Wesley’s advice, and wait in them, until that day when, once again, we gather around the table.
Justus H. Hunter is assistant professor of church history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH. He is the author of If Adam Had Not Sinned (CUA). Follow him on Twitter @JustusHunter
Update: Last night (3/26/2020) Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference upheld the current moratorium, declaring “it is not permitted to administer communion virtually,” and recommending clergy offer the Love Feast as an alternative.