By Hannah Bowman
The suspension of public worship during the coronavirus crisis has forced churches, especially Protestant churches with a high view of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, into a difficult conversation about so-called “virtual” or “remote Communion.” As physical distancing requirements for public safety have led parishes and churches to suddenly and wholly translate their entire community life online — whether through videoconferencing, live streaming, pre-recorded videos, or other means — lay people who still desire to receive Communion are wondering about the possibility of celebrating Eucharist at a distance, as each person or family communicates in their own home with elements consecrated by a priest through some digitally-mediated means.
So far the arguments have trod familiar lines: on one side, those who prioritize the need of scared, isolated people to share in the Lord’s Supper at this time, in whatever irregular form; on the other side, those concerned that such a novel and virtual practice undermines the sacramentality of the act of Communion.
But the question is not just one of pastoral concern, nor of preserving the integrity or dignity of the sacrament. Rather, this is a question of discerning the body (1 Cor. 11:29): both the presence of Christ in the material, consecrated elements, and the nature of the gathered community.
My purpose here is not to argue for a practice of virtual Communion on the basis of exigent necessity. Rather, it is to encourage us to use this time of separation and emergency to better discern the body: to provoke us to better and bolder theological reasoning, and a more scandalous proclamation of Christ crucified.
Properly discerning the body in this situation means, first, that we not treat the question of virtual Communion as making allowances for some kind of “substandard” Communion because of the emergency. What if, instead, this crisis of separation — a crisis in which community is fractured by distance yet still united by communication — in a way, made newly possible by modern technology — is an opportunity for new ways of discerning the body of Christ, and for new theological reflection on the nature of that body, with relevance to our ongoing liturgical practice even once the crisis is past?
Fr. Matthew Olver, in his excellent pieces on the pastoral questions of worship during this pandemic, raises two arguments against virtual Communion that are worth addressing directly: one from the rubrics, and one on the basis of materiality.
On the question of rubrics, he is certainly correct: the current rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer do not allow for virtual Communion. But, as he notes himself, neither do they allow for offering the sacrament to the laity in one kind only! If the rubrics concerning the chalice can be altered given the current crisis, then rubrics are not the primary barrier to allowing some form of virtually-mediated Communion.
The more salient issue is that of materiality: what does it mean that the sacrament is a “material act between persons”? For priests to celebrate the Eucharist in private while laypeople make a “Spiritual Communion” may respect the materiality of the act of consecration, but only at the expense of disallowing the materiality of the act of Communion to most people. What would be gained and what might be lost if instead we understood Christ to become really present for the dispersed congregation through the broken and dispersed bread and wine they themselves bring?
The materiality of the Eucharist does not mean only that it is a concrete encounter between persons: for the sacrament to be a “material act” forces the question of what the nature of the material in the Eucharist is. Tradition and the words of institution provide an answer: the material nature of the consecrated bread and wine in Communion is that of the body and blood of Christ. The character of the Eucharist is Christ’s broken body and shed blood.
Reframed in this way, the question raised by virtual Communion is: what would a practice of virtual Communion show us about the nature of Christ’s real presence in the consecrated elements? And properly discerning the body, following St. Paul, suggests that we can only answer that question by considering it in dialogue with what the current situation of dispersion in our communities teaches us about the nature and character of the body of Christ that is the Church.
In this time, we are seeing our communities growing more deeply in prayer and connection, while at the same time grieving their physical separation. The ability to pray through mediated means lets us grow closer in unity, while also making present the insurmountable distance between us, the physical breach in our communities.
This unity-in-distance is precisely the situation of Jesus on the cross, as Jürgen Moltmann describes it in The Crucified God: “In the cross, Father and Son are most deeply separated in forsakenness and at the same time are most inwardly one in their surrender. What proceeds from this event between Father and Son is the Spirit which justifies the godless, fills the forsaken with love and even brings the dead alive, since even the fact that they are dead cannot exclude them from this event of the cross; the death in God also includes them.”
In other words, the inherent separation in our virtual gatherings points the Church back to the crucified Christ — and this aspect of the character of Christ is precisely what is made present in the Eucharist. Every Eucharist is a remembering and making present of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; it is Jesus on the cross whose body and blood we share.
This is not to suggest that Jesus’s own person or natures are somehow divided on the cross or in the Eucharist — but instead to identify Jesus as the Son who is characterized, on the cross and thus also eternally, by isolation and forsakenness. It is the forsaken Christ who lends his character of forsakenness to his presence in the Eucharist. Perhaps Communion in a virtual community can help us see the abandonment on the cross made more clearly visible in the sacrament.
I cannot help feeling that the arguments against virtual Communion arose in part from a sense that it is merely memorialist and that belief in the real presence precludes such a practice.
But the real presence that we believe is made present in the consecrated host is in fact the presence of Christ crucified. Jesus’ body that we discern in the Eucharistic elements is his broken body. His presence is not only the glorious presence of the Risen Christ but also the presence of the Son at the moment of his abandonment and forsakenness by the Father (and yet simultaneously the moment of their greatest unity of will).
If this unity-in-separation is already made evident in the virtually-gathered congregation, how much more so in a material practice that makes that separation and isolation visible as well, as each one brings their own gifts, at a distance, and understands them to be made truly, at a distance, Christ’s body and blood? To proclaim that “we are one body because we share one bread, one cup” as we raise separate breads is a proclamation of precisely this unity-in-separation that is the life of the Trinity at the cross. A virtual Eucharist presents the body of Christ in the full scandal of its abandonment.
This visible reality has something to teach us even after the pandemic. Seen rightly, the visible scandal of the cross at the center of every Eucharist can and should be carried back into our Eucharists even once we are able to gather again in person.
The lesson we can learn from discerning the body in this time of virtual community is that Christian community does not flow from the altar, where Jesus is made present, but rather starts at the margins. This time of physical separation for all of us should remind us, going forward, of those isolated by illness and alone, of those in prisons and jails, and perhaps especially of those in solitary confinement, with no access to a material encounter with others! The lesson of virtual Communion is that Jesus is already present in them (regardless of whether they have bread and wine to bring) to the same extent as he is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist (Matt. 25:40). This is not to reduce our understanding of the reality of Jesus’s presence in the sacrament, but to enrich it.
Our eucharistic community, rather than streaming out from the churches to the sick, lonely, and imprisoned, begins with them, and includes us only insofar as it connects them. Such a view teaches us something else relevant to this time of pandemic: to be suspicious of live streaming alone as the primary model for our worship. Our liturgical planning should begin from an understanding of the dispersion of our communities as a gift, as we, the body of Christ, are broken, just as Jesus’s body was on the cross.
A model that streams out primarily from a center fails to recognize the key lesson of “social distancing” for the church: that Jesus’ presence comes to us from the most marginalized first. This suggests to me that we should prioritize interactive models of worship in community, including videoconferencing, where possible. But in this time when live-streaming is necessary as the most accessible way to reach out to the divided worshiping community, adding a (carefully catechized) practice of virtual Communion to such live streams would provide another way to recognize the presence of the crucified Christ to each of us in our isolation and to build community from the “outside in,” even under the technological constraints of centralized live streams that are necessary at the present moment. And while I would not expect virtual Communion to remain a normal part of our liturgical practice once this crisis is past, we should consider its ongoing relevance to those who are prevented by circumstance from gathering with the church in person or even from receiving communion from visiting ministers, such as those in solitary confinement. Their experiences should always remain at the center of our understanding of who we are as the community of the Church.
We should not engage in a practice of virtual Communion hastily, from an emotional desire for connection during a time of crisis. We should embark on such a practice only if we are prepared to let it reshape how we understand sacrament and community, and to teach throughout the church the scandalous proclamation of the cross that it provides.
But that is not reason to avoid such a practice or to be afraid of it. What if we dare, in this crisis, to take the opportunity to discern the body in a new way, and to take the risk of proclaiming in this new way the broken body of Christ? Rightly understood, virtual Communion might be a faithful facing of the challenge posed to the church in this time, and a powerful way to rededicate ourselves to being the dispersed body of the crucified God.
Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).