Can we celebrate an online Eucharist? A Baptist response 1: A positive argument

I am resurrecting, probably briefly, this blog to post my considered views on whether we can celebrate communion in these difficult circumstances. I want to offer a specifically Baptist response, because I think that this question does turn, finally, on the details of our ecclesiology. This will be in two or three parts: a positive argument in this post; some responses to possible objections in a second; and, I hope, in the near future, some reflections on how this coheres with Baptist ecclesiology.

For us Baptists, I think that there are two possible ways of asserting that an online/scattered Eucharist is possible: one is obvious but bad, and one less obvious but better; both are completely dependent on distinctives of Baptist ecclesiology.

The first is the suggestion that we can have many household communions at the same time; the second the idea that we might celebrate one communion, even if we are in separate homes as we do.

For the first: as Baptists, we have never believed that we need an ordained minister to celebrate communion; the elders/minister(s) have oversight of the spiritual life of the church, and so should always be involved in decisions about celebrating communion together, but under that oversight there is no reason why we should not follow the pattern of the church in Acts, ‘breaking bread at home’ (Acts 2:46)—even, perhaps particularly, when we cannot ‘spend much time together in the Temple’ as they also did in that verse.

This is a good argument for home groups occasionally celebrating communion together; in our current situation, it is easy to imagine using a similar argument to suggest that, on a given Sunday morning, every household in the church might celebrate communion together at the same time. I see two problems with this, however:

  1. In virtually all of our churches, some people will be alone: either living alone, or the only believer in their household. With other Protestant churches, we have historically been very unhappy about private celebrations of the Eucharist.
  2. if we all break bread at home, with a celebrant leading us on a screen, is there any sense in which we are ‘meeting’ around the Lord’s Table ‘together’, and not just having lots of little celebrations of communion at the same time?

Obviously, if we can answer the second question positively, the first question stops being a problem: what is happening is in some sense a shared communion for the whole church, not a set of private communions. There are two apparent problems with the second question, but I will argue that they are only apparent, and in fact merely invite us to extend practices which we have been happy with in the past:

1. The ‘screening’ of the celebrant: can a communion actually be celebrated with the celebrant on a screen? In many of our churches, we actually do this already. During the communion service, there are video links to the creche, or to an overflow hall—in my own church, where we meet in an upstairs room on a Sunday evening, we screen the service to a ground floor room for those unable to manage the stairs.

Now, clearly this is not the same as us all being in our living rooms at home, but it is not clear how it is qualitatively different—we do not imagine some magical aura emanating from the celebrant which fades after travelling 50 yards, nor as Baptists do we have any idea of the church building as sacred space in which things happen that cannot happen elsewhere. As I will argue below, God is at work by His Holy Spirit as we meet around the Lord’s Table, and the Holy Spirit is not limited by location or distance.

So most of our churches are apparently happy, given their current practice, that ‘screened’ participation in a service is adequate for receiving communion as part of that service, and it is not hard for us as Baptists to defend this theologically.

2. We speak of ‘being one body,’ because we ‘share in one loaf’, and ‘one cup’ (echoing Paul in 1 Corinthians); if we all have our own elements to receive at home, in what sense are we being faithful to this Scripture, and to our repetition of it in our liturgy?

We have to be honest here: most of our churches do not ‘share in one cup’, at least—we typically use lots of individual ones. Again, in my church we often have a second, gluten-free, loaf—and we take care not to keep it away from the main loaf, for obvious reasons—so we are already stretching the ‘one loaf/one cup’ language seriously. Admittedly, when we celebrate, the elements are together on the table as we begin the celebration, but even that is not always the case. Many of us will have been at large celebrations (for UK Baptists like me: the Baptist Assembly, Spring Harvest, New Wine, …) where bread and wine is already scattered around the hall/tent as we begin worship, to be distributed by stewards after the celebrant has led the consecration, and we happily receive in these contexts.

What is different between such a context and the idea of us all having our own elements at home? I cannot see any theological argument for any difference: either there is some need for the celebrant (or an altar?) to touch each portion of the elements, or the work is the Holy Spirit’s, and is therefore necessarily in no way spatially confined.

So, neither the screen nor the separated elements seem to be a problem for us in other contexts; there might be an argument that they become a problem when they come together, but I can’t imagine how it goes, so—unless someone else can—I think that we can say if the way we have celebrated communion in our churches in recent years is OK, then celebrating communion in our present virtual gatherings is also OK.

Is the way we have been celebrating in recent years OK? The argument above is deliberately based on current practice, and so doesn’t really give any theological account of what we’re doing. Let’s think theologically about communion:

There are two questions we need to look at here: 1. Who does whatever is done to make communion special when we gather around the Lord’s Table? 2. What does ‘gathering’ around the Lord’s Table mean for us?

1. Who does whatever is done to make communion special? We can only give one answer: our Triune God.

There are a variety of ways of understanding what is happening at the Lord’s Table amongst Baptists, but all of them claim that, in some way, the Holy Spirit re-presents in our lives the effects of the self-offering of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, so that the covenant which binds us to each other and to God the Father is at least recalled, and possibly renewed. Because of this we grow in faith and holiness, and in love to God and to each other.

We—church members—act in various ways during the communion service: we say and pray various things, some of them (the words of institution, confession, epiclesis, thanksgiving, the reading and expounding of Scripture…) rightly considered vital; whoever is celebrating breaks bread; we each eat bread and drink the cup. What makes the service something real and powerful, however, is entirely the action of God.

God’s acts are not limited by spatial distance. He can do across town what He does when we are (mostly!—see above) in a room together. The space is not sacred—we know that; many of us worship in school halls used for gym and exams. What is sacred, what makes church, are the people, gathered together by God, and joined by covenant promises to Him and to each other.

If we believed, as other traditions do, that the specific act of the priest manipulating the elements was necessary for us to properly celebrate communion, then this would be a problem, but we have been energetic in our rejection of such ideas. What is far more central for us is the gathering of the church family around the Lord’s Table, which takes us to our second point.

2. In what sense on this account do we ‘gather’? For us Baptists, gathering is a crucial component of what it is to be church; God calls us out of the world to form new community, and that community is defined by covenant commitment to each other and to Him. We are, that is to say, gathered into the covenant church community by God; this is what ‘gathering’ means to us—God’s sovereign action in calling us together into new community.

(This is, incidentally, true even—perhaps especially—of the universal church, which is defined simply as that group of people, resurrected or raptured, who will be gathered by our King and Priest Jesus on the day of His return in glory.)

As a gathered people we meet together, and our meetings are appropriate and important expressions of the prior theological reality of our being gathered by God. That said, our meetings are always limited and partial expressions of our true gathering. We take apologies at church meetings; we ask members to be present at worship and prayer meetings, but not all can, and others sadly choose not to be; we separate on Sundays when the children leave; following the body-life principles of 1Cor. 12, we count those who are unable to be with us in person through ill-health or infirmity as particularly precious, to be remembered in prayer by name in our meetings.

For my own church, our students make this even more obvious for us—we have sent a few students and received many more; most are members of the church, but are required to be absent from us for long stretches of the year by the rhythm of their lives. When those we have sent are present, those we have welcomed are absent. Our meetings are always limited and partial.

If we define ‘meeting’ as ‘intentional presence with our sisters and brothers before God in ways that express, albeit partially and limitedly, the prior theological truth of our gathering’, then what we are doing when we come together around our live-streamed services is ‘meeting’ in this sense. If we chose to meet around the Lord’s Table in this way, we would be doing it adequately—it would be limited and partial, far from perfect, but still adequate.

To be clear, what we would be celebrating if we did this would be one communion service for the gathered and covenanted church; this might make our celebration particularly meaningful for those who are alone at home at present, and for the foreseeable future.

I believe that this argument is now complete and adequate; in a second post however I will anticipate some possible objections.

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