2013: Debating online communion

(From left) The Rev. Saul Montiel, Pastor Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and Bishop Minerva Carcaño share communion bread. United Methodist bishops from all over the world visit the U.S. - Mexico border to immerse themselves in the reality of life at the Southern border of the U.S. and sharpen their focus on how the church can be in ministry to persons residing there on May 7, 2013. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

(From left) The Rev. Saul Montiel, Pastor Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and Bishop Minerva Carcaño share communion bread at the U.S. — Mexico border in May 2013.
A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

After a week of tense talk about sexuality, the United Methodist Council of Bishops broached a topic that in Christian history has been even more contentious — the sacraments.

At issue: Should United Methodist churches be permitted to offer Holy Communion online? Put another way, can people truly have the communal experience of the sacraments with the click of a keyboard?

After a 10-minute conversation, the bishops by a voice vote approved a recommendation to halt for now the practice of Holy Communion online and study further online ministries. The recommendation originated with an unofficial group of United Methodist theologians, bishops, church agency executives and pastors that met Sept. 30–Oct. 1 in Nashville.

So far, the church discussion on online communion has sparked conversation in social media and made national headlines in the Religion News Service and the Wall Street Journal.

But the bishops agreed the conversation is just getting started about what Christian community can be in these days of online community — and Eucharist is part of that discussion.

Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster was among the participants in the Nashville discussion. He spoke in support of the moratorium at the Council of Bishops meeting but also noted he wasn’t sure if the bishops could enforce it.

“We are living in a digital age, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he told his fellow bishops. “By the time we figure what we are going to do with online communion, the world will have moved on much further down the road.”

The bishops — who are charged with leading the celebration of the sacraments and teaching United Methodist theology — need to discuss not just online communion but what it means to develop online churches, he said.

Such congregations, he said, may draw people to Christ “who will never walk into one of our buildings but will engage in an online community that is just as real for them as we who are sitting in this room.”

Florida Area Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. added that he hopes future discussions among the bishops will “move beyond liturgical-scholar purity on the one hand and ‘anything goes, it’s a new world’ on the other.”

In the earlier Nashville discussion, the majority of participants agreed with the statement “participation in the Lord’s Supper entails the actual tactile sharing of bread and wine in a service that involves people corporeally together in the same place.”

The Rev. L. Edward Phillips, a facilitator of the discussion and associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, noted how important physical sharing can be in any meal.

“If you invite me to dinner, you can’t do that virtually,” he said during the discussion. “If you bring me a hot dish, you can’t do that online.”

The churchwide discussion began after Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., announced plans to launch this Christmas Eve an online campus that potentially would offer the Lord’s Supper. The new campus at centralonline.org has the support of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, which Goodpaster leads.

The Rev. Andy Langford, Central’s senior pastor, said he is disappointed in the decision by the bishops, but the new congregation will abide by it for now. The church would not be the first online United Methodist ministry to invite people watching the consecration on a computer screen to partake of bread and juice at home.

But, Langford said, Central Online aims to offer something unusual among mainline Protestants — a fully interactive online worship experience. The church will re-air its recorded Sunday worship service each day of the week, and each time, a pastor will be available to live-chat with participants, answer their questions and take their prayer requests.

Some nondenominational, evangelical churches already offer similar services but with contemporary worship styles, Langford said.

“What we are going to be is traditional, orthodox, inclusive and missional,” he said. On Christmas Eve, worshippers will be invited to contribute to three missions.

Langford sees online communion in keeping with earlier innovations. He noted that during the Cold War, pastors blessed elements by short-wave radio for Christians in the Eastern Block, and that Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion on the moon.

Online communion could bring the holy meal to another-hard-to-reach destination — the growing number of digitally inclined people who are unchurched. The new campus will be surveying online worshippers about their interest in the practice.

“We don’t just want to talk to about communion,” Langford said, “we want you to engage with Eucharist.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact Hahn at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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