By Heather Hahn*
The recommendation — made just days before World Communion Sunday— came after more than 10 hours of discussion over Sept. 30–Oct. 1 among an unofficial group of United Methodist theologians, bishops, church agency executives and pastors. The participants at the Nashville, Tenn., meeting ranged from those who opposed the very idea of online communion to a pastor who already had offered the sacrament through his web ministry.A group of 27 United Methodist leaders is urging the denomination’s bishops to call a halt for now on the practice of Holy Communion online and do further study of online ministries.
Their wide-ranging and prayerful conversation touched on the nature of worship, community, sacrifice, online engagement, baptism and the Eucharist. The conversation also encompassed objections raised by both individual United Methodists and the denomination’s ecumenical partners.
A number of United Methodists and others followed and joined in the conversation online via Twitter.
The majority of the group, by a show of hands, 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.”
However, participants differed on whether communion truly requires celebrants to be in the same place.
“When you take communion to the homebound, are they participating in the Lord’s Supper? Yes; they are,” said the Rev. Gregory S. Neal, senior pastor of Northgate United Methodist Church in Irving, Texas, and founder of the online Grace Incarnate Ministries. After a request from a woman who watched his church services online, he began experimenting with online communion in 2003.
“Taking communion to people in homes is critically important,” he told the gathering. Online communion could be an extension of that longtime practice, he said.
The Rev. L. Edward Phillips, a facilitator of the discussion, countered that communion must involve the physical sharing of the consecrated elements.
For example, he said, a pastor visiting a shut-in with consecrated bread and cup is fine. But that pastor mailing the same elements goes against the traditional understanding of the sacred feast.
“In other words, if you invite me to dinner, you can’t do that virtually,” he said. “If you bring me a hot dish, you can’t do that online.”
*Heather Hahn is a staff writer for the United Methodist News Service