In this time of quarantine an issue the church must decide is what to do about Communion. Some churches have chosen to celebrate the Lord’s Supper using a form of electronic communication. Others have decided that this sacrament should not be celebrated until the whole worshipping community can be together again. 

In this blog I wish to outline:

  1. Some of the theological dimensions of Communion from a Baptist perspective.
  2. Some examples of historical necessity that have shaped the church’s practice of the sacraments.
  3. Options that we at Box Hill Baptist Church might embrace in our practice of Communion in this time of quarantine.
  1. Theological Dimensions of Communion in Baptist perspective

Despite the differences in modern denominational practice, we must always remember that until the middle of the eleventh century the churches shared a common heritage and our sacramental practice, while sometimes having varied local expression, shares a common foundation of theory and authority.

The language used among modern denominations when discussing Communion varies. Some traditions use the word sacrament to include a range of Christian practices. Others, including Baptists, use the word ordinances. While some people think that the word ‘sacrament’ reflects more Catholic and ‘ordinance’ a more Protestant view, I prefer to use the word sacrament, without implying a high or Catholic sacramental theology. When it comes to this particular sacrament, we find it variously described as the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper or other names. I prefer to use the simple word Communion. My reasons are several, but include the obvious and deeply significant connections between the words Communion, community and communication.

Baptists hold as foundational to their faith the freedom of the individual believer to discern the mind of Christ. Any discussion of ‘a Baptist perspective’ occurs within the variety and richness of belief and conviction that such freedom delivers in every worshipping Baptist community. In other words – these are my views, not those of our local church or the Baptist tradition as a whole.

The Principles and Ideals of the Baptist Faith found in the Constitution of the Baptist Union of Victoria have the following statements about Communion:

The Fellowship of the Lord’s Supper.

a. To Baptists, the Church is not so much an organization as a fellowship; effective only as there is spiritual association with the Head of the Church.

b. The Lord’s Supper is a service of spiritual fellowship whereby, through remembrance of His Life and Death believers may experience in supreme degree the reality and influence of His Presence.

c. It is an opportunity of entering into close fellowship with the Lord in the Holy of Holies, where there is a re-kindling of love and a reconsecration of life to His service.

There is much packed into these statements. First, Communion is not something that belongs to the church as an organisation.  Communion is not authorised by the church nor managed and controlled by it. The whole life of the church is effective only as there is a spiritual connection with Jesus Christ. Communion is not our possession with which we may do as we wish. It is the work and prerogative of the risen Lord.

Secondly, Communion as a ‘service of spiritual fellowship’ is about ‘experience in supreme degree’ of ‘the reality and influence of His Presence’. This names one of the central controversies and issues in Communion: ‘His Presence’ (note the capitalisation). Catholic tradition has elaborated the doctrine of transubstantiation – that the actual body and blood of Christ were present in the bread and wine. This was done using a sophisticated philosophy about the nature of ‘reality’, where the real essence of things (their ‘substance’) was hidden within the structure of their present appearance (the ‘accidents’ of their current form).

The Reformation reacted against this Catholic position, but then struggled to express just how Christ was present in Communion. Was Christ present in a spiritual way in the bread and wine? Was Christ present in the community gathered around the bread and wine? Were the bread and wine just reminders of Jesus and his death? Was Christ present in Communion, and in what sense was that presence ‘real?

In the BUV statement the mechanics of this presence are not discussed, but a high view of Christ’s presence is certainly declared: Presence is capitalised, it is experienced ‘in supreme degree’ with regard to its ‘realityand ‘influence’. As far as Protestant statements about communion go, this is a very ‘high’ view, without going into the puzzling details. 

The third BUV statement describes the outcomes of Communion in the life of the believer: close fellowship with the Lord in the Holy of Holies, where there is a re-kindling of love and a reconsecration of life to His service.  Without reflecting on how this occurs, this statement makes clear that the experience of Communion is both exalted (the Holy of Holies) and powerfully regenerative (rekindling of love / reconsecration of life).

Now, within this theological discussion there are two recurring and related issues that frame the various church positions: 1. how do we experience presence? and 2. What is ‘really real’? These issues become acute in our present context. When we contemplate a move from a physical ‘presence’ with each other in Communion, into some form of communication technology, are we still present to each other, and is Christ present? When we interact through screens and voice technology, what is ‘really real’?

For an excellent discussion of these issues by Trevor Hart (writing from an Anglican perspective) and a conclusion against some form of ‘virtual communion’ see:- 

https://jasongoroncy.com/2020/04/13/eucharist-and-the-stuff-that-matters/

For a carefully considered article with many links to other useful resources see:-

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/jason-goroncy-holy-communion-and-covid-19/12129848

2. How historical necessity has shaped the church’s practice of sacraments

While sacramental practice is governed by theological principles, often these principles themselves have been shaped by the necessity of a particular historical epoch. I give two examples.

The first arises from the practice of baptism –a sacrament where churches still have different practices. An early question arose from situations of extreme privation where parties of Christians might be travelling in desert regions where water was very scarce. When every drop was needed for drinking, and one of the party was in danger of death and unbaptised, could a baptism be made and be effective by trickling sand rather than water over the head of the candidate while the appropriate words were pronounced? Such an event was held to be a valid sacrament, made in response to necessitous circumstances.

The second example came from a period of the church’s life when persecution was intense and directed especially at church leaders. Under persecution or torture some bishops or other church leaders recanted their faith, surrendered the holy books to the authorities and generally resigned their leadership.  Amongst the hard-line believers (especially those who may have suffered themselves) two questions arose: a) should such traitors be allowed back into the church if they turned again to Christ after the persecution died down, and b) were the sacraments (especially baptism) previously conducted by those failed leaders still effective or should the persons they baptised be rebaptised by ‘faithful’ leaders?

At issue here was whether the effectiveness of a sacrament was grounded in the holiness of the person leading it. When it came to re-admitting those who had turned from faith, there were a variety of positions adopted at the local church level. With regard to the status of sacraments previously led by such leaders, the church concluded that sacraments derived their effectiveness from the event being conducted properly in accordance with the church’s doctrine, not through the personality, holiness or qualifications (other than being duly ordained) of the person leading it. 

This of course came from a time when only an ordained priest could consecrate the elements. Within the free churches (including the Baptists) there is agreement that only persons duly authorised ‘preside at the table’ in Communion, but this is not strictly limited to ordained clergy. Within the Churches of Christ tradition lay people usually preside at Communion in celebration of this freedom.

It is interesting that these two historical examples come from contexts of distress, privation or persecution. In circumstances like these – and our own! – the church has shown creativity, courage and compassion in how the sacraments were to be understood and administered.

3. Options for Communion for Box Hill Baptist Church

I want to outline some options for Communion that BHBC might adopt in this time of pandemic. I believe the eventual decision is a matter for the church to decide through some process of participatory decision making. I see five basic options (each with possibility of tailoring or adapting the details). For simplicity of discussion I will number them.

  1. To refrain from Communion until we can meet together in one place.
  2. To conduct Communion in small gatherings within the government health rules for group limits applying at the time.
  3. To conduct Communion through a video-conference platform (such as Zoom) where there is interaction between people gathered at the same time in different locations.
  4. To live-stream through Facebook a Communion service in real time that people can view, doing whatever practices they choose in their homes at the same time the service is happening.
  5. To podcast a communion service that can be downloaded and witnessed by anyone at a time of their choosing.

These options are arranged from the most ‘closed’ or exclusive option to the most ‘open’ or inclusive option. Personally, I am most comfortable with options 1) or 2) for reasons I will explain below.

I cannot put the case for options 1) and 2) better than in the article by Trevor Hart cited above. I recommend that article to you. The questions raised there go way beyond Communion – they are the great questions of the digital age. What is really real? Are we in danger of losing the embodied life of the church, grounded in the incarnation of Jesus, in some spiritualised, digitised version of life?  To what extent have television, movies, computers, iPhones and ‘screen-life’ in general colonised our lives and come between us as human beings, and between us as believers and the risen Christ? In opting for some ‘screened representation’ of Communion, are we selling our birth-right for a mess of pottage?  (It is worth noting that part of the extended work of the Reformation was the dismantling of rood-screens in churches that hid the operations of the clergy (the ‘real’ work of Communion) from the laity – and here we are, interposing screens again between clergy and laity, and between individual members of the laity.)

A very high view of presence lies behind this approach to communion: it is important that we are present to each other physically, and that in that presence to each other we experience the presence of Christ. It holds that living ‘on-screen’ presents deep dangers to the church. It also wants to guard a sense of what is ‘really real’. The more I explore these issues the more I find myself drawn into deep questions about the nature of reality and whether our video/screen/movie/social-media culture is deeply at odds with the spiritual life. How is Christ present to us in daily experience, in prayer, in Communion? All these involve engaging with transcendence, otherness, and absence – in the midst of which we encounter and are ‘held by’ communion, engagement and mystery. 

But computers and technology and movies and TV make everything ‘immanent’, reducing mystery and depth and longing. The Scripture affirms that ‘Christ is the mediator of a new covenant’ (Heb 9.15). If we trust in electronic media and mediation as the substance and channel of our ‘communion’, do we obscure or even supplant the risen Christ? 

Just as the Reformers rejected the Catholic view of a mysterious reality that was somehow ‘underneath’ the reality we taste, touch and see, so a scepticism about ‘virtual reality’ replacing what we can touch, taste and see is true to our Reformed roots.  This is not just a matter of Communion: it is a deep commitment to protecting and keeping separate the essence of lived, bodily life from all the carefully produced, air-brushed fantasies that pour upon us from the myriad screens and glossy pages that surround us.

For a moving and persuasive contrary view to this position see: 

https://wp.stolaf.edu/lutherancenter/2020/03/christ-is-really-present-virtually-a-proposal-for-virtual-communion/?fbclid=IwAR0w2nEKq_f2yGtb-BZkLoL1XHvE6JVuvG5RHoIfLA5NhZ7HKqAY52R0hcY

Option 2) is to celebrate Communion in small groups that meet together within the government regulations for group size, either in the church or in homes. The minister can be available to support and lead and we would not use electronic communication apart from an invitation which advertises when the services are to be held

Option 3) is to celebrate Communion in small groups, in multiple places, in common time, through a video-conferencing system like Zoom. Someone (presumably a minister or church leader) would ‘preside’, offering words of institution, and a prayer of thanksgiving. In each of the varied locations people would have brought elements of ‘bread’ and wine’ (according to their local diet and custom). The consecration and breaking of the breaking of bread, and the sharing of the wine, would occur in each of the distributed locations.  The balance of how much of the service occurred from the central ‘hosting’ site and how much occurred in the participating sites is open to discussion.

Essentially, this would be a ‘shared presidency’ model where the breaking of bread is distributed across the whole community. What distinguishes it from options 4) and 5) is that it happens in common time, and with mutual recognition and shared awareness of what is happening in each of the various sites.

Option 4) is a live-streamed service where the event happens in common time, but there could be little or even no recognition of what is happening in the various distributed sites. This is almost reverting to a kind of ‘Communion as performance’ conducted by a priest that characterised an earlier epoch of Christian history. The advantages are that more people can ‘receive’ the event because the technology required is simpler (no camera, microphone or upload bandwidth required to view the event).

Option 5) is very similar to Option 4) except that the requirement of live-streaming is taken away, so the event has neither the (electronic) reciprocity/community of option 3), nor even a common anchoring framework of shared time (as in option 4). Here ‘performance’ predominates, with an end ‘product’ anchored neither in time, nor in shared space. It becomes a kind of disembodied, digitised event, endlessly replicable, almost like those small side chapels in the great cathedrals of centuries past where clergy repeatedly ‘said the Mass’ by themselves. However, this option is more accessible and inclusive than any of the others. 

Driving our engagement with these questions are the great questions of this age: how are we to live in a virtual, digital world, especially when embodied life in the presence of others is potentially a matter of life and death? How do we protect our common, shared life from being subsumed in a global network of screens and appearances? If we settle for video communication, what happens to our sense of Communion, not only with each other, but also with the risen Lord?

I offer these reflections and thoughts for your consideration and your prayerful meditation. In coming weeks we will have opportunity to discuss these matters in emails and telephone conversations, in Zoom video conferences and hopefully in some deliberative process that will enable us to discern the mind of Christ for us.

Jim Barr

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