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Moratorium, study urged on online communion

By Heather Hahn*
7:00 A.M. ET October 4, 2013 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

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.

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.

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.

Recommendation to Council of Bishops

We persons called together by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Board of Discipleship, United Methodist Communications and Office on Christian Unity and Interreligious Relations for conversation on online communion practices on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2013, recommend

  1. The Council of Bishops, in collaboration with appropriate general agency staff and other partners, actively lead the way to promote and develop excellent  practices of online ministries across the United Methodist connection.
  2. The Council of Bishops to call for a moratorium on all online sacramental practices.
  3. Papers and notes on this conversation be referred to the Council of Bishops and Committee on Faith and Order for further conversation within The United Methodist Church and with our ecumenical partners, and made available publicly by Nov. 1.

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.”

One thing, participants in Nashville agreed, the discussion is likely just getting started as digital media become increasingly interactive and more people have computers in their pockets and purses.

“It’s a necessary thing to talk about because this is an evolving part of our world,” said Phillips, an ordained elder and associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

He added that Christians like he who have serious reservations about communion and baptism mediated by a computer screen “need to make the case why that is.”

Phillips also served from 2001 to 2004 as chair of the committee that drafted This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, adopted by the 2004 General Conference. The quadrennial assembly is the denomination’s top lawmaking body and the only body authorized to speak for the church.

Phillips noted that more official guidance will be important going forward.

“Sometimes, we think, ‘How great our ministries would be if we just didn’t have these horrible rules,’” he said. “But actually, the best of our rules and church laws represent the wisdom of the ages. They help us to be faithful and discern our present. They are a gift from God.”

Debate a click away

The meeting came about after Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., announced plans to launch on Dec. 24 an online campus that potentially would offer Eucharist. The online campus has the support of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference and the conference’s bishop, Larry M. Goodpaster, was among those at the Nashville meeting.

The meeting was sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the Board of Discipleship, United Methodist Communications and the Office on Christian Unity and Interreligious Relations.

The Rev. Karen Westerfield Tucker, an ordained elder and professor of worship at Boston University School of Theology, said she suggested the gathering after learning in April about the proposal for online Eucharist.

“My concern and the concern of many who are here is: What do we tell people when they ask about this?” she said. “When a student asks me ‘what is the church’s approach on this?’ — up until this point, I’ve had to say ‘I have no idea.’ Now at least, having gone through this meeting, we do have some direction. It’s still not finished, but we have some direction.”

Also present at the Nashville meeting was the Rev. Daniel Wilson, Central’s online campus pastor, and the Rev. Susannah Pittman, the church’s associate pastor.

Both Wilson and Pittman said they would abide by the moratorium.

“Our goal in coming here was to reach happy ground that we could all live with to further the conversation — that it wouldn’t be just shut down and done with,” Wilson said. “I think we achieved that.”

Ramifications for Christian unity

The Rev. Steve Sidorak, who leads the Office on Christian Unity and Interreligious Relations, conveyed some of the strongest challenges against online communion — the reactions of the denomination’s ecumenical partners. His office, part of the Council of Bishops, serves as a sort of state department for the denomination, fostering relations across the body of Christ.

If The United Methodist Church embraces online communion, he said, it would cause a diplomatic crisis.

The United Methodist view of communion

United Methodists practice open communion, meaning all at worship are invited to partake. The church proclaims that the table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table. The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love.

Throughout the history of Christianity, church leaders have debated how best to understand the “Holy Mystery” of the Lord’s Supper — especially whether and how Christ is present in the meal. “The Wesleyan tradition affirms the reality of Christ’s presence, although it does not claim to be able to explain it fully,” says the denomination’s statement on the sacrament, This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.

Each local United Methodist church determines how often to serve communion. Many churches celebrate communion once a month, often on the first Sunday, as well as special days of the year such as Easter and Christmas Eve. Since the adoption of “This Holy Mystery” at the 2004 General Conference, United Methodist congregations have been encouraged to move toward a richer sacramental life, including weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Learn more about Communion

He read detailed objections to the practice emailed by ecumenical representatives from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

He told those gathered that the practice of online communion could jeopardize The United Methodist Church’s six formal full communion agreements and future bilateral conversations with other denominations.

“To our ecumenical partners, we would become not only a stumbling block but also a laughingstock,” he told the United Methodist News Service.

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, echoed Sidorak’s warning. During a recent gathering of the World Methodist Council, she said a member of the Uniting Church in Australia told her, “You just mustn’t (support online communion). You will not just fracture the larger ecumenical world; you (also) will fracture the World Methodist Council.”

Neal, the pastor who has offered online communion, said he, too, would abide by the moratorium. He said the recommendation did not surprise him and noted that he also has concerns about the practice.

Eucharist requires education and proper respect for the moment. “You really don’t have any guarantee of that in the Internet medium, which is one of my primary issues,” he said.

He said he has heard from people who found online communion meaningful, those who found it meaningless and everything between.

“I’m pleased that we are going to be doing some intentional examination and study of the utilization of digital media in ministry,” he said, “especially to reach people who are not inside our normal circles.”

Before the gathering, participants altogether wrote some 200 pages about theological issues raised by offering online communion. The group plans to make those papers public by mid-November at www.umc.org/communion.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

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