Online communion stirs passions, so much so that a conversation by United Methodists on the subject under the hashtag #onlinecommunion became a trending topic on Twitter this week.
The conversation, including theologians, local church clergy, bishops and staff of general agencies of The United Methodist Church, explored whether the sacrament of the Lord's Supper could be administered on the Internet. It was sparked by a proposal by Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., to create an online congregation that could potentially share the Eucharist.
To its credit, the Central UMC circulated the proposal throughout the church for comment and discussion. And the proposal is generating thoughtful, critical thinking about the nature of the sacrament, the gathered community, the difference between virtual and physical space, the meaning of incarnational theology and the holy mystery, among a host of other important considerations, such as:
- What is essential for community, online or face-to-face, to be authentic?
- Can we worship online?
- Does even speaking of these questions damage ecumenical relationships, and would serious consideration of online communion precipitate a global crisis in these relationships between United Methodists and other faith partners?
- If the church is not present in the media, which are influential in people's lives and shaping culture today, is it relevant to them?
- Is the subject of online communion a first world affectation, a sign of our media-rich affluence?
- Is it crazy to discuss conducting this most historic act of faithfulness through a mediated form that is foreign to our historic understanding?
- Can a local church institute a practice that affects the entire denomination?
Holy Scripture, early church teachings, John Wesley, Martin Luther, papal encyclicals and Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam were invoked.
At the behest of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, papers were requested from a wide range of scholars, clergy and other professionals involved in disciplines related to the topic. These were circulated prior to the meeting. They will be made available online for public reading by mid-November on umc.org, the denomination's website.
Exploring online ministry
After pointed but constructive conversation, the group agreed to request the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church take up the subject and provide guidance for excellent practices for online ministry. They also called on the bishops to declare a moratorium on all online sacramental practices and to give the matter of online communion attention in its Faith and Order Committee, in conversation across the church and with ecumenical partners.
The participants recognized that "historically, the church has understood a service of Holy Communion to be a celebration within a physically gathered community. The emergence of interactive digital media raises new questions about the meaning of gathered community and requires further thinking about our beliefs and practices."
They also affirmed the church's exploration and use of interactive digital media in the fulfillment of its mission.
Following Christ in a digital culture
I would characterize the conversation as neither Luddite nor innovation-at-any cost, but rather, as a constructive conversation that began to grapple with what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the 21st century, a time in which we are immersed in interactive digital media that are reshaping our understanding of ourselves, our culture, our relationship with one another and our understanding of the sacred. Such conversation is essential today if we are to carry out relevant ministry and effectively engage with people who are immersed in the digital culture.
Equally important was the willingness of the leaders of the conversation to conduct it in an open forum on Twitter. This expression of openness should be a witness to future meetings that transparency today is not a weakness but a strength and a means to engage with those concerned. It was a first step toward an important dialogue about how a mainline communion adapts, evolves and engages people in a new cultural context, not unlike the challenge that faced Paul as he sought to carry the new faith into places far from its birthplace and Wesley as he sought to reach people in the teeming changes of the Industrial Revolution in England.
Disclaimer: I was a participant in the conversation and participated in writing one of the papers used in the discussion. I am general secretary of United Methodist Communications, which was a sponsor of the meeting in partnership with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Board of Discipleship and Office on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.