Since the Multi-Ministry Taskforce announced the suspension of all religious services and congregations in Singapore on the 24th of March, Christians found themselves unable to assemble for Sunday services in their churches. This is an unprecedented situation for the churches in Singapore and has led many church leaders to take their services online so that some semblance of church life may continue. Services are now either recorded beforehand and put online for viewing on Sundays or are live streamed from the homes of church leaders. Naturally, the problem of having Holy Communion crops up: is it possible to administer this sacrament online as well?
It is unsure how much of a debate this question stirred, but many churches quickly answered that question in the affirmative. What takes place in an online service of Holy Communion is that the bread and wine (or some substitute like crackers and grape juice) are prepared by the viewers at home in advance, then as they follow the service, they would consume them at the presider’s direction. This desire to uphold the importance of Holy Communion to the Sunday service is commendable, especially in such disorienting times when Christians desire to experience the comforting presence of Christ through the Sacrament. Whenever the nascent church gathered in the midst of trial, the Sacrament would certainly have brought them the assurance of Christ’s continued presence (“the breaking of bread” in Acts 2.42, 46). The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin also recognised the church’s need for the Sacrament when they advocated for its frequent reception. However, as commendable as the intentions to administer Holy Communion online may be, it is deeply problematic.
In the first place, we must recognise that an online service is not a surrogate or an alternative to the usual Sunday service in which we are physically gathered. It is akin to someone who had to cancel her trip to the beautiful city of Cork in Ireland. To make up for her inability to travel, she decides to explore the city virtually using Google Earth. In this amazing app, she can “walk” through the streets of Cork and “see” the beautiful sights through the uploaded photos of others who have been there. Perhaps we could say she is “visiting” Cork in some ways, but even she would agree that it is a deficient experience. To disagree would be delusional! This might be the best she can do, but the experience would only leave her yearning for the day she can get there in person.
What I wish to say, is that any form of virtual Sunday service—whether pre-recorded, streaming, or even virtual reality—is not, in fact, a Sunday service. It could certainly facilitate worship, but it is not the church’s Sunday service. If it is, then no Christians would ever need to leave their homes on Sundays; church can happen virtually when we view a service online and establish community through video conferencing after. I hope none of us would find this a good idea!
Essentially, what any virtual service lacks is our being “in person.” As persons, we do not merely have bodies, but we are bodies. God created us to be physical bodies located in space and time and intended this embodiment to be the way we are available for each other. The Son of God fulfilled what it really means to be emmanuel (God with us) when he took on a physical body “for us man, and for our salvation.” Our bodily presence is an irreplaceable aspect of the church gathering on a Sunday because it is an irreplaceable aspect of who we are. There is no alternative to this; there is no real presence to a virtual presence.
It is therefore not incidental that Greek term for church in the New Testament is ekklesia. It translates the Hebrew qahal in the Greek Old Testament, which means “assembly.” When used in reference to God’s people, qahal—and in turn, ekklesia—refers to God’s people that is constituted by a liturgical assembly. As far as the New Testament ekklesia is concerned, this involves physical bodies assembling in a locality for the Sunday service (liturgy); for “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). As the liturgiologist Gordon Lathrop puts it,
I need the community in order to hear that word of grace and life—on the lips of my sister or brother and of all those gathered—that word which I cannot make up for myself or speak to myself. I need the assembly to be baptized and to remind me of my baptism. I need the community to celebrate the supper. ‘Assembly’ is not adiaphoral in Christian worship.
For the church, there is no real alternative to physically assembling because that is fundamental to what it means to be church.
The Holy Communion is inextricably part of the physical assembly because it is essentially the communal meal of the assembly. It involves persons gathering around the table to share in the one loaf and the one cup together. This is expressed by Paul’s version of the words of institution in 1 Corinthians 11.24-25. To “do this” does not merely mean “say these words,” but also doing the entire act of gathering around the table, giving thanks, breaking the loaf and handing out bread, and passing the cup. Obviously, these things are impossible when everyone is viewing a video in their own homes because no one is gathered around the table and nothing is handed out from the table; the dominical ordinance cannot be observed when the communal aspect of the Sacrament is missing.
There is a greater theological reason to insist on situating the Sacrament in a physical assembly. Again, this revolves around the communal character of the meal. In 1 Corinthians 10.16-17, Paul states the significance in passing: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” For the church gathered, to share in the one loaf of bread together is to mystically share in the one body of Christ and to become the one body of Christ. The gathered assembly share by breaking one loaf of bread and distributing it. Augustine sees this ecclesial significance in the symbol of the bread itself. He explains that bread is made up of many individual grains of wheat moistened, pounded, kneaded, and baked into one single loaf, and is just like how the church is a gathering of individuals sanctified, baptised, and joined together by the Holy Spirit. In sharing and eating from the one loaf of bread, we become what we receive—the church, the one mystical body of Christ. (Our common practice of using communion wafers obscures this significance since the wafers already come in separate pieces. Thankfully, the distribution of wafers from a single table helps preserve a modicum of the significance.) According to liturgiologist Frank Senn, the church has
not usually considered that if I am being united with Jesus Christ by receiving into my body his body and blood, I am also being united with all the other communicants at the table who are also receiving the same sacrament, and that through this means we are forming the church as the body of Christ at the altar and, upon dismissal, in the world.
However, none of this happens in an online service where every body is remote from each other. Everyone prepares their own elements individually and eats alone (or in a solitary family unit); sharing is conspicuously absent. What is meant to be communal devolves into a private affair. Nobody is sharing in anything precisely because no body gathers and no body is being shared. Therefore, to insist on having Holy Communion online is to change the character of the Sacrament.
Furthermore, even if it were appropriate to have Holy Communion online, there remains a need to ensure its proper administration. This has been an important consideration since the early church where the Sacrament has been fenced from the unbaptized and the impious to ensure its sanctity—holy things for holy people. The responsibility for this task falls on the minister of the Word and Sacrament. Yet, misuse of the Sacrament cannot be prevented because the virtual medium does not allow control over its administration and there is no stopping all sorts of remote monkeying. How may the holiness and catholicity of the church be upheld when Holy Communion is administered online?
Holy Communion is grace from God to us. It is grace which imparts to us his presence and unites us with him as his body. However, if it is grace, then we do not have a right to demand it when the times do not allow for it. We do well to remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing.” Instead of insisting on an uncertain form of the Sacrament, perhaps painfully recognizing its temporary withdrawal should make us more keenly aware of the physical absence of our fellow sisters and brother. Have we taken their physical presence week after week for granted? Let this temporary denial of the Sacrament and of our fellow believers’ presence from us stir in us a yearning to see each other face to face again and to share in the Holy Communion of our Lord together once more. In the meantime, we can continue to hear the Word of God read and preached, and be encouraged to pray together for an end to this separation.
Preacher Png Eng Keat
May 3, 2020