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Communion In The Time of COVID-19

Does the body of believers need physical bodies to gather in worship?

Ironically, the week that COVID-19 shut the door to in-person classes at Calvin University, our capstone computer science course was scheduled to discuss the importance of embodied community. One of the points that we were scheduled to explore is how electronic communications should not be preferable to embodied community. However, as we have seen with COVID-19, when that is not possible, digital communications are a blessing. Our current situation brought an unexpected “experiential learning” opportunity to engage this topic. Using a digital platform, my students and I discussed what was lost through digital communications but also some of the things for which we were thankful. We reflected on the blessing of digital tools when physical in-person community is not possible, such as staying in touch with family and friends as well as facilitating education and remote worship services during this time.

In fact, before the COVID-19 crisis forced people to avoid physical gathering, there have been those who have embraced the notion of online virtual communities of worship. Numerous virtual churches have been established, such as St. Pixels, i-church, and the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life. Such efforts beg the question: namely, does the body of believers need physical bodies to gather in worship? Brad Kallenberg argues in his book God and Gadgets that human communication requires three conditions: time, place and bodies, things that technology “bewitches us into thinking we can ignore.” Taken to an extreme, such thinking can lead to a new form of Gnosticism, which diminishes the significance of physical bodies in physical community. This is in contrast to the example of Christ, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Especially at the time of Easter, we are reminded of the importance of Christ’s incarnation and his physical death and resurrection.

Gospel promises
If we assert that the incarnation points to the importance of churches made up of embodied communities, what do we do if it’s not possible? What should our response be when physical worship gatherings are not possible, such as the time in which we find ourselves? Many churches have quickly transitioned to online services using services like Zoom. Most of us are comfortable with the idea of hearing the word or participating in song remotely. But what about the sacrament of communion?

The Heidelberg Catechism identifies communion as a sacrament which is a visible, holy sign and seal to help us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel (Q&A 66). If the COVID-19 “shelter at home” recommendations only last for a month or so, temporarily missing communion may not be a pressing issue (particularly in churches where normal practice is to have communion every month or two). However, if the call for social distancing persists for an extended period of time, missing the visible sign and seal of communion and its concrete reminder of Gospel promises will become an issue. How ought the church to respond when physical proximity, and even more so the bread and cup, can be sources to transmit the virus?

Physical presence
Long before COVID-19, some churches like Saddleback have established ways of doing communion online. The instructions for online communion involve purchasing bread and grape juice and then following along online as the services is streamed. While this practice might be rejected by most Christian traditions in “normal times,” is it time to think about our options in a pandemic? Is performing the sacrament together at the same time with real wine and bread sufficient, or must we also be physically in the same place? Is online communion a capitulation to neo-Gnosticism, or a practical compromise in exceptional times to proclaim our hope in our Lord’s death and resurrection during a time of uncertainty? Can we celebrate Good Friday and Easter without communion?

Author

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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