Communion and Corona: Some Pentecostal Thoughts on the Current Debates

Over the last week or so, the internet has been awash with arguments for and against Communion while the church cannot gather in this time of pandemic. Many Evangelicals have answered with a resounding ‘No’, while others, from a variety of traditions, have offered a variety of different ways of saying ‘Yes.’ As I’m probably the only Pentecostal in the world who prepared for lockdown by bringing home a hundred books on the Lord’s Supper (yes, I’ve counted and that is the actual number), and as lots of people have been asking me questions, I thought it might be time to do some writing.

The Debate

I think that what nearly everyone could agree on is that we cannot receive the Supper in all its fullness. Whether we say yes or no, there will be something missing. While many Evangelicals (particularly from Reformed and Baptist traditions: e.g. Scott Swain or Bobbie Jamieson) have argued against any form of the Supper, others (e.g. Andrew Wilson) have put forward the case that, while the church might not be able to celebrate the Supper all together in these circumstances, we should instead encourage people to share the Supper together in their own households. Many United Methodists in the United States have got into big debates over ‘online Communion’ (e.g. these controversial guidelines from the West Ohio Conference for Online Communion, which have been criticised for their misuse of the notion of in extremis with regard to sacramental theology and their lack of attention to the question of Christ’s presence), while Anglican bishops in various parts of the world have had to remind people that ‘remote consecration’ is not possible (e.g. the Bishop of Liverpool and the Bishop of Massachusetts).

Pergamon and Rome

This isn’t just a minor distraction of English-speaking online theology nerds. Last week, two very major figures of international renown waded in to the discussion: the Bishop of Pergamon and the Bishop of Rome. John Zizioulas (the Metropolitan of Pergamon) is a figure of huge stature in the theological world when it comes to the sacrament of Holy Communion and to ecclesiology. In a much-read interview last week, Zizioulas stated that ‘the Church without the holy Eucharist is no longer the Church.’ Yet, he also maintained that the Eucharist could only be celebrated by those physically present, arguing that one ‘cannot participate … from a distance.’ Zizioulas also said that a broadcast of the Communion is ‘an expression of impiety.’

The same day I read the Bishop of Pergamon’s words, another bishop took the complete opposite view. The Bishop of Rome lifted up the consecrated bread in an empty St Peter’s Square, to be seen only via broadcast. Now, as good Protestants, we might well be unhappy about the improper use of the sacrament (i.e. Jesus gave the Supper to be eaten and drunk, not to be lifted up, carried around, and used to impart eucharistic benedictions), but that’s not the point here. For Francis (the Bishop of Rome), for the people to be able to see the bread of the sacrament, even though they couldn’t gather for Communion, was a sign of hope amidst the storm.

The Bishop of Pergamon reminds us that we need to think about what we’re doing with the sacrament: theology matters. The Bishop of Rome reminds us that these are rather extraordinary times: people need signs of God’s hope.

How do we think about these things?

Now, hear me right here, I am not in any way suggesting that we should overthrow our good Protestant theology of the sacraments and adopt that of either Rome or Constantinople. I’m simply suggesting that these two figures from the other two major traditions highlight our need for deep thinking and careful pastoring in this moment.

In normal circumstances, I would (to some degree) sympathise with some of Zizioulas’ concerns about broadcasting the Breaking of Bread. However, pastorally, I sympathise with the Pope’s desire to use whatever broadcast technology is available to bring hope and comfort.

Yet, I also want to be true to my own theological tradition. I am not a Baptist, like Bobby Jamieson, and much of his argument for a complete moratorium on the sacrament strikes me as theologically rather Baptist. I am not an Anglican, and so, while what the Bishops have to say about remote consecration is of interest, I am not under an oath of canonical obedience, and so would need a more authoritative argument. I am not from a new church tradition (nor am I Brethren), and so Andrew Wilson’s argument for the Supper being only for households until churches can meet again strikes me as missing the fact that Christ, the Head of the Church, has entrusted the sacraments to His Church (and not to individuals or families).

In my last post I wrote about Spiritual Communion, and briefly at the end gave a quick argument against Online Communion/Remote Consecration. But in the face of all these arguments (plus, as a few apostles in different countries have been asking me questions about these things in my capacity as theologian), I need to go a bit wider.

Question 1: Is it possible to have Communion if the whole church can’t gather? (The Jamieson-Swain Argument)

Both Scott Swain and Bobbie Jamieson point to statements about ‘coming together’ and unity in the context of the celebration of the Supper in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34), with Jamieson concluding that ‘to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.’ Swain, likewise, argues that ‘when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, then, no shared meal, no covenant assembly, means no sacrament.’

To be consistent in this argument would mean not taking Communion to the sick and housebound. (And although it’s not stated in his article, other sources have confirmed that Jamieson is consistent in this way.)

However (as Andrew Bunt has pointed out), the situational nature of Paul’s comments about coming together in the context of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 needs to be recognised. The unity of the church and the corporate nature of the meal are not the focus of any of the accounts of the institution of the Supper. Although Jesus does say ‘do this’ (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24-25), He never says ‘when you come together.’ Those are Paul’s words to the Corinthian church in their situation, not the all-time words of Jesus in the institution of the sacrament.

The uniting power of the sacrament is addressed only in 1 Corinthians 10:17, which is not an institution narrative, and so this is an additional application by Paul of the reality expressed in Christ’s Words. In other words, the uniting aspect is secondary, flowing out of the more fundamental participation in the body and blood of Christ and proclamation of His death until He comes. More than one thing is happening in the Lord’s Supper: there is a participation, a commemoration, a proclamation, and an anticipation of Christ’s return, as well as a unification of the church as His body. The participation, commemoration, anticipation, and proclamation can all take place even without the whole church sitting down in the same room together. Jamieson’s argument might make sense from the perspective of a certain version of Baptist ecclesiology, but it does not put the focus of the Supper in the same place as the biblical accounts.

Furthermore, if Paul could tell the Colossians that ‘though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit’ (Col. 2:5), could this perhaps indicate that meeting together online (although not as good as meeting in person), might still be a way in which we can in some way gather together as the church in these unusual circumstances? Bill Riedel has argued so, emphasising ‘the communion of the saints in God’s presence, trusting that God’s presence isn’t bound to any facility.’ (Since I wrote this, Garry Williams has written a post on the topic from a similar perspective to Jamieson and Swain, but which does address this question of spiritual togetherness.) I would take this argument further, in two directions.

First, John writes that He proclaims Christ to his readers ‘that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ’ (1 Jn 1:3). For John, the primary locus of fellowship between believers is not in their together-ness on earth, but in Christ and the fellowship we each have with God in Him. In fact, John is not physically present with his readers, and yet expects to have fellowship with them through their mutual participation in Christ.

Secondly, the ‘physical gathering of the whole church argument’ strikes me as a curiously Congregationalist/Baptistic argument, which forgets about ‘the communion of saints.’ Hebrews tells us that in worshipping the Lord, we come not simply to an earthly gathering of a few dozen people in a room somewhere in our local town or village. No, we come ‘to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly of the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel’ (Heb. 12:22-24). As we come to the Lord’s Table, the highest point of worship on this earth, we join in one gathering with the saints and angels. Our assembly on earth joins with the church (and thus also, with all the other churches gathering in worship around the world). The true biblical gathering of the church takes place, even now, in heaven. So, in light of that, the argument that we must only ever celebrate the Supper when the whole church is gathered in one room looks rather odd.

Within the British Pentecostal tradition, the argument that the whole church must be gathered has never held sway. In the Apostolic Church we have always made provision for pastors or elders to celebrate the Supper in the homes or hospital rooms of the housebound the sick. Furthermore, in the past, every assembly had a smaller Breaking of Bread service once a month after the evening service for shift-workers and those in service who could not attend the main assembly Breaking of Bread on Lord’s Day mornings. Elsewhere in British Pentecostalism there were several prominent, celebrated ministers who made of a point of celebrating Communion every day, wherever they travelled, and not only when the entirety of their home assembly gathered.

The great Reformer, John Calvin himself (as can be seen in these letter extracts translated by St├ęphane Simonnin), argued that Communion should be given to the sick and housebound, and so thus that the gathering of the whole church was not essential for the sacrament. Calvin argued that these would not be ‘private’ Communions, but rather extensions of the public act (and so, ‘the symbol of the holy unity between the children of God’ would still be maintained even though the whole church wasn’t together). Calvin’s opinion here is in line with Apostolic Church practice.

The argument that the whole church must be physically assembled in one room for the Supper to truly be the Lord’s Supper seems to draw more from Baptist/Congregationalist ecclesiology than it does from Jesus’ own words about the sacrament. And such a focus on the Supper as a family meal may also lie behind much of the neglect and downplaying of the Supper which has crept into many Pentecostal churches. (I’ve been to more than one Communion in more than one Pentecostal denomination in recent times where the focus on the Supper as a communal meal has resulted in no mention of the Lord’s death, no prayer, no words of institution, and thus, although bread and wine were available for people to eat and drink, no sacrament.) Holy Communion is not primarily about our fellowship with one another in sharing a family meal; it is much, much more than that.

Question 2: Should Communion be celebrated by families/households rather than the church until this is all over and we can meet again? (The Wilson Argument)

There is some precedent for this in some Pentecostal circles (e.g. the Wigglesworths), however, I would urge caution here. Firstly, Jesus has not given the sacrament to individuals (or to families) as a private devotional act, but to His Church. Although I’ve just argued that to say the whole church must be gathered for any celebration of the sacrament to be possible goes much too far, leaving it to families and individuals appears to be a massive leap in the opposite direction. It was to His apostles that Jesus said ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 24:14-19). The ministers which Christ has placed in His Church are ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’ (1 Cor. 4:1). As Garry Williams has pointed out ‘the major problem with the church instituting the practice of household-“suppers”’ is that:

if a church puts the administration of the Lord’s supper into the hands of households meeting on their own and as they wish, then it approves placing the Lord’s table beyond the reach of the elders of the church. Having mandated such a household-‘supper’, how could the church excommunicate the self-celebrant and his mini-flock? It could not. The household-‘supper’ risks encouraging every nascent cultish leader to establish his own church in his living room and to consecrate himself as its unaccountable leader.

I could say more here about the Churchly nature of the sacrament, the significance of ordination, and about the significance of the debates over lay presidency, but I think Williams’ point is clear enough by itself. Christ has not entrusted the Supper to households, but to the shepherds He has given to His flock.

Question 3: Is it okay for the minister to receive Communion alone (due to the current rules regarding social distancing) for a live, online church service? (The Reformed Evangelical Argument)

This, for me, is one of the most important questions. For, if I’m going to take an online service for my church during the lockdown, I’d have to receive the Communion alone, without anyone else in the same room as me. Initially I was very reluctant to even think about doing this, but I have now in fact celebrated the Breaking of Bread service for my assembly via a livestream. As a theologian, I am very sensitive to the Reformation critique of ‘private masses’, and as a Pentecostal theologian I have serious concerns about the promotion of taking Communion at home alone (up to three times a day) by some on the fringes of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement in recent years (e.g. Joseph Prince and Beni Johnson).

However, I am convinced that the minister being the only person in the room when celebrating the Supper as part of an online church service which is happening live is not the same thing as either the private masses to which the Reformers were reacting or the quasi-magical approach to the Supper of Prince and Johnson.

For a start, it’s not private; it is still with the church, both in spirit, in time, and in sight. On Sunday evening, I took a Breaking of Bread service for my assembly, and as soon as it ended the phone started ringing. People in the assembly hadn’t felt detached from it as if it were some sort of private Supper, but were encouraged and built up by the remembrance and proclamation of the Lord’s death and our common spiritual communion with Him.

Secondly, it is not turning the church’s Supper into a private devotion. Although we cannot all gather and participate in the same way as usual, we can still be united at the Table as an act of the church’s worship, rather than an individualistic devotion.

Thirdly, it is not robbing the church of the body and blood of Christ. This was one of Luther’s criticism of the private mass (in The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests). Luther was concerned that the laity were excluded from these masses, and thus not offered the body and blood of Christ, but instead asked to pay for the benefit of the mass. In our present circumstances, it’s not a matter of ministers excluding the people from the Table, but trying to get people as close to the Table as possible. There is a very major difference between not partaking of the sacrament because we can’t gather to celebrate it, and not being purposely excluded from it.

But how close can we get people to the Table this way? Let’s deal with question 4 first, which rules out one possibility, before going on to build a more positive case (which I’ll save for the next post, as this one is plenty long enough already).

Question 4: Is remote consecration/online communion invalid? (The West Ohio Argument)

While the West Ohio proposal is somewhat lacking in theological justification (and the theology it does attempt to use is misunderstood – which is an example of why it’s probably a good idea of leaders to consult theologians on theological matters), Daniel Blanche has offered a more carefully biblically and theologically thought-through account of online Communion and how it could work.

Valid and invalid are, perhaps, not the best categories for us to be thinking in about this question. They make lots of sense in Roman Catholic eucharistic theology, but I’m not so sure they make too much sense in Protestant sacramental theology. We’re not talking about whether it’s possible for God to work through Remote Consecration/Online Communion (for nothing is impossible with God), but rather whether we can presume upon the Lord to act in exactly the same way as when we receive the Lord’s Supper in person. While it’s true that, the Lord binds Himself to His sacraments, He is not bound by His sacraments. However, it’s also true, as Martin Luther pointed out, that we can only have true faith where we have His binding promise. Writing about the consecration of the Supper, Luther says: ‘faith should be sure of its affairs and have a sure basis concerning which one must not and should not be in doubt.’ (Luther’s Works 38:163). Thus, we can have faith in God’s work in the Supper, because He has promised it; but can we have the same certainty of faith regarding a Remote Consecration/Online Communion? And if not, then one of the roles of the Supper – assurance – is overthrown.

As I expressed in my last post, my cautions here are around the question of Remote Consecration/Online Communion surround are related to the issues of matter, form, minister, and intent (the defining features of the sacrament). You can have a look at my last post to see what I had to say about intent and the necessity, according to what Jesus tells us to do in the institution accounts, of the minister taking the bread and wine. To those I’ll just quickly add a comment about the matter of the sacrament: what if someone trying to take Online Communion doesn’t have any bread or wine? Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament, and can’t be replaced with orange juice and crisps. But might those taking Online Communion not understand that and think they are participating in the Supper when they’re not? (And this then relates back to intent, for the minister’s intent will never be to consecrate anything other than bread and wine.)

Also, although I rejected the argument that the whole church had to be gathered together in one room for Communion, there is something physical which is essential and is bound by geography: the Lord’s Supper involves partaking of one bread and one cup (1 Cor. 10:16-17; Mt 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-23; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). As Garry Williams puts it, ‘if I cannot eat the one bread and drink the cup then I cannot share in the supper.’ Or in the words of Andrew Wilson, ‘gatherings of believers can share Communion as long as they share a common loaf and drink a common cup, in faith, with thanksgiving.’ Online Communion/Remote Consecration cannot get past this fact. Even if people have bread and wine, it’s still impossible to have the proper matter of the sacrament: the one bread and common cup of wine in which we are to share.

Furthermore, the idea of Online Communion/Remote Consecration has been around for years, discussed by theologians for years, and roundly rejected. Now, it is true that these are not ordinary circumstances, but we do need to think carefully about how we present things in these circumstances so as not to give the impression that for all eternity sitting at home on a Sunday morning with a glass of wine and a bread roll while watching a livestream is as equally good as coming to church and gathering with the Lord’s people around the Lord’s Table.

Yet, there is, I think, some good which can be taken from the instinct so many Pentecostals have had towards Remote Consecration/Online Communion. In fact, the instinct of most British Pentecostals to immediately move towards Remote Consecration from the very first Sunday of not being able to meet together is a very good instinct indeed (even if, I would argue, a better solution can be found than Remote Consecration). And in my next post I’ll try and explain what I have in mind. (Spoiler: it involves both Concelebration and Spiritual Communion, as well as a Pentecostal openness to the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit, all the while longing for the day we can join together again to celebrate the sacrament in its fullness.)