I was reading an article by RNS the other day when I saw something that surprised me: Virtual Communion. My first reaction was that it sounded like a Church themed video game. After checking it out I quickly discovered it was something a very different. The article was mostly about the United Methodists, which seem to be leading the way with the practice. Still, after looking around I saw that other Christian groups are doing online communion as well. I started searching the internet because I was asked to give an opinion on it for an article in the Alabama Baptist newspaper. While I did send them some of my thoughts (I’ll link the article here later whether they quote me or not), with so many Churches dabbling with the idea of virtual communion, I wanted to explore the practice a little more.
What it Takes
Before getting into this there are two things to consider.
A) Virtual Communion is when someone watches a communion service online and follows along with the minister. That is, while at home and using their own supplies, they perform their own communion service in front of their computer.
B) It’s generally considered necessary to have four things for a communion service:
- A Christian community; and
- Someone to perform the ritual.
For Catholics who understand the ordination of priests as bestowing spiritual powers, like the ability to consecrate the Eucharist, this doesn’t work. Even though they participate in what the priest does, the laity cannot “do” Eucharist on their own. But it’s not so for Christians with a different theology of ministry. For them the laity performing a communion service isn’t necessarily ruled out. So the question of members performing their own Eucharistic service at home while watching their community online is something that could in fact be considered.
Internet and Community
I think the question of virtual communion, as it’s called, really hangs on whether online communication creates “real” community. The internet, unlike older forms of media, enables two way visual communication. It is very unlike other technologies. Sometimes people will claim, that relationships formed over the internet aren’t real relationships. On this I disagree. Those relationships are certainly real, but they are also certainly different. So obviously any community based on it is also different.
The communal aspect of worship is so important for Catholics, that while only priests can validly celebrate the Eucharist at Mass, they are not (normally) allowed to do so without at least one, ideally more, persons present. Without the participation of the laity, the priest can’t form a community. That is the community in which the Holy Spirit operates and by whose power he is even able to perform the ritual. At this point, I know someone will object. But it’ll take too long to explain and too off subject for this post.
When You’re Not There
Efforts to include absent members in the gathered communion service, is not new. A practice as old as the Church involves Eucharistic Ministers who take the communion to the Church’s members too sick or frail to attend. This is a practice that continues ‘til today in many different denominations. Here the link to the community is maintained, but it is also only provided for to those unable to be present. As holy and proper of a practice this is, it is still a reduced expression of the worshiping community.
My reflection on the issue of virtual communion turns on two questions. Does virtual communication create an adequate form of community? But if the answer is yes, the more important question is whether it’s a good idea. Unlike bringing the Eucharist to the sick, virtual communion would presumably become, just another option for attending Sunday services. Will this decreased level of commitment required benefit us as Christians? How will the arguably reduced form of community change Church life? These are serious questions, but not any I’m likely to have answer as a Catholic. I do have my own opinions but I look with interest to see what Methodists, Baptists, and many others will decide about virtual communion.
May our Lord bless and guide us all, as we seek to make the Kingdom of God present to our world today.