VIRTUAL JESUS? United Methodist Church Considers Approving On-line Communion

The United Methodist Church is considering whether or not to approve on-line communion, as a means of reaching out to those who are not physically present at church services.  Religion News Service explains:

About 30 denominational leaders met last week after Central United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., announced plans to launch an online campus that potentially would offer online Communion. Some nondenominational churches already offer online Communion, according to United Methodist News Service, but leaders urged the denomination’s bishops to call for a moratorium on the practice and do further study of online ministries.

…The debate raises fundamental questions at the heart of the church experience: the definition of community, individual participation, the role of tradition and basic theological understandings of the meaning of Communion.

United Methodists practice open Communion, meaning all who worship are invited to partake. Many churches celebrate Communion once a month, though each church decides how often to serve it.

Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, thinks that the UMC, which has a history of pragmatism, will inevitably approve on-line communion.  Methodists, like many Protestant denominations, see the rite as an expression of faith; but they differ from Catholics in that they deny that Christ is truly present in the consecrated bread and wine.

The issue is likely to be presented before the UMC’s General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, when they convene in Portland, Oregon in 2016.  A move towards accepting online Communion might be inevitable, given the denomination’s history, according to Mark Tooley, a Methodist who is president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy.  Tooley explained, “Methodists have a long history of pragmatism, which might make them a little more susceptible.”

Communion takes on different forms among various Christian denominations, but it generally involves the reenactment of Jesus’ last supper by taking bread and wine (or, as the UMC prefers, unfermented grape juice).

This system just won’t work for us Catholics.  The Catholic Church, which has an ordained priesthood which can be traced back to the apostles, believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  That is, they believe the words of Jesus when He says, “This is My Body.  This is My Blood.”  Jesus is truly with us, physically one with us, in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.  For this reason, Catholics may watch a Mass on TV but cannot receive the Eucharist virtually.  A priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister of the Eucharist may carry the consecrated host to the home or hospital bed of an infirm or homebound person, so that he or she can receive.

This is not to say that Catholics have NO opportunity to participate in prayer electronically.

New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral provides an opportunity for believers who are not in the city to light a “virtual candle” at their webpage.  Each day, visitors from all over the world light a candle at St. Patrick’s as an act of prayer.  One large candle is lit in the Cathedral to symbolize and commemorate all the virtual candles requested from the community of faith on the internet.  That candle is located in the Baptistery next to the relic of St. Patrick.

Catholic Relief Services also offers an opportunity for virtual prayer.  An individual can light an on-line candle, and will then be remembered in prayer throughout the day at St. Stephen’s Chapel, at the CRS headquarters in Baltimore.

There are plenty of other on-line or televised worship opportunities.  You get the idea, though:  Catholics believe that Christ unites Himself to us physically in the Eucharist, that they are truly consuming His Body and Blood.  You just can’t do that through a glass screen.

For my reflection on the Eucharist and “What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is”, click here.


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  • moseynon

    Methodists, of course, consider communion to be merely symbolic. However, isn’t worship as a community, as the mystical body of Christ, the reason for assembling together as one on Sunday?

    “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20)

    I suppose online communion for some non-Catholics would make sense as long as it were not solitary. Perhaps it would involve small groups of persons, gathered in someone’s home? I think that would be consistent with the practice of a Methodist pastor taking the elements to the home of a shut-in, and sharing communion with that person.That comparison was used during the Methodist discussion.

  • I must be missing something. I don’t understand how virtual communion would work, even if it is symbolic. Even as a symbol you still have to pysically eat something. Anyway I like the virtual candles. I’ve used this one for many years, though I think it’s non-denoinational:

  • Harold Steiner

    This happens a lot in the UMC. A small-medium church (Central UMC appears to be <500 people, according to its website) does something goofy. It hits the news. The church in question wants it to be a broader issue, the greater body of the denomination shakes its head in wonder. You'll note that last part tends not to show up in stories like this.

    It's already part of the responsibilities of a UMC pastor to share communion with those members of its congregation who are home-bound for whatever reason. The only reason I can see for offering "virtual" communion is an attempt to be trendy. Not that the UMC is the only group of people vulernable to such.