A Terribly Geeky Sacramental Theological Case For “Virtual” And De-Clericized Holy Communion

A Terribly Geeky Sacramental Theological Case For “Virtual” And De-Clericized Holy Communion March 20, 2020

Fair warning: this is a theological argument internal to the sacramental theology of one rather odd Christian polity, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

To start, any reader needs to know some basic theological assumptions of our polity.

First, we have some guiding documents on our sacraments. The main one, the Use of the Means of Grace, along with another one, Principles for Worship (Principle), are our most recent interpretation of the primary document, the Augsburg Confession.

Oh, and also the Bible. Although I would argue (and this would require a separate post on meals and the sacrament in the New Testament) that our practices are somewhat out of sync with New Testament theology on the Eucharist.

Okay, so here are the main points. First, we have a statement in the AC, article VII: “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”

So the confessional sticklers in our tradition emphasize “rightly” whenever somebody starts to do something they disagree with.

Point #2: There is an emphasis in our documents on a somewhat narrow definition of Christian “assembly.” So for example, in a recent publication by our denomination on “Worship In Times of Public Health Concerns” you get a statement like this: “”In cases of virtual worship gatherings, the sacrament of Holy Communion is not to be celebrated. “The Use of the Means of Grace” reminds us that Holy Communion takes place in the assembly (Principle 39). Even in times when a community cannot gather to share the sacrament, Jesus shows up, and we are still part of the body of Christ.””

As one friend wrote, ” It’s driving me crazy that people are defining “gathered community” as people in close enough physical proximity to touch each other without acknowledging it’s the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies, and that God is omnipresent. For God’s sake, these same people claim it’s a communion with the saints in all times and all places. My dining room is a time and a place and last I read the confessions, I’m a saint as well as a sinner. If faith in the Word given by the Spirit makes the sacraments sacraments, then why isn’t online consecration effective? Does the Internet prevent God’s action?”

Finally, there is a general belief that the “presidency” for Holy Communion needs to be an ordained minister. This comes also from the AC, article XIV: “Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.”

Intriguingly, we do not enforce this rule for preaching, and churches regularly host guest preachers (and there are no policies against doing such), but our denomination so strictly enforces the rule against lay “presidency” at communion that even interns in many contexts are not allowed to preside at communion, and have to wait until after they are ordained (and so have a “regular” call).

So what are the theological problems here?

I would argue the theological problems are LEGION. The whole thing is rife with faulty assumptions and outright contradictions.

Let’s start with the concept that Holy Communion takes place “in the assembly.” If that is the case, if that is the defining character of the meal, it’s hard to see why many kinds of “assembly” would NOT serve just as well as “assembly.”

Philosophically we all know that there is nothing in this world that is unmediated. If you are in church on a Sunday morning, you still rely on sound to deliver the gospel, and sight to see the sacrament. Holy Communion is not unmediated.

So why can’t those gathered through “virtual” media count as being part of the assembly? Simple answer, they shouldn’t. For example, I’ve never heard of a church excluding those in the nursery listening via audio from coming in to partake of the sacrament.

Similarly, a few years back I was in an overflow room for Holy Communion at the National Youth Gathering. We still received communion, even though the “presidency” of the meal took place in the dome.

So what is the difference between listening and seeing over an internet connection vs. listening and seeing via audio or in person? I would argue: there isn’t a difference.

Second, it seems we assume that “the assembly” is really wherever an ordained minister is present.

But if that is the case, then the assembly doesn’t really matter, and it’s really about the ordination (call, apostolic succession) of the presider. If that’s true, then we are back down the slippery slope toward private Masses that Luther railed against.

In point of fact, because of the lack of proper teaching in our denomination guiding clergy in how to extend the sacrament of the altar during this and other times, there are clergy all across the country right now consecrating elements for distribution in ways suspiciously like the private Masses of yore.

Think about it. Every church hosts a meal in the assembly, and the words and actions are largely similar, but the means of distribution are many and varied. Intinction. Altar rail. Flat bread and loaves. Wine and port.

How we distribute is a matter of adiaphora, there are many ways to distribute.

The main point is to offer the sacrament because, as a more overlooked part of the AC has it: “Of the Use of the Sacraments they teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among people, but rather to be signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us, instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Wherefore we must so use the Sacraments that faith be added to believe the promises which are offered and set forth through the Sacraments.”

The real emphasis in the AC is not on rules to gate the sacrament. When we think that, we end up with ludicrous teaching like the recent video from our Presiding Bishop where she argues we will need to fast from communion for a time.

No, the AC guides us toward using the sacraments. We’re called to creatively get the sacraments to our people so they know the will of God toward them, toward us, in order to awaken and confirm faith.

Let’s tackle presidency last. We seem to think only those ordained according to the practices of our denomination are “rightly called” to preside at the sacrament. But this is not at all self-evident.

Certainly, I would concede that a pastor called to a congregation has been called to preside at the meals that take place there, in that community. That’s what their letter of call says.

But that letter of call does not in any way, not even a little bit, exclude other groups of people in various contexts from also “rightly” sharing the meal with each other. Quite to the contrary, rightly called can be at many different levels, in many different places.

So let’s take this as an example. Three families head out to a national park for some camping. Sunday comes around, and they wish to share Holy Communion.

Do they need to have a pastor present? Well, certainly I’d love an invitation to come camping with them. But more seriously, no, they don’t need a pastor. They just need some bread, and some wine, and they can pick a person in that group, and say to them, “Would you break the bread for us?”

That’s a call.

So too in this time of the pandemic, I as the pastor in my context can “call on” leaders in households across my congregation to preside at the meal. We don’t need to send out specially consecrated bread and wine. No, there are many creative ways to get the sacrament to the people.

One is for them each to consecrate in place.

The other is for a pastor to consecrate the meal via the livestream or podcast, which as I’ve argued above is no different in terms of mediation from other services we host when we’re able to be at “church” together.

The “assembly” has never been as tightly defined as our denomination would like to think. Historically, various kinds of Christian groups had very loose coming and going rituals from worship. That we have locked in culturally in North America to “worship is in this building during this one hour and you can only do communion there when a pastor is present” is simply and patently culturally constrained and wrong-headed.

It also simply has no Scriptural warrant. Read the texts on meal-sharing in the gospels and the New Testament. All of them will illustrate how out of whack the ELCA definition of assembly and presidency are.

Geek rant over. Blessings to each of you as you find ways to worship this weekend. Arkansas just legalized restaurants delivering wine when they deliver food, so get your wine orders in now so you can share communion this weekend.

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  • Codex Editorial

    Pastor Schnekloth
    You have elegantly stated what I’ve though for years. The clericalism inherent in the ELCA’s attitude towards the Eucharist I think stems from three sources that inform the denomination: the Lutheran pietism that restricts the clergy to preaching and sacraments only, confessionalism that cites the same Book of Concord texts you’ve mentioned above, and the clericalism of many high church Lutherans.
    I myself identify as high church but after my doctoral studies in the New Testament and my own reading in ritual studies, I fully concur with you.
    My only caveat is that according to the confessional principle of “where is the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly observed,” that we firmly instruct lay presiders over the Eucharist to not impose “flaky” or irregular interpretations and ritual activities upon the Words of institution or the current Eucharistic liturgy, for example don’t add or impose New Age nonsense upon the Eucharist.

  • Mary Andrews

    Hello Clint! Mary Andrews from St. Thomas Lutheran in Omaha. I came to the ELCA some years ago from being a lifelong Catholic. I was thrilled by how women were honored as clergy, and here is what Pastor Ellen shared with me: “When Eucharist is celebrated among Lutherans, we believe that the ‘holy moment’ of consecration occurs when the bread and wine are received into the believer. It is the person receiving — not my ‘holy hands’ — that completes the sacrament.” My heart soared upon hearing this, for it seemed akin to what Jesus offered: Woe to you who add burden upon burden. Give people and their varying circumstances a chance to praise God and receive the Body and Blood. We used to have tiny Masses in the college dorm and yes, camping! Sometimes these smaller, intentional gatherings feel even more intimate — and sacred. I think, too, of all the people living in the Amazon, in remote villages everywhere. Who are we to add to their burden? No, the Multiplier of Loaves and Fishes would find a way.

  • Jack Whritenour

    I just returned from the store and there is still a great shortage of toilet paper. I am going to print out Schnekloth’s latest attempt at theologizing–as I have thought of a good use for it.

  • James Elliott

    I’m not Lutheran, but i do understand that all groups of people can become entrenched in the “how to’s” so much that the whole point is lost. My wife, who went to a Lutheran seminary, recalls that it was terribly important to one professor that only wine could be used in the sacrament. Jesus’ point was to remember him when we eat and drink together. I appreciate the blog because it is a reminder to look to Jesus. I appreciate the continuing attempt to create a theology that speaks to our experience, instead of making our experience fit into a particular theology. Keep at it, Clint!

  • Clint Schnekloth

    I love your comment in particular, Mary. Thank you.

  • Andrew of MO

    I think Luther said something to that effect when discussing a group of Christian men taken in captivity to a far land, where they decide that one of them will teach and administer the sacraments, and Luther’s point was that this person was as fully called and ordained as if all the bishops and the pope had ordained him. I do not recall the specific work, and I will look it up as soon as I can.