The COVID-19 quarantine is making churches innovative. Many PCA churches already had livestreaming services or podcasts of services. Now many other churches and church plants have developed such services. Sessions, diaconates, committees, Sunday School classes, and discipleship groups are meeting via Go-to-Meeting or Zoom calls.
One of the frequently asked questions now is, “May PCA churches have virtual communion via the Internet?” Christians of other denominations are asking that question as well, since congregations are unable to meet in-person. Churches who hold to a bare-memorial view of communion have no problem with virtual communion. Reformed Christians (Presbyterians, denominations with continental Reformed roots, and Anglicans) hold various views, some against Internet communion, others in favor.
When people ask for my advice, I do not encourage Internet communion, primarily because I believe communion to be a sacrament of a congregation that is gathered in person.
When people ask for my advice, I do not encourage Internet communion, primarily because I believe communion to be a sacrament of a congregation that is gathered in person. This understanding was expressed by the 40th General Assembly through its Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR), which reported an “exception of substance” when a Presbytery allowed a church plant to have remote communion by livestreaming the mother church’s communion service to the mission church.
The Committee objected that there was a physical distance between communicants and the place the Word was preached, where the words of institution were read, where an explanation of the sacrament was given, where prayer was offered to set the communion elements apart, and where unbelievers and unprepared Christians were warned not to receive communion.
The Presbytery responded, but by the time the General Assembly took final action, the mission church had a pastor and session. (You can read the interchange at http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/41st_pcaga_2013.pdf. See pages 458-461. The exception of substance had become moot two years later and was never resolved.)
The stated clerk does not make rulings; I only give my informed advice and opinion. Under episcopal polity, a diocesan bishop could direct the churches under his authority on how to administer communion during the COVID-19 quarantine. I have no such authority.
The Meaning and Purpose of Communion
As we think through the questions about “virtual communion,” it is helpful to step back and look at what we believe about the meaning and purpose of communion itself. When the Westminster Assembly met in the seventeenth century, the Westminster divines did not foresee future technological developments like the Internet.
Our PCA doctrinal standards (“Westminster Confession of Faith” and “Larger and Shorter Catechisms“) teach that the Word of God, the sacraments, and prayer are the outward and ordinary means of grace. God makes these means effective through the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people (Westminster Larger Catechism [WLC] 154; see also the Directory of Worship of the Westminster Assembly 8-5; Confession of Faith Chapters 37 and 39, particularly paragraph 7; and WLC 161-164, 168-177).
As we think through the questions about “virtual communion,” it is helpful to step back and look at what we believe about the meaning and purpose of communion itself.
At an earlier stage of my ministry when I taught worship at Reformed Theological Seminary, I explained to my students that there is a spectrum of views on communion. Reformed Christians do not believe that the Lord’s Supper is a bare memorial, a reminder that the Lord Jesus died for our sins. The Anabaptist Conrad Grebel first advocated the bare-memorial view in Zurich in the 1520s. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation that the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church made transubstantiation a dogma in 1215.
Reformed Christians do not believe that the body and blood of the glorified Christ permeate the bread and wine (in, with, and under) as our Lutheran brothers and sisters believe. All Protestant Christians believe that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was a once-for-all-time, never-to-be-repeated event. Eastern Orthodox Churches, however, teach that although Calvary was a once-for-all-time, never-to-be-repeated event, the Church is mystically reconnected to that event each time an Orthodox Church observes the Eucharist. Only the Roman Catholic Church holds that Christ is re-sacrificed in the Mass.
Reformed Churches believe that Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, is truly present in the sacramental event in a powerful, yet inexplicable, way. John Calvin used the term arcana virtus, incomprehensible power. Hence, Calvin’s view of communion is called the virtual presence of Christ. Reformed Churches believe in the real presence of Christ in the communion event, but not in the communion elements. Believers are nourished spiritually when we receive communion by faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. Theologians call this view “receptionism”—it is only believers who commune with Christ in the sacrament by faith.
The analogy I used to explain the Reformed view of communion to seminary students was the re-enactment of a battle like the Battle of Gettysburg or the Normandy Invasion. A re-enactment is more than a reminder of an event, but it is not a repetition of the battle because in a re-enactment, though it is a vivid experience, nobody dies. In Exodus 12, the Passover meal was instituted so that all Jews throughout time would be connected to the Exodus. The Passover liturgy that many Jewish families use was based on Exodus 12. It began with our ancestors were slaves in Egypt but then went on to say that the Lord delivered us with his strong arm. So Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, is not a repetition of Calvary, but a re-enactment, a reconnection to Christ’s death for us (1 Cor.10:14-22; 11:17-34), an experience of the unity of the Church throughout space and time(1 Cor. 10:17), and also an anticipation of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb after Christ’s Return (Isa. 25:6-9; Rev. 19:6-10).
A Means of Grace by What We Do and by What God Does
In communion, the Holy Spirit uses the sacrament as a means of God’s grace by what we do and by what God does. Prior to participating in the sacrament, we who are communicants have repented of our sins and are relying on Christ alone for our salvation, have been admitted to the Church by baptism and have become communicant members by profession of faith in Christ. Approaching the table, we understand the basis of salvation through Christ, confess our sins, and seek reconciliation with other Christians. During communion, we meditate on Christ’s sufferings for us, we commune with Christ, and we receive and apply to ourselves the benefits of Christ’s death for us. After communion, we reflect on how Christ has blessed and comforted us in the sacrament, resolve to love and obey Christ more earnestly, and serve Christ more fruitfully.
However, God also does something in communion. God reconnects us to Calvary, spiritually nourishes us, enables us more fully to understand the cost of our redemption, impresses on us the depth of God’s love, grace, and mercy, communes with us, helps us to realize our unity with other Christians around the world and throughout history, renews the New Covenant with us, and causes us to yearn for the Second Advent of Christ and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Communion makes us better Christians, not only by what we do, but also by what God does.
Communion and baptism are described in the Westminster Standards as holy “mysteries” (a New Testament Greek term) and “sacraments” (a later Latin theological term) and as means of grace. Our finite minds cannot fully grasp or human words cannot fully explain Communion. We join with Calvin to say, “And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it.”
In communion, the Holy Spirit uses the sacrament as a means of God’s grace by what we do and by what God does.
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which is considered generally Reformed), there is a provision for people who are prevented from attending a communion service “in time of plague, sweat, or such other like contagious times of sickness or diseases,” to assure them that if they are unable to receive the sacrament they may be spiritually nourished although they are unable to receive communion. The first Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, Dr. Robert Duncan, has reminded our Anglican brothers and sisters of that 1662 BCP statement during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Extraordinary times give rise to extraordinary measures. PCA military chaplains perform baptisms and communion services in the field. Christians in persecuted situations have to meet in secret, sometimes in danger of their lives. Persecuted Christians may have baptisms and communion in unusual circumstances. Some Reformed theologians would consider such sacraments as irregular and not ideal, but valid nevertheless.
The world has not faced a pandemic like this since the Spanish Flu outbreak near the end of WWI. I am sure that some in the PCA will not agree with my view that we should temporarily refrain from the sacrament of communion via Internet service until congregations are able to meet for worship later this year. I realize that some redefine “meeting place” via the Internet and that all of the RPR objections could be met by redefining meeting place.
Whether we refrain from communion temporarily or practice Internet communion (as some PCA churches are doing), I hope that all of us will look forward to the time when churches throughout the world will no longer be restricted from meeting as congregations for services, and that we will be able to worship together as congregations and observe the sacrament of communion in-person once more.
L. Roy Taylor is the stated clerk of the PCA.