Communion in a Time of Pandemic: Eucharistic Alternative Thanksgiving (June ’20 Presidential Address)

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The pandemic has restricted fully incarnational worship

In this coronavirus pandemic, the worship of God by his people has been significantly altered all over the world. The Christian faith is incarnational, predicated upon God himself taking on flesh, becoming human so that humans could become divine, or Christ-like. This is the foundation of our incarnational faith, and it is revealed in worship that is enfleshed, active, participatory, face-to-face. But, alas, in this pandemic, we have not been able to be fully incarnational in our worship experiences. We have been restrained from active participation in worship through touch, smell, taste. We can see and hear livestreams, but we can’t fully experience the sensory incarnational togetherness of worship. How do we make sense of this longing, where do we go from here, and specifically, what are we at IWS doing this session?

The core of Christian worship has always been the two primary icons of Christ: our participation in his word spoken and broken, and our participation in his Eucharist. While the first we have been able to continue in this pandemic, the second we have not, at least not fully. Let me explain. 

We thirst to know God and to know God in the other

St. Augustine wrote: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (Confessions, Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5). Human beings are hard-wired for worship. Everyone worships someone or something, even the most Godless atheist! Christian worship brings about the reconciliation of worshippers back to the One who made us and loves us. Then, once reconciled to God, we, the Mystical Body of Christ, are sent on mission to participate actively in God’s great reconciliation of the entire created order. That work is led by those who are formed in worship. As Bob Webber often said, “Worship is the key to the renewal of the Church.” I would add, “And the Church is the key to the renewal of the world.” We are converted not just to Christ, but to the Church, to our neighbor, and to the world that God created. In worship, we tell the world its story, invite the world into the family (the Church) to be reconciled, fired with the love of God, and then sent back to the world to participate in the great reconciliation of all things. The story of God in Jesus Christ is for the life of the whole world.

In the end, we thirst to know God and thirst to know God in the other. Nothing is more exciting and fulfilling than that. Everything we do should contribute to that end, the love of God and the love of his creation. If it doesn’t, let’s all go get honest jobs doing something else.

The consensual wisdom and teachings of the Church

The first Core Value of IWS is as follows:  

Core Value 1. IWS is evangelical in nature and ecumenical in outlook, embracing and serving the whole church in its many expressions and variations of the Christian faith, particularly articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings and heritage.

The mission of IWS, forming servant leaders in Christian worship renewal, is built on the foundation of the apostolic ancient Church and its contemporary guardians. This means that IWS leans on the consensual wisdom and teachings on scriptural interpretation, liturgical practices and theological sensibilities that have been tried and tested in the Church for 2,000 years. To depart from these interpretive lenses, practices and sensibilities would put us on very shaky ground indeed. The word orthodoxy means right, or true worship. True worship is biblically centered worship that participates in the story of God’s saving work in Jesus the Christ. It is the submission of humankind to God, to be cleansed, forgiven, changed into his likeness revealed in Christ though his word and table, and then sent into the world in mission with fire to love the world to the God who is perfect love. 

Core Value 4 states that IWS offers an ongoing critical appraisal of Christian worship, with an open mind and heart to an authentic faith and practice in the twenty-first century.

In this unprecedented time of global pandemic, we find ourselves challenged to know how to do worship that is biblically faithful, theologically rich and historically rooted. We are convinced that theological education must not be divorced from the Church and her worship. It must not disregard the authority of the 2000 year history and wisdom of the Church, the Body of Christ, as revealed primarily in the Church’s liturgies and scriptures as the formational foundation for the mission of those who are named as Christ’s own. But these are unique times, aren’t they? We haven’t seen a time like this, nor have we had to critically appraise Christian worship in such a different environment when we are unable to meet face-to-face. 

Or have we?

Well, perhaps not globally. But in certain places at certain times, yes. There have been other pandemics and epidemics that have precluded worship. More to it, in the 2,000 year persecution of the Church, Christians who are incarcerated or homebound by sickness, or restricted in some way from Eucharistic worship have found ways to commune spiritually. This practice has been employed for centuries by such groups as Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, and others. The Church of England teaches with regard to spiritual communion that “Believers who cannot physically receive the sacrament are to be assured that they are partakers by faith of the body and blood of Christ and of the benefits he conveys to us by them.”[1] 

From the Methodist Church of Great Britain we read this:

“In his sermon on the means of grace, John Wesley taught that God can give us grace with or without physical means: God can work through anything or indeed nothing. Wesley argued that we should make the fullest use of the means of grace we can, but in times when that is not possible, his acknowledgement that God is more than able to work in other ways is a comfort to us.”[2]

Spiritual communion

In some Reformed and free church traditions, there has recently emerged the practice of online communion, especially during this pandemic.[3] Among other sensibilities, this practice can emphasize the nature of the Eucharist as transcending the dimensional limits of time and space. One IWS graduate did his thesis on the topic of online communion a number of years ago. There are some pretty good arguments for the practice of online communion, encouraging online worship participants to have their own bread and wine at home, and partake all at the same time. So, why not have online communion for our Opening Convocation? There are several reasons that have kept us from doing this. First, it is not a universally embraced practice. A relatively small percentage of global Christians embrace online communion at this time. Additionally, it has little historical precedent (for some good reasons), with the critique of not being rooted in the incarnational nature of the Christian faith. But, it really is a new practice. I think we should thoughtfully stay open to its future viability. But for now, the more universally embraced and historically practiced spiritual communion is what we will do for this session’s opening convocation.

We can still . . . 

What does all of this have to do with worship renewal, and more to it, to the mission of IWS? By virtue of our baptism, we participate in the identity of Christ as prophet, priest and king and all of the associated charisms and vocations. This session, we are unable to partake of the Eucharist together; however, in our spiritual communion we can still bring sacrifices of our praise, our thanksgiving, our works of virtue, our treasures, our callings, and our very selves, and unite these sacrifices with the one unique sacrifice of Christ back to the Father. We can still remember the paschal mystery of Christ, his fulfillment and summation of all of the biblical covenants, becoming the true once-for-all Paschal Lamb. And we can still seek to participate in the manifestation of that great mystery. And we do all of that through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, so that God may be glorified, and the entire creation may be finally renewed in the life of the Triune God.  

In this time of global pandemic, may the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[1] “Ministry to the Sick,” The Church of England, accessed July 14, 2020,

[2] “Spiritual Communion.” The Methodist Church in Britain., n.d.

[3] Personal conversations with Professors Jeff Barker and Greg Wilde, as well as Dean Emeritus of the Chapel Darrell Harris.

About the author

Dr. James R. Hart served as President of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies from 2007-2024.