Back when we first went into lockdown, our church decided to use zoom and Facebook to enable us to continue gathering. We recognised that these means were not perfect but we felt that the Scriptural injunction to gather was so important that we should try by every means possible to do so. As a church with a Brethren background, we also prioritised weekly breaking of bread and so if possible we wanted to continue to do so. Watching a vicar do the communion service on facebook or YouTube did not really sit with our understanding of what communion is, however in many respects including it in Zoom fitted very well with our practice. However, we knew that there was some debate about whether you could do “Zoom” communion, so we didn’t want to just rush at it without thinking. As a result, I spent some time looking at the issues rote up some blog articles. Whilst some people have told me they disagree with our decision and I’ve read articles arguing against “online communion, I’m still not convinced though that those articles engaged with the arguments raised by me and others.
Anyway, as we are heading back into lockdown and those types of issues are coming up about whether to meet and the implications of not having in person services, I thought it might be worth running through the issues again. This is important also in relation to my recent articles about dialling back the hyperbole. Whilst many believers are capable of cordial conversation, there are sadly those about determined to accuse anyone who insists on in person meeting of being unloving and anyone who chooses to provide for communion via Zoom of being Gnostic heretics who have conformed to the world and lack in Biblical manhood. So, one more into the breech,
The main proposition
The core argument is as follows. First of all, that Scripture requires us to gather and not to give up on this. It contains nothing in terms of explicit provision for exceptions to this and even an argument by implication is tricky. The local church is meant to be a gathered body. Furthermore, I argued in my paper that in terms of Biblical Theology, the gathering of God’s people is associated with feeding and protecting. Good shepherds do not give up on feeding and protecting the flock within their care. Indeed, the opposite of a flock that is gathered to feed and be protected is a scattered flock that is denied food and at risk from wolves. We associate such circumstances with rebellion and exile in the Bible. Therefore, my responsibility as a pastor remains to ensure that the flock are gathered, fed and protected.
This is important because we are looking now at the intent and purpose of gathering. In ethics we talk about three types of ethic, deontological is about following commands because we are told to, situational looks at how we respond to the circumstances and the purpose of a rule, virtue ethics looks at the type of people who do something. Here we see all three perspectives coming together. We are not just told to meet, there is a reason and purpose to it. Furthermore, gathering is something that God’s people just do.
Now, this is the important point. Those of us arguing for communion are arguing for communion to continue. We are arguing that God’s word calls us to meet and to share the supper. Therefore, whilst we have been accused of innovation, our argument is that it is in fact those who are not breaking bread who are innovating by ceasing to observe the supper without clear command or instruction from Scripture.
Their basis for this is in effect that being asked to come together for the supper is impossible in a lockdown situation when churches have to close. Notice that at one level, there is significant agreement here that Scripture requires us to come together for the supper. The difference is not on our understanding of that but whether or not using Zoom for those purposes goes in anyway towards obedience of that command. The argument then is that COVID provides a health exemption for a temporary period of time. We are loving our neighbours.
This is the argument that I feel requires a level of special pleading. I argued at the time that if we did not think that zoom met the criteria for meeting and we believed we were under obligation to do so then we should make every effort to meet, that we should do so as safely as possible and we should recognise that God’s law trumps human law.
However, what you will notice is that there isn’t a major Biblical disagreement about the need to come together and share in communion. Rather the basis for disagreement is a philosophical one, an ontological one. The argument is not that we shouldn’t take communion on-
line but that we can’t because it will never count as the real deal. Ontologically, meeting on zoom does not count as an actual physical or embodied meeting.
An embodied gathering
This is where my point about purpose and intent comes up. There is a reason for coming together, it is order that we might see and hear from one another so that we might discern the body. We rightly recognise that this is vital. Now, the assumption is that zoom does not count as embodied gathering and so we talk about virtual services and communion.
It is important at this stage to be clear that with regards to online activity, virtual events has a specific meaning. The virtual world is the one on the computer itself, it’s a world where my true self is kept hidden and I create characters and activities online. Zoom is doing something different. It is enabling me to be seen and heard across distance. I can hear you and see you. In other words, it provides some of the benefits missing when in person gathering is absent. We talk about disembodied voices when we can hear someone but not see them. So, again zoom is different, I can hear and see. The one thing I cannot do is touch, there are no hugs or handshakes. But there again, I can’t hug or shake hands with someone at the building either due to social distancing.
The point is this, we are not Gnostics. We agree that embodied, physical life is important but we also are not superstitious the other way. We understand that embodied, physical life matters because it serves a purpose and that our online events support that purpose.
Now, I appreciate that some people will struggle philosophically to get their head around the possibility that Zoom and Teams might be fulfilling the purpose of embodiment. . I understand that and hence take a charitable view of those who won’t take communion or recognise that the zoom call is a church meeting. This is about permission and allowance. However, the argument is one to do with philosophy and experience. What hasn’t been provided is a Biblical reason for not doing church via zoom. Strictly speaking if they want to be obedient to Scripture, they should use every means to gather, they should of course do so carefully and safely, perhaps by meeting outdoors. In that respect, if we think that zoom does not count as gathering for worship then we should have some sympathy with people like John MacArthur who are willing to breach regulations for public worship.
The secondary arguments
It is worth having a quick look at some of the secondary arguments made. It does feel to me that these are thrown in to thicken out the argument because otherwise, the Biblical case against using zoom for communion is quite thin relying on a disputed philosophical understanding of an application of one verse!
The three main examples are as follows.
This is a form of response to my point that it is in exile that food and protection are denied. This argument recognises that point but suggests that we are in face under some form of discipline. From that position, the whole church has been excluded from the Lord’s Table for a period of time and so to offer alternative communion is to try and circumnavigate that discipline.
My response back one year ago to this still stands. First of all, if you are a church leader, especially a national church leader and you are making this claim, then you cannot continue in position in good conscience. I think it is bad form when those who have been looked to as leaders and influence formers then have a go at the church. If the church is in sin they need to own it and take their share of the responsibility. So, if any prominent people want to stand up and say “The church is in corporate sin and so I must repent, make reparations for my share in the sin and step down.” It is important that those responsible for the health of the church take responsibility for it.
Secondly, I argued at the start of the pandemic and still believe that whilst the whole of creation is under judgement because of the curse, this is different from trying to spot specific judgements in response to specific sin. I would caution against pronouncing judgement without the support of clear, special revelation on the matter.
It might help to think in terms of individual pastoral care. If someone is seriously ill then they will experience physical pain and there will also be the emotional and spiritual pain of isolation and restriction from being able to get to church. Those experiences will in one way act as a form of discipline to encourage the believer to cling closer to Christ. Yet, unless we can trace a specific consequence from a specific action or pattern of behaviour, it is highly irregular for a pastor to go in and say “Your sickness is a form of punishment for your sin, so suck it up.”
Of course, because this is part of life now in the world as it is, there will always be an element that as God uses all of our experiences for good that this will include an element of discipline but he will also be bringing blessing and fruit through it too.
Church leaders who see elders having a responsibility to oversee who comes to the table are concerned that this aspect of discipline is lost with online communion. You see, I can sit at home and take communion without anyone checking that I am in good fellowship and standing with the church.
The reality is that there is nothing to stop me from pouring myself a glass of port, picking up a bread roll and opening the Book of Common Prayer. There never has been anything to stop me from doing that at home.
The important thing then is whether or not the communion act is a recognised church gathering. I can do what I want at home unpoliced but what happens when I try to do those things in the context of church. The reality again is that Zoom is not a free for all. So, if I should not be taking communion then the host has a couple of options. They can mute my microphone and restrict my participation, they can refuse my admittance to the meeting and they can remove me from the call. So discipline is possible in a zoom world.
The other argument is pragmatic. If people can happily participate in church at home and we tell them that it counts and is adequate then why will they bother coming back to in person worship at the end? Of course the immediate response to that is that it is unlikely to bother anyone who thinks that it doesn’t matter at all and that Zoom is a like for like replacement for chapel attendance. However, I don’t really know people who are within the scope of this debate who think that.
God did not worry that if he put Adam and Eve in the beauty of Eden that they would never long for the greater glory of the new Eden, the Ne Creation. It is possible to see that something is good for its time and context. It is possible to see Zoom as adequate, our best effort to meet when our building are closed whilst longing for something more.
I will never forget the first time we went on Zoom together for communion or the first time we had music in our online gatherings. It was moving and poignant. I remember shedding a tear or two. Those tears were partly of joy. It was a special and good moment. There was a genuine sense of body ministry as we prayed together, shared testimony and looked at God’s Word. I wish that those who have been so quick to dismiss zoom facilitated communion as a joke could have been there to actually experience something that whatever it was definitely wasn’t a joke or plying at church. We broke bread and drunk wine at the same time. The one bread is Christ’s body and so although we were many, as we were participating in that one body which is Christ, feeding on him in our hearts, we were reminded that we are one.
However, my tears were tears of longing too. Yes it was beautiful and special but rather than leaving e complacent, it left me longing for a greater day to come. Then one day after we returned from lockdown, we brought in little individual communion packs and we shared communion together at the Chapel. Again, it was special and moving for those gathering. At the same time, it caused usnot to settle for bought in communion packs and sitting 2 metres away from each other with maks on our faces unable to sing. Rather, we longed all the more for the day when we could crowd in together, when there would be chatter and singing, preaching and quiet then passing the bread and the cup, tearing strips off of a real loaf and passing the basket between us reminding each other “Christ’s body was given for you.”
One day again, we will share communion exactly like that. There ill be great joy. There will be tears too. It will be just right for our circumstances. However, even then we will look at one another and say “This is great but we long for that better day when the whole church gathers around the throne for the wedding feast of the lamb.” Then the leader will say
“As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again”
Isn’t all of this rather moot as we move to the end of COVID. The English lockdown after all permits physical church gathering. I think there are three reasons for why this is still worth engaging with.
First of all, in practical terms, there are areas such as Scotland where church buildings have been closed again and many English churches find themselves still unable to open up rented premises whilst others consider it better not to open up even though they can.
Secondly, sadly, some of the most vocal voices throughout COVID have not been those wishing to learn from and understand each other but those looking to denounce churches, accuse them of compromise and lay charges of Gnosticism. It’s important we respond to that so that it does not become a point of future division. Even those who disagree and take a different view can do so charitably whilst defending brothers and sisters from false accusation.
Thirdly we need to disagree better. We need to learn how to have informed and gracious conversations between believers who are able to disagree on second and third order matters whilst continuing to find fellowship and unity together in the first order truth of the Gospel.