Holy Communion and Shelter in Place

This Sunday will be the third Sunday in a row our church has not met together in deference to popular wisdom regarding social distancing as well as civil authority orders not to gather for the time being, and in consideration of our congregation’s demographics of mostly older and therefore at-risk members.  It’s looking as though Holy Week is going to be observed individually rather than communally, including Easter Sunday.  This has never happened before in my lifetime, or probably in many other American’s lifetimes.

The question the Church grapples with, including our little denominational corner of it, is how do we handle the Sacraments?  This may not be a big issue in much of Reform-theology American Christendom where the Sacraments are observed but lack a confessional reason for doing so.  If you don’t actually believe Christ is present in the consecrated elements, not just in some spiritual sense but in a real and true sense even if it wouldn’t show up under a microscope, then whether you have Holy Communion or not, or how you have it tend to be much smaller issues.

But for Confessional church bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and my own Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, this is a pretty big deal.  In obedience to 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s teaching about the seriousness of the Sacraments, how do we remain obedient to the Word of God and the historic understanding of God’s people for the last 2000 years in regards to Holy Communion?

Naturally, there is disagreement.

Some pastors and congregations have decided it makes sense to virtually consecrate elements that are prepared separately, in parishioners’ homes.  Parishioners would tune-in over their computer (though there would be no essential difference between a Skype or Zoom sort of thing or a phone call)  and the pastor would say the Words of Institution as the people at home have bread and wine already prepared and ready before them.  Proponents of this approach argue that the distance between the pastor and the parishioners and the distribution of elements across multiple households as opposed to a single altar aren’t essentially different.  The God who created space and time and is not bound by either is free to work in this arrangement.  The people are still ‘gathered’ at a single point in time (though again, arguments could be made that even this is not necessary), forming a virtual congregation in the technical sense, but a real and actual congregation in the physical sense.  Just one that is quite a bit more spread out than normal.

Of course, there are those who disagree.  Vigorously.  They argue this is an abomination and mockery of historical  practice regarding Holy Communion, and amounts to making the sacrament laicized (yes, that’s apparently a real word!) – something  now under the authority of lay men and women rather than a formally ordained and Called pastor/priest.  Some of these opponents to virtual Communion are calling for church discipline to be used with any pastor and/or congregation who insists on persisting in this practice and doesn’t repent under rebuke by an ecclesiastical supervisor.

Both groups hold a high view of Holy Communion, I’d argue.  The former group views it as so important they don’t want to withhold it from their congregants.  The latter group views it as so important that, if necessary, it must be withheld from congregants rather than debase it in unfaithfulness to Scripture and/or Confessional doctrinal stances.

Both groups also are concerned about pastoral authority, the Office of the Keys that a pastor or priest holds.  The former group believes the pastor’s authority can be extended via technology into households and elements and congregants not physically together in his presence.  The latter believes such a move essentially eliminates pastoral  authority and makes the lay participants the actual priests/pastors in the sacrament.

Quite the conundrum.  But not an unprecedented one.

I’m not foolish enough to try and offer an  answer or an opinion.  But I’ll note an interesting thing.  In an essay dated March 28, 2020 that I was referred to, the defense of the Sacrament against virtual consecration states the pastor was ordained into the office of shepherd and he has the fatherly vocation in the community to preach and administer the sacraments (emphasis mine).

This is very true.  My denomination holds – along with the historic Church – that when the people of God gather for public worship, there  is only one pastor, only one with designated authority from the community/congregation to lead worship, and officiate over the Sacraments.  Even a congregation with multiple pastors recognizes that in public worship, there is one officiant at any given moment, only one person with authority either in the preaching they are offering or in presiding over the liturgy or in officiating over the Sacraments.  Not just anyone can stand up and do those things.  The congregation – in the interest of maintaining order – designates a specific person or persons who exercise that authority as the Called and ordained pastor(s) of the congregation.

And when all things are functioning optimally, this should be the only environment where the Sacraments are received – when the community of faith gathers together in one place for public, corporate worship.  I assume that those who advocate for virtual Communion do so only in this present, mostly unprecedented situation in American Christianity.  They would not – like some Christians from other backgrounds – advocate that this is acceptable on an ongoing basis, like some televangelists have and probably still do.  I’m also assuming that they would agree that communing households separately is to be avoided unless illness or  some  other issue makes it impossible for one or more  persons in that household to join in corporate worship with the rest of the congregation.  Communion the home-bound or the seriously ill or dying at home or in a hospital or  other care facility is a long-standing practice of the people of God.

Do we put the Sacraments on hold during an emergency?  Do we offer them in the traditional ways regardless of risks and civil authority orders to the contrary?  Does the pastor individually commune each household in their congregation to administer the Sacrament in person?  Are there lessons to be gleaned from the mission field?  Do those who serve in areas where there is no local congregation and no local pastor/priest simply go without Communion indefinitely?  I’ve heard of this being the practice of some.  Is there an understanding that the father as the head of a household could act as priest to his family privately, not displacing proper ecclesial structure or authority but acting out of necessity because proper ecclesial figures are unavailable?

Does the Church have flexibility in times of crisis  to alter long-standing traditions so long as they don’t conflict with Scripture or, secondarily, doctrinal and confessional stances?

Those who argue against this in our denomination cite our Confessional documents, which include the Augsburg (unaltered) Confession, and in particular Article XIV, which states that no one should publicly teach in the church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.  The basis for this confessional statement – which every pastor in our denomination vows to uphold – is that the Roman Catholics accused Luther and his followers of eliminating the clergy and seeking to make their churches completely lay-run.  While there were other reformers who went down this path, Luther and his followers did not.  Article XIV was a clear statement to show that Luther and his followers held with the tradition of the Church on this matter and were not to be lumped in with other more radical reformers.

Is Article XIV rightly applied in this situation?  Let’s assume it is.

To me the key issue here is the word publicly.  Obviously (in our denomination and long-standing Church practice) nobody should assume an authority among God’s people on their own.  Rather, their authority comes from the people, the congregation, who request that person to serve as their public worship leader and teacher.  In our denomination that authority is further vetted and strengthened by an extensive educational and vocational training in seminary, and by ordination into our denomination in conjunction with a congregation’s Call to that person to serve as their pastor.  A man may be ordained in our denomination and therefore qualified to pastor one of our congregations, but that man holds no authority in and of himself, but only exercises any form of authority when a congregation has Called and installed him as their pastor.

So in public preaching (teaching) and administering over worship and the Sacraments, there is one or more designated (Called) people who do this.  Not just anyone can stand up and lead worship or administer the Sacraments.  I’m pretty sure everyone on both sides of this issue would agree that a non-Called (lay) person could not and should not take it upon themselves to administer the Sacraments to a public, gathered congregation of God’s people.  Not in our denomination.

An alternate interpretation of the word publicly links it to some sort of official capacity, as briefly dealt with here(without substantiating citations, however).

What happens in the home, though?

The main issue appears to be one of pastoral authority.  How do we protect the Biblical understanding that there are designated leaders/authorities within a given congregation and they – and they alone – bear responsibility to the congregation and to God for carrying out the duties they are entrusted with – preaching of the Word of God and delivery of the Sacraments of God?  Does a distributed form of Communion weaken the role of the pastor and pastoral authority, and give people the idea that pastors are unnecessary, and that they themselves can just as easily function as their own priests?

That would be a grave mistake and one we would definitely want to avoid.

But is it possible to – grudgingly perhaps, and reluctantly – recognize that families under the guidance of the father could commune at home because there is no ability to gather with the faithful in corporate worship with a Called pastor?  Could there be a way to recognize this as temporary, valid only for a pre-determined length of time because of contagion or some other unusual circumstance?

Heresy and heterodoxy is always a possibility among sinful human beings.  This is the case whether we gather corporately for worship every week or rarely.  I wonder if it might be possible to consider a limited authorization of home Communion until the COVID-19 crisis passes?  Could this both strengthen and accentuate the value of the family and heighten our appreciation for what we receive when we gather together as the people of God in corporate worship under the guidance of pastoral authority?

It’s an interesting question, and I wish I found more curiosity about the theological aspects of the question rather than overly-simplistic insistence we must change or staunch refusal to consider any form of change.  Thus far, the citations and references I’ve seen in rejecting any form of home communion don’t really allow for any middle ground.  Either you’re safely doing things the way we’ve done them for centuries, or you’re a complete heretic who is rejecting the Word of God and therefore denigrating his Sacraments.  I’d like to think there could be a middle ground that acknowledges while not ideal, we can accommodate stop-gap solutions to crisis without discarding proper theological understanding that still holds as soon as the crisis passes.







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