Three Communion Practices to Quit Doing
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
What I'm about to share isn't news. It's not even all that new.
It's actually official teaching and guidance of our Church. In two of these three cases, these have been the official position of The United Methodist Church at least since we adopted This Holy Mystery (2004). In the third, originally stated in 2013 and renewed in 2014, the basis for the prohibition announced by the Council of Bishops is also to be found in This Holy Mystery.
The thing is, I keep getting requests, lots of them, for resources or guidance about how to DO these things our Church actually forbids.
So, it's pretty clear at least some folks may not yet have gotten the word that these three things are in fact forbidden as part of our practice of Holy Communion in The United Methodist Church.
Without further ado, here's the list.
The practice of consecrating elements ahead of time for the convenience of the pastor not having to go to small or remote congregations, weekend camps, or other such occasions is inappropriate and contrary to our historic doctrine and understanding of how God’s grace is made available in the sacrament (Article XVIII, The Articles of Religion, BOD; page 64). If authorized leadership is not available for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, other worship services such as love feasts, agape meals, or baptismal reaffirmations are valid alternatives that avoid the misuse of Communion elements. – This Holy Mystery, p. 32I have quit being surprised by the number of requests for liturgies pastors may use to preconsecrate elements either for another church served by a person who is not authorized to preside or for a special event a group in the church is doing at a remote location. It's probably time I just write a generic response I can copy and paste each time.The answer is actually very simple, as This Holy Mystery makes clear.We are not to preconsecrate elements at all, ever, under any circumstances.This Holy Mystery cites such actions as a violation of our doctrinal standards.Why? Because celebrating Holy Communion requires the gathered community with its authorized presider.We always need both, the community and its authorized presider, in real time.
What about extending the table? Isn't that preconsecration?
This Holy Mystery says we are to extend the table to those unwillingly absent, and does not see this as an instance of preconsecration, nor an instance of "reserving" the sacrament, which is forbidden by Article XXVIII of the Articles of Religion.
"The Communion elements are consecrated and consumed in the context of the gathered congregation. The Table may be extended, in a timely manner, to include those unable to attend because of age, illness, or similar conditions. Laypeople may distribute the consecrated elements in the congregation and extend them to members who are unavoidably absent." (p. 22).
Note to whom the table is extended: those unwillingly or unavoidably absent from the celebration of the gathered community. This refers to people who are sick, imprisoned, or even whose work schedules may make it impossible for them to attend a regular celebration with the community. This does not include persons in other congregations, nor does it include those who willingly choose to meet where their authorized presider is not present.
So yes, we SHOULD by all means extend the table to those unwillingly absent. This is neither preconsecration nor reservation. It's including those who could not be with us in our participation of the body and blood of Christ at the soonest possible time. Mark Stamm's book, Extending the Table, is an outstanding guide for United Methodist congregations seeking to establish, sustain and strengthen this ministry.
But the bottom line is this. If you're missing an authorized presider, either find one, or do not celebrate Holy Communion.
And to my fellow elders or others authorized to preside: Go where you're needed! We authorize you to preside WITH the community of the gathered faithful, not FOR it.
Here's a shorthand way to remember it:
"Elders itinerate. Elements don't."
- Self-Serve or Drop-In Communion
“Both “self-service” Communion, where people help themselves, and “drop-in” Communion, where the elements are available over a period of time, are contrary to the communal nature of the sacrament, which is the celebration of the gathered community of faith.” – This Holy Mystery, p. 23Requests for resources to guide Christmas Eve drop-in communion services tend to start coming to me by email or Facebook by mid-November each year. Sometimes these requests come from newer pastors who are just then learning that their congregation has this practice, check the Book of Worship, don't find any resources for it, and then ask if I or someone might create some. Sometimes they come from more seasoned pastors who simply want to try something different this year.Again, the answer is simple. Don't do this. At all. And if your congregation has a tradition of it, simply let them know you, as a clergy person in The United Methodist Church, are not authorized to offer such a service.The quote from This Holy Mystery provides a succinct explanation.Holy Communion is "communal."It's the work of the whole gathered congregation who offer themselves to God together as "the church Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races" in praise and thanksgiving, ask for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all of them gathered as one body and on their gifts of bread and wine, and then share together, as one body, from the one loaf (or loaves) and the one cup (or cups) over which they have prayed the Spirit's outpouring to "make them be for us the body and blood of Christ." It's about all of us, not individuals or biological families or groups of friends who come to receive blessed elements on their own schedule.
If you want to have some sort of "drop-in service" or devotional practice on Christmas Eve or other occasions, you can certainly do that. Establish a period of time (perhaps mid-afternoon through early evening on Christmas Eve) in which you will offer prayers for healing, or prayers of blessings for families or groups or individuals. Then, at your Christmas Eve service that night, when the body is gathered together, celebrate Holy Communion as it is intended to be: communally.
- Online Communion
"As the practice of online communion is a relatively new experiment, the Council of Bishops called for an extension of the moratorium of the practice in its meeting on November 7, 2014." Reported here.This is the second of two such (brief) statements from the Council of Bishops (the first was in 2013) calling for any and all practices of online celebration of Holy Communion to cease and for our churches not to begin any such practices until further notice.While this is a very brief, even terse statement, it was based on the considerable work of a special consultation convened earlier in 2013 by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The General Board of Discipleship (Discipleship Ministries) and the Office of Christian Unity and Interfaith Relationships (OCUIR). Papers presented at that consultation can be found here.Primary among the concerns raised among these original papers were that a physically gathered community is essential to the nature of the sacraments in our incarnational faith, that online practices of communion necessarily involve self-serve communion (which is already forbidden by This Holy Mystery), and that asynchronous celebrations (watching a communion service online at a later time and participating then) amounts to both self-serve and drop-in communion, also forbidden by This Holy Mystery. Along with this, we heard responses from members of the World Methodist Federation that permitting online sacramental practice would be damaging to our relationships with other Methodist bodies worldwide, and from our ecumenical partners that allowing such practices could destroy current relationships and make others nearly impossible to pursue.After issuing its moratorium in 2013 in response to the request and the papers submitted by this consultation, the Council of Bishops also created a Task Force on Online Communion in connection with the Faith and Order Committee which held a discussion of papers presented by its members in January 2015. Those papers, which can be found here, overwhelmingly support the notion that online sacramental celebration is inconsistent with the nature of the sacraments and damaging both to our own churches and to our ecumenical relationships and should not be encouraged or allowed. The result is no legislation is forthcoming from the Faith and Order Committee proposing to modify denominational standards to make room for legitimizing online sacramental celebrations.The online world, and social media in particular, are a significant venue for reaching and supporting people in a journey of discipleship in many ways. Indeed, the very first recommendation of the original consultation group was for the Council of Bishops to call for United Methodist congregations to learn and adopt the best possible practices for online ministry presence in every way they could. The Council of Bishops did issue that call when it acted in 2013. And we have many resources, especially through United Methodist Communications, to help all of us do that. At the same time, the initial consultation, the Council of Bishops, and the Task Force on Online Communion with the Faith and Order Committee have all concluded that celebrating the sacraments online is not consistent either with the nature of the sacraments or with what online ministries can do best.
In Summary: Do This, Not That
- Do celebrate communion as a gathered community with your authorized preside, and do extend the table immediately thereafter to those of your worshiping community who were unwillingly absent.
Do not preconsecrate elements for other congregations to use or for groups meeting offsite without an authorized presider to use.
- Do find ways to offer prayer, blessings and ministries of healing for individuals, families and groups in your congregation.
Do not turn the celebration of communion into a "come when it's convenient for you" event.
- Do create a compelling online presence for your congregation, and utilize social media, online tools and apps to maximize the effectiveness of its ministries.
Do not create opportunities for persons to "neglect the (physical) gathering together of themselves" (Hebrews 10:25) by offering sacraments online. When it comes to the sacraments, our physical presence to each other is essential to their very nature.