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Bread and wine and Zoom, many churches did dispersed communion

I am in the slightly awkward position of having published a story about churches NOT doing communion/the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist during the church lockdown – and then my local church ran a communion service and invited people at home to have bread and wine/grape juice ready.

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Perhaps it needs a new name; we’ll call it “dispersed communion.”

For some, this very different Easter was precious.

During the past few weeks, many Christians still have taken part in Holy Communion, some by doing “dispersed communion” – having bread and wine/grape juice at home and their minister on screen. Sadly, this has not been something Christians have had a common mind on – with equally passionate Christians believing they and other Christians are unable to take part.

Still, it is also true that we all were united across the Easter weekend in a desire to take part in giving thanks for our saviour’s sacrifice.

Many Anglicans – especially Sydney’s evangelicals – held hundreds of communion services this week, suggesting people participate at home. For example, people who attend St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney were asked to have bread and wine/grape juice ready to take part in the Easter Sunday service. Many local churches ran similar services. (This is my local church, St James Croydon.)

Instructions from the Book of Common Prayer’s “communion for the sick” informed the Sydney Anglican response: the sick, unable to get to church, were to be told they took part in communion and “eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to their soul’s health, although they do not receive the Sacrament with their mouth.”

Given that 350-year-old advice – doing dispersed communion via the internet was not much of a stretch. Virtual communion, it seems, has a long history.

However, in other parts of Australia, most Anglicans did not hold home communion.

Many Baptist churches held communion, on the net, encouraging participation at home.

Hillsong Church ran a Good Friday service on their website with home communion. A number of people have told Eternity it was a moving service.

The Uniting Church put out special guidelines which gave local congregations the option to hold communion at home or not. The guidelines for going ahead with communion said ministers would acknowledge a sense of incompleteness. “The liturgy should acknowledge the exceptional circumstances in which the service is taking place, noting with regret the things which are absent — the tangible physical presence of the whole community, the possibility of a physical distribution of the elements to all the gathered people. At the same time the liturgy should remind the community of the ongoing presence of Christ and the hope which is our Christian inheritance — that even in these difficult times, Christ communes with us.”

Some Uniting churches used local theologian Amelia Koh Butler’s “Sacrament of empty hands” – with empty vessels – written as an act of solidarity with “an anxious and hurting world.”

Churches that used Zoom were able to encourage people to eat and drink together and see each other doing it. Other people simply ran their own communion service by themselves at home.

For some, this very different Easter was precious. “Strangely I found both Good Friday and Easter Day services memorable, and possibly the most meaningful Easter I’ve had for a number of years,” wrote one commentator on a ‘With All Due Respect’ Facebook discussion. Another sent in the picture at the top of this story.

“How will this change our theology when the crazy time has passed?” – Rhys Bezzant

While those in favour just went ahead and did it in the main, if you search online, you are more likely to find written articles by people who did NOT do communion via the net. We reported that Catholics were given the advice “Can’t go to Mass? Meet Jesus in the Word of God” in an article from La Croix, the Catholic newspaper from France that was distributed locally.

Father Gilles Drouin of the Insitut Catholique in Paris, says: “People can read the Word of God with members of their family or those they live with. Or they can pray the Liturgy of the Hours, either alone or with others.”

From the protestant corner Ridley Melbourne’s Rhys Bezzant says, “I want to make the case that it is better to forego communion for the time being than pursue a practice which might have dangerously unforeseen consequences after the crisis has passed. Do we really want to become observers of the priest taking the bread and the wine?”

“How will this change our theology when the crazy time has passed? I can genuinely see why some might want to encourage small groups to conduct communion services in their own homes. But this changes the purpose of communion, such that it is reduced to individual preference, without factoring in the long-range good of the fellowship, learning to wait on each other, or to build up the body.”

Another well known conservative minister, Andrew Heard of EV Church in Gosford, NSW, gave his reasons for not doing communion in a short video for the Geneva Push church planting network.

He argues that St Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 distinguishes between eating at home, and “what you do gathered.” Communion is a gathered act, reminding us that we are gathered to Christ each other and to each other.

A few Presbyterian Churches did home communion, but it seems to be a minority. In Queensland, the Presbyterian church very strongly discouraged it.

We’ll look back at a time when we held communion at home – or paused it – and give thanks.

Those taking part in home communion will report that they were certainly gathered to each other – in the house, certainly, and probably to different degrees to others.

But to take Rhys Bezzant’s point – will there be a change to our theology? There probably will be more attention by many churches to placing services online to serve isolated people better. There will be a new-found respect for videographers, designers, and better microphones.

But Scott Morrison’s concept of a “snapback” (to the old levels of government welfare programs) will apply to communion as well. I trust and hope that we will be sitting in pews/on chairs/kneeling/standing at an altar rail/around a stage and receiving bread and wine/grape juice in the way we always did. We’ll look back at a time when we held communion at home – or paused it – and give thanks.

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