Scattered yet gathered
A reflection on the sharing of virtual communion. By Simon Woodman
It is often said amongst Baptists that our buildings are a function of our faith, rather than integral to it. I paraphrase. What is actually often said is that, ‘we could worship in the woods if we had to’. What matters for Baptists is the gathering and the worship, not where we do it. And Amen to that. But the Coronavirus epidemic has raised a slightly different question for us, which is that of whether we need to ‘gather’ physically at all, for church to still be church.
There is of course biblical precedent for ‘virtual fellowship’, just ask St Paul, who continued his ministry in a variety of congregations while physically distant from them, using the technology available at the time (and inadvertently writing a large part of the New Testament while he was at it). In fact, I find myself wondering whether times of extremis have the potential to bring the best out of us, theologically speaking, as we are forced to take our faith into spaces that it has not previously had to go.
For many of us, in 2020, that previously strange space is the virtual world (at least, it is strange to many of us over ‘a certain age’). The questions we are facing here are new: what does it mean for us to ‘gather’ meaningfully from our homes? How can we ‘discern the mind of Christ together’ when we are not physically in one space? And what role for the sacrament of Communion (I’ll leave the question of virtual Baptism for another day)?
If, as Chris Ellis suggests, the sacraments are a means of ‘embodied grace’, can they have meaning in the disembodied space of online gatherings? Ellis says that ‘the God who is made known to us in the breaking of bread is the same One who is present in every meal’ (Baptist Sacramentalism 2, ed. Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson, Paternoster, 2008: 14), suggesting that for Baptists, the sacrament shared together also reveals God’s presence in separation. The embodiment of God’s grace is not restricted to what we do ‘in church’, but infuses all areas of our life.
It seems to me that it is a logical extension of this to suggest that when God’s scattered people share bread and wine intentionally and in harmony, the sacramental moment is still to be found. This is not dissimilar to the common practice of sharing home communion with those who can no longer attend worship due to age or infirmity. The key difference between Baptists and some other denominations, is that our doctrine of the priesthood of all believers allows in theory for anyone authorised by the congregation to preside at the Lord’s Table, even if this is ‘normally’ done by the minister. The bread broken and wine poured at home can be for us as sacramentally valid as that which normally happens in our church buildings.
Many Baptist congregations during the Coronavirus lockdown have moved their Sunday gatherings online, sharing together in prayer, preaching, worship, silence, discernment and reflection. It is a natural question to consider what they might do in terms of sharing communion. In most Baptist churches, communion is celebrated once or twice per month, and prolonged closure of churches has raised for us the question of how to proceed.
At my own church, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, we will be sharing communion together in our virtual gathering, ‘Provoking Faith in a time of isolation’. To facilitate this, I have prepared a liturgy, which can be accessed here:
There are a number of elements of this liturgy which it is worth reflecting on.
1 It is multi-voiced.
One of the important features of our early experimenting with an online gathering has been to make it as multi-voiced as possible. The congregation ministers to one another, even as they are led in worship. So we have used a ‘Webinar’ format, where a limited number of people lead the service, and the rest of the congregation are in attendance but cannot be seen on the screen. However, the congregation are invited to join in using the ‘chat’ feature as the gathering unfolds, and their comments are intentionally drawn into the discussion that follows the sermon. It is our conviction that what will sustain the church through these difficult times is the fellowship and community that binds us to each other.
2 The image of scattering and gathering
There is a prayer in the communion section of the Baptist book Gathering for Worship which reads, ‘As this bread, once scattered over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so, Lord, may your Church be united and brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom.’ (p.28) While this prayer is not used in my liturgy, it generated the idea of the grain and the grapes having their origin in separation, but finding their fulfilment in communion.
3 The broken and re-membered body of Christ
There is something profound about the brokenness of God’s people mirroring the brokenness of Christ’s body on the cross, and the sharing of communion ‘in remembrance’ is symbolic of the fact that we are always now incomplete and imperfect and broken, and that we long for greater communion with God and with one another.
4 The image of manna
Jesus spoke of himself as the bread of life which comes down from heaven, as the fulfilment of the hope which the gift of manna in the wilderness pointed to. As manna sustained God’s people in the wilderness, so the bread of life sustains us as we too journey through difficulty and danger towards the hope that holds us.
5 The words of institution
It seemed important to include the words that are normally spoken over the bread and wine in our regular church services, rooting our scattered communion in our previous (and hopefully future) practice of gathered communion.
6 The prayer of thanksgiving
This emphasises the hope of future wholeness even as we are scattered and broken in the present, grounded in the incarnation and the cross of Christ, and held by the assurance of God’s eternal loving ingathering.
7 Jeremiah’s promise to the exiles
The taking of bread and wine are both introduced by promises of restoration given by Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. As we are exiled from our church, and from our normal lives, we need to hear again the promises of hope that infuse our faith tradition.
8 The promise of Jesus to his disciples
The service concludes with the words of Jesus to his disciples that even when they are scattered, they can have peace, courage, and hope.
Image | bearanaoficial1 | Pixabay
This is the second in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
Simon Woodman is a minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Holy Week - let us follow Jesus by Andy Goodliff
Related: Steve Holmes has been blogging on this subject
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