As COVID-19 pandemic has caused many congregations to move worship online, pastors are concerned about members’ inability to partake in traditional communion services. The concern grows even more as Holy Week and Easter services loom.
The United Methodist Church has debated online communion in the past, but none of the previous discussions ever considered a reality like the current COVID-19 pandemic when gathering in groups is dangerous. As many local churches have moved worship services online for an indefinite period, some bishops are relaxing a moratorium on online communion and providing guidelines for celebrations during the pandemic. These bishops expect churches to return to in-person communion only once the pandemic is over. Some are also proposing alternatives to online communion, including a virtual love feast or agape feast.
West Ohio Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who is also co-chair of the United Methodist-Episcopal dialogue committee, is among those who recently posted guidelines for churches wishing to offer communion virtually to their congregants. Palmer declares the COVID-19 pandemic a time of "In Extremis" (an extremely difficult situation). “’In Extremis’ is the position of engaging in ministry because we are dealing with an extremely difficult situation which requires us to adopt the posture of Christian hospitality,” wrote Palmer.
The Florida Conference published a booklet with online and video resources from Florida Bishop Ken Carter and North Georgia Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson. It also includes a Love Feast Liturgy by Rev. Rev. Magrey deVega, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida, and an article by the Rev. Paul W. Chilcote, former professor at Africa University and Duke Divinity School.
In Louisiana, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey invited the Rev. Lane Cotton Winn and the Rev. Juan Huertas to develop liturgy specifically for virtual communion. Winn is lead pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while Huertas serves First United Methodist Church in Houma, Louisiana.
Great Plains Area Bishop Ruben Saenz recently livestreamed a communion service for clergy and provided guidelines for pastors to offer communion online.
Bishop William McAlilly of the Nashville Area also released a statement allowing for online communion during the crisis.
The College of Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction issued a joint statement saying, “We stand with our clergy who through reflection and prayer (believe) that their congregation would be strengthened in this hour through the sharing of Holy Communion.” Their statement encourages clergy to offer online celebrations but also says, “We trust the wisdom and the faithfulness of our clergy to discern such pastoral matters in their own context.”
An article from Discipleship Ministries discusses the unique challenges and considerations to the question of online communion that the current reality of COVID-19 poses. At the same time, the agency encourages alternative practices for congregations and annual conferences, including a virtual love feast.
On Maundy Thursday this year, the Revs. John and Raquel Feagins, pastors of La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas, will use ZOOM to host a community dinner and Agape Party from their home. The congregation will celebrate Communion online on Easter Sunday.
The love feast or agape feast is an ancient church practice in which Christians come together to share bread and water or other beverage. Wine is usually not used to avoid confusion with Holy Communion. Participants often also share a full meal as they pray and offer thanksgivings. Unlike communion, the love feast does not require the participation of a clergyperson and can occur in homes or other settings where family members or close friends gather. It can also be led by a pastor or church leader remotely through a live broadcast.
Encouraging United Methodists in the Baltimore-Washington Conference to consider gathering virtually or with their households for a love feast, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling wrote, "A Love Feast, created and encouraged in a time in our history when circuit-riding preachers could not always be present to consecrate the bread and wine, draws people together around a simple, shared and holy meal. Today, people might come to a common virtual table online or by phone, pray together, offer blessings, and eat crackers or fruit or bread and drink juice or water. It is the gathering, and the intentional bonding in community -- the love, rather than the feast -- that brings meaning."
Eastern Pennsylvania Bishop Peggy Johnson encourages using the love feast in lieu of "cyber-communion," but adds, "“However, if the pastor feels a strong movement of the Spirit that Holy Communion should be offered through online means, I leave that to their discretion and discernment."
As the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying restrictions on gatherings continue, pastors are seeking ways to extend comfort and grace to their parishioners. For some, online celebrations of Holy Communion -- where authorized by the bishop -- and love feasts can be part of the answer.
Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer with the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
- Online Communion Dilemma by Cynthia Wilson, Derek Weber and Diana Sanchez-Bushong
- The Love Feast by Cynthia Wilson
- A Liturgy for When We Cannot Meet by the Order of Saint Luke
- This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion
United Methodist Publishing House
- UMPH expands Book of Worship, CE Bible permissions; offers free resources
- Services of Word and Table, The Book of Worship, p. 33
- The Love Feast, The Book of Worship, p. 581
- Christian Worship and Devotion during Social Distancing (Ministry Matters)
Area and annual conference resources
- Bishop Ruben Saenz’s online communion remarks (Great Plains)
- Celebrating the Love Feast (Baltimore-Washington)
- Guidelines for Online Communion during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic (Great Plains)
- Guidelines on Virtual Communion (Nashville Episcopal Area)
- Holy Communion in the midst of a global pandemic/virtual communion (Louisiana)
- In Extremis (West Ohio)
- Online Communion Guidelines (West Ohio)
- Pastoral Resources for Administering Communion during the Coronavirus Pandemic (Florida)
- Western Jurisdiction offers guidance for the observation of holy communion
- Comfort Food: A Feast of Love by Marcia McFee
- Online Communion and the COVID-19 Crisis: Problems and Alternatives by Mark W. Stamm