ministry renewing the church

The Sacraments via Electronic Communication

One of the questions that I continue to consider as Pastor of Resurrection Online is how the sacraments are made available to those that worship online. I recently ran across one take on this subject from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Visit and scroll down to find “The Sacraments via Electronic Communication.” I encourage you to read the entire article. Here is an excerpt:

“The Secretariat for the Liturgy has received several inquiries concerning the celebration of the sacraments via various types of electronic communication. The celebration of the Sacrament of Penance via telephone, participation in Mass via television or the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation via video conference have on occasion been proposed. However, electronic communication via telephone, television, video conference or internet is not sufficient for the celebration of the sacraments. The celebration of the sacraments requires the physical and geographic presence of both the gathered faithful and the bishop, priest, deacon or other presiding minister.”

This is a decision of a particular denomination in a particular location. What are your thoughts, feelings or opinions about sacraments via electronic communication?

By Andrew Conard

Christian, husband, son, brother, homeowner

18 replies on “The Sacraments via Electronic Communication”

Looking at Methodist history John Wesley didn’t feel right having unordained laity offer the sacraments to his society meetings and instead required his people to receive the sacraments at the local Anglican church. Though it doesn’t deal with electronic communication this does fall in line with the idea of needing that personal connection of the faithful and presiding minister.

Rob – You are right that Wesley did not feel that it was appropriate for unordained laity to officiate at the sacrament, however who is actually serving the bread and the juice in communion? It is not necessary for the ordained to be the one holding the elements for everyone to receive. Could a “personal connection of the faithful and presiding minister” happen via the internet?

Well, our case is much simpler since we only have two sacraments in the United Methodist Church.

Physical presence is important. Sometimes there are reasons we cannot be present physically, but those should remain special cases or extreme circumstances, not normal practice.

John – I don’t know that just having two sacraments makes it much simpler. I believe at root the question is still the same. What is important about physical presence? Is it that there is a community gathered together? Is it that the elder is present in the same room when the sacrament is received? Who is the “we” in your final sentence?

Well, it makes it 5 sacraments simpler. 🙂

The “we” could be the clergy or the body of believers. Both our sacraments are supposed to be offered only in the presence of a worshiping body of fellow Christians, although we do recognize exceptions in extraordinary circumstances.

I have prayed with members of my congregation over the phone. That is better than nothing, but it not the same as holding hands with a person and sharing the same air with them as we pray. It just is not. A soldier in Iraq can talk to his daughter via videophone on her birthday, but it is not the same as being there to hug her in person. It just is not.

If we acknowledge that truth, then why do we have difficulty or resistance to saying video baptism is something to be desired? I gather the issue here is not what to do in an emergency situation but whether Internet sacraments are a good idea as a regular and normal activity.

Finally, I’m not convinced that the Holy Spirit works in the disembodied way that Internet spirituality suggests it does. My reading of Scripture suggests that nearly all the works of the Spirit and even nearly all of the miracles in Scripture were in close physical proximity to a person who was calling upon or the focus of the Holy Spirit’s work.

Jesus did not heal people three villages away. He healed the woman who touched his robe.

Physical proximity seems important.

These are my thoughts on the matter.

John – I agree that praying with someone on the phone or talking to a daughter via videophone is not the same as being there in person. It is different. However, it is better than not praying or not seeing and hearing someone a world away. It makes possible things that were not years ago.
You are right, that many of the miracles recorded in scripture are witnessed in physical proximity. Jesus did heal the servant of the Roman centurion from a different village.
I really appreciate your distinction between what is a normal expectation and what is extraordinary circumstances.

It seems to me that the sacraments of communion and baptism are about COMMUNITY and being together. It seems like it would be difficult to foster community when everyone is watching from in front of their individual computer monitors. I do not know that much about COR’s internet campus or how it’s set up- maybe you’ve already addressed these issues- but your link on FB about the sacraments via electronic communication intrigued me and I had to read your blog post. You are clearly forging new paths of ministry and I pray God’s blessing on your efforts.

Angela – I absolutely agree that the sacraments are about community. Neither baptism nor communion is intended for an individual apart from a community. This brings the question, what is the nature of community? Most of all, thank you for your prayers.

Andrew and John- you both make excellent points, and I’m learning just from reading the conversation. I think that I agree with both of you somewhat – Like John, I agree that Physical presence is important (especially for our own comprehension and internalization of the message of Jesus), but like Andrew, I believe that the Holy Spirit can absolutely connect across the internet, and that an online church can include sacraments. I base that on two major things – Jesus’ ability to work at a distance, and the Church precedent of ocular communion

Jesus may have done many of his miracles through physical contact, but what about the healing of the Centurions servant (Matthew 8:5-14)? Jesus clearly works at a distance on a person he cannot see – quite important for the internet church. Also, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, yet was not physically there himself. Other verses such as Matthew 18:20 are also relevant (“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”).

Furthermore, there is some precedent for an internet communion. Ocular Communion (‘Augenkommunion’) became the norm for the church in the 13th Century – people ‘received’ the host by gazing upon it as the priest would elevate it, believing that their vision could provide the same means to grace that would be attained through physical consumption (see Nathan Mitchell, “Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass”). Though there were doubtless many reasons behind the transition to ocular communion, one theory states that it reflected a changing piety in the larger society, which emphasized visuals in worship (perhaps a similar visual piety can be seen in the Eastern Orthodox use of Icons to instruct people in the scriptures). It seems to me that we live in a similar visually-focused society, as people now watch their news instead of read it, as seen by the gradual transition of news sites to video clips away from print stories, etc.

I’m guessing that part of the reason that assistants can dispense communion (without ordination) is tied to the concept of supervision; it is assumed that the presiding pastor in charge of the communion will ensure that helpers administer the host in an appropriate way. If that is true, I could see people having some difficulties with the idea of unsupervised communion rites being performed by the laity. What if supervision could be created for microchurches?

If microfellowships and the internet church take off like they look like they will, the UMC will have to come to term with this issue. I propose they start looking at a license or subclass of ordination that allows for microfellowship leaders to administer the sacrament, perhaps under supervision.

Basically, is it possible to have both?

Bill – The idea of ocular communion is new to me. Interesting… You are right that the culture that we live in is increasingly visual, however I am not willing to go with visual reception of the sacrament.
I am on the same track as you on the idea of a micro church leader being equipped and trained to offer communion to a physical gathered community, while supervised and guided by a pastor remotely. I believe that it may be possible to take part in a fuller liturgy than is present in some of our churches during Holy Communion. This seems to mix both a physical gathered community with remote supervision, which in many cases is what is happening now – hospital, home bound, etc.

I understand the idea that physical proximity provokes different human emotion and response, but in the end, is it not us but Christ in us who is the difference in all this?

We are just vessels. I see no difference in the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God if we pray over someone 2 inches from them or 2 countries via an electronic medium. Christ brings the change, we just facilitate if you will.

John: Thinking though in early AD years, many miracles would have happened close by as that was about the only way other than letters you could connect with someone. But as Andrew pointed out, there was the Roman centurion story. I wonder if that would be the case in this day in the Information

I am pretty non-traditional in my views of some items. I do have a small catholic background, but I guess not enough to sway me in a fully orthodox manner. What makes anyone any different to administer sacraments, whether in person or via other mediums? We (who are in Christ) are all saved by grace through faith and stand righteous in God’s eyes because of the work of the cross. Paul calls of us all minsters of reconciliation and we are all to remember the death of the Lord til he comes.

These are thoughts of mine please take them sincerely as late night writings of someone who wanted to chime into a good discussion. =]

Grace and Peace,

Mark – Thank you for your late night writing! 🙂 I agree that there is not a difference in the efficacy of prayer whether close or at a distance. There is a difference in the pastoral care which a particular individual receives. I am not ready to go with your suggestion that anyone administer the sacraments – although do you mean serve, officiate, supervise when you write “administer”

Whenever I think about this question, I am reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, in which Ransom is deciding whether or not to engage in mortal combat with the Un-Man, who is attempting a temptation of Perelandra’s ‘Eve.’ Ransom initially thinks that such a physical contest is a ridiculous idea and would denigrate the spiritual struggle that is going on:

“It would degrade the spiritual warfare to the condition of mere mythology. But here he got another check. Long since on Mars, and more strongly since he came to Perelandra, Ransom had been perceiving that the triple distinction of truth from myth and of both from fact was purely terrestrial- was part and parcel of that unhappy division between soul and body which resulted from the Fall. Even on earth the sacraments existed as a permanent reminder that the division was neither wholesome nor final. The Incarnation had been the beginning of its disappearance.”

I think that since the sacraments are physical and tangible means of God communicating grace to us, any expression of them which by nature obfuscates that embodied instrumentality would seem to diminish the nature of the sacrament.

Something potentially analogous would be marriage- I can write my wife letters and facebook messages and such about how much I love her(and I certainly should and do!) but if there were inherently no physical aspect to our relationship, it wouldn’t be much of a marriage. Likewise, if all there were was spatial proximity with no heart or devotion behind it, it would likewise not be much of a relationship. I think the sacraments are meant (at least partially) to remind us of the fact that we are both physical and spiritual, and that neither is complete in and of itself.

For the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (confession), I could see remote administration. After all, is a “speaker phone” that different than a confessional with a screen between the minister and the penitent?

For Communion, ministerial presence is important. Sure, communion may be distributed by laity, but I think the blessing by the minister should be done in person. And while the Roman Catholic church does allow for Communion to be administered to those who cannot attend church (e. g. to those in the hospital), the blessing of the elements must be done by a minister in person and the distribution must be administered by a trained Eucharistic Minister, ordained or lay. There may be the opportunity to extend this somehow to remote congregations, but the logistics could be difficult, even for a Protestant. (Do you really feel comfortable sticking a blessed bread or wafer in a FedEx envelope? And if you believe in transubstantiation, it is even worse – the body of Christ in a box! And shipping liquids is always difficult.)

Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Last Rights definitely have additional meaning thanks to the physical contact afforded by being administered in person, even if you don’t consider all of these sacraments.

(By the way, I am a United Methodist, but was raised in the Catholic church, so my opinions are (a) purely my own and (b) thoroughly muddled!)

Andrew, what would be the problem with trying to connect the online congregation with a local congregation for Holy Communion and, most certainly, Baptism? Our faith is meant to be lived in community and there are aspects of community that can be experienced online, however, there are other aspects, such as physical presence that cannot be experienced by a single individual sitting in front of a computer or television screen. The act of laying hands in Baptism or the touch as I share the bread and cup with a parishoner and call them by name in Holy Communion are physical acts that cannot be replicated in an online environment. More importantly, these are acts that cement us together as we become the body of Christ in the world.

In a way, I am reminded of watching Dr. Gene Scott on late night television back in the 80’s when he suggested that we could take a piece of bread and a glass of juice while watching him on tv and this would be communion. It’s just not the same.

I wrote a commentary on this topic, which you can find at the following link if you’re interested:

The website mentioned in the column was, as I came to understand, constructed by a licensed local pastor serving in the Tennessee Annual Conference. I believe the bishop of that conference, Bishop Wills, took action that led to its removal (though a front page is still available with a statement indicating that the author of it hopes to reinstate it).

The theological problems wrapped up in all forms of virtual communion are nothing less than the neo-gnosticism of the Church. In our increasingly digitized age, that gives us all the more reason to understand ourselves through the Scriptural metaphor of a body – something incarnate, fleshy, and organic.

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