Pastoral Letter on Virtual Communion
To the Parishioners of All Saints,
In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, life has changed quite dramatically for all of us. One of the particular changes, as you well know, has been our Sunday morning worship. As our Session has wrestled with how best to maintain some form of worshiping together, we have also considered the question of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. As you know, our ordinary practice is to celebrate weekly. Is it possible to maintain the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when we cannot be present together?
Many churches are wrestling with this question right now. After deliberating over this as a Session, we have chosen to answer the question with a simple “no.” However, we would like to provide an explanation for that answer, both because we believe it’s important for you to understand our decision and because some churches are coming to a different conclusion. We do not intend for this letter to be a commentary on the decisions of other churches, but only an explanation of our own thinking. Nor is this intended as an exhaustive consideration of the question. We have summarily outlined our position below, but in the coming days, we will flesh out these points in more detail on our blog.
Our theology doesn’t change with our circumstances: Our observance of the Lord’s Supper is biblically and theologically defined. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders do not suspend or nullify our theology.
It matters that we are together: The Lord’s Supper requires that we be physically gathered as a vital aspect of the observance. If we are not together, then it is not Communion.
It matters that a Minister of Word and Sacrament is present: The sacraments of baptism and Communion belong to the Church, not to individuals. As such, they are administered only by those ministers whom God has made responsible for the church and to whom he has therefore given the authority to administer the sacraments.
Frequency is not biblically mandated: There is no reason given in Scripture to believe that Communion needs to be observed weekly. At All Saints, we love to observe Communion weekly, and this is not forbidden in Scripture. But when circumstances don’t allow us to observe it weekly, we are neither deprived of the grace of God nor found to be in disobedience to his Word.
We should submit to God’s providence in this matter: Since gathering together in the same place is necessary for this sacrament, and since gathering together is not permitted at this time, we can say with confidence that God, in his good providence, has taken the Supper from his people at this time. We should submit to him in this providence rather than attempt to take the sacrament by force through inappropriate means.
The Lord’s Supper wrongly observed is no longer the Lord’s Supper: If we are correct, and this observance is not legitimate, then what is being offered is of no spiritual value, but only, through a misunderstanding, of perceived emotional value. If virtual Communion is an inappropriate practice, it may even be spiritually harmful.
The irony of virtual Communion: If God has indeed taken this from us for now, then we more truly commune with one another in our abstinence—our shared fasting from the Supper—than we do by taking virtual Communion. The practice of virtual Communion at this time, when so many are abstaining for conscience’ sake, communicates disunity rather than unity, however unintentionally.
The regular practice of our Scottish Presbyterian forefathers was, at times, an annual observance of the Lord’s Supper: There is much historical precedence in the Church for annual Communion, suggesting that we will be fine if we are unable to observe the sacrament for a few months.
We are not special in history: In history, the Church has frequently been incapable of gathering and, therefore, incapable of taking the Supper together. Our moment is nothing special in this historical context, and, therefore, taking extraordinary measures, such as virtual Communion, is unwarranted.
We believe our constitution and vows exclude this practice: All Saints Presbyterian Church is a member congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, and our officers (pastors, elders, and deacons) have taken vows to uphold the constitution of the PCA (Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms and the Book of Church Order). We believe the constitution of the PCA forbids virtual Communion and that the current circumstances do not change or nullify our vows. Indeed, to observe virtual Communion would be a violation of our vows.
The question should be decided by our church courts: We may be mistaken in all this, and if we are, it would be best and most consistent with our Presbyterian form of government for the Presbytery or the General Assembly to rule on this matter.
The Session holds the sacraments in very high regard. It is our great joy to administer the Lord’s Supper to you and celebrate with you on a weekly basis. And, just as we mourn our inability to gather in person on Sundays, we mourn the loss of the Table. However, for the reasons outlined above, the Session is confident that it is best to accept this providence of the Lord, trusting that he will restore the Supper to us according to his perfect wisdom and resting in his sufficient provision until that day.
The Session also instructs you, our members, for your good, not to participate in any virtual Communion offered by any other church. The reasons listed above for not observing virtual Communion are not specific to circumstances in our congregation. They apply to any opportunity you may have to take virtual Communion. Though we trust that other churches are coming to their conclusions prayerfully and with a clear conscience, we do not believe there is any spiritual benefit in virtual Communion. We are deeply concerned that, just as there was in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11), there may even be spiritual harm in it. And so, it is out of love and concern that we give this counsel.
Having said all of these things, I want to tell you the most important thing. Though we cannot participate in Communion for now, Jesus Christ is no further from you in this moment than he was when you last stood at the Table, eating and drinking together with his people. He loves you. He knows your fears. And he feeds you even now by his Word and Spirit. Turn to his Word. Take up and read. Pray to your Father in heaven. All the grace you need is available for you there.
We look forward to the day when we are able to worship together face-to-face and return to the Table which is so richly set by our Savior, Jesus Christ. Until then, the Lord bless you and keep you.
All Saints Presbyterian Church