Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Across Scotland, churches have been responding to the challenges and opportunities that social isolation and lock-down have created. Many individuals have had their first experience of video-conferencing, livestreaming or webcasting through their local church, creating a justifiable sense that they are playing an important part in establishing a new world of shared, digital, video experiences. Tentatively we have become self-taught, overnight ‘experts’ in this technology; and in many cases we have vulnerably exposed ourselves to anonymous, international and potentially critical audiences!
Worship gatherings have certainly looked and felt different. We have had to pose fresh questions about what constitutes corporate worship. What elements of our normal, Sunday, church activities can adequately be ported to remote video platforms? Is it still an act of corporate worship if these be pre-recorded and stitched together for individual audience members to access either simultaneously (e.g. a YouTube event, released at 11am on Sunday morning), or at a time of their choosing, like catch-up TV? To what extent does corporate worship instead presuppose that both the presenters and most of the congregation are part of the same ‘live’ context (e.g. a Facebook livestream event). Or, does corporate worship actually require us to be able to participate together, acknowledging and responding directly to each others’ seen and heard acts of devotion and needs (e.g. a scheduled Zoom conference call, complete with breakout rooms; albeit, perhaps with some self-muting during liturgical responses or singing)?
On the other hand, is there anything wrong with engaging in what amounts to an individual act of worship of God, in which my own private offerings are perhaps enhanced by the audio, video or written worship, prayers and teaching of others?
And, notwithstanding all these different possibilities, are some of our Sunday church activities simply not portable to a video setting? That is, will some worship activities always depend on multiple people being ‘altogether in one place’ (e.g. baptism or the laying on of hands)?
And, where does Communion fit into these options? In what ways is it possible to engage digitally or virtually in a ‘shared’ meal? Paul certainly considered that the Corinthians were deluding themselves if they truly thought that their particular attempts to celebrate the Lord’s supper were adequate (‘When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’, 1 Corinthians 11:20). This suggests that there are some essential requirements for something to be truly regarded as the Lord’s supper.
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul seems to list three features. First, he stresses the importance of participation – one with another; one with the many. ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (10:16-17).
Secondly, in the following chapter there is a repeated stress on coming together. ‘For, in the first place, when you come together as a church …’ (11:18); as we have already seen, ‘When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat’ (11:20); and, ‘So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another’ (11:33).
Thirdly, it is essential that there is a mutual recognition of each other, a discerning appreciation of each other as those who are present with you as the body of Christ. Paul is incensed that ‘each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk’ (11:21). Rather, there must be a waiting for one another (11:33). Without this act of ‘discerning the body’, the Corinthians risk eating and drinking judgment on themselves (11:29).
Paul certainly emphasises that the Lord’s supper is an act both of memorialising the Last Supper (11:23-25) and of proclaiming Jesus’ death until he return (11:26). To what extent, however, does he additionally impress on the Corinthians that the presence and mutual recognition of one another in a shared meal, at a shared table, are also at the very heart of this act of worship?
And, are there allowable exceptions to these norms, extenuating circumstances, or different ways of celebrating Communion in extremis? In a fascinating series of tweets @JamesBejon (Apr 5, 2020) has drawn attention to two situations in the Old Testament, when it was not possible to celebrate the Passover in accordance with God’s clear instructions. Numbers 9 records that a few individuals were unable to observe the very first Passover at the appointed time because of their legitimately, unclean state. However, for good reason they didn’t want to be excluded. Moses accordingly sought guidance from God, who permitted this small group to observe the annual feast one month later instead. In 2 Chronicles 28, at the end of the historical period of the Old Testament, the good king Hezekiah opened up the abandoned Temple, restoring it as a venue for worship. However, he completed this task too late for the annual Passover festival. Once again, God saw fit to bless their plans to celebrate during the second month instead.
Do these passage from the Old and New Testaments suggest that there are a few, non-negotiable, essential features in these shared meals that always need to be observed? But are there also rare circumstances when limited, carefully considered exceptions are permissible? Some Christian denominations make provision for the practice of ‘Spiritual Communion’ – an alternative to the Lord’s supper, especially during times of persecution, that is neither dependent on the presence of others, nor on a defined time or place. It’s not the real deal, and nobody is pretending it is; but, at its heart is a yearning for the time when the Lord’s supper can again be celebrated within the gathered body of Christ. It remains an act of memorialising, while the element of shared participation is temporarily unavailable.
Many Jews, still today, recognise that they are unable to meet together in the Temple to celebrate the Passover. Instead they hopefully proclaim: ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ Across our union of Scottish Baptist churches, there is surely a longing for the time when we’ll next be able to share a meal together as we used to. In the meantime, what is it about our digital gatherings that creates connection – not only an encounter with God, but also an engagement between believing brothers and sisters, who know and are committed to each other, a sharing of lives, a meaningful inter-relating of people as one body of Christ and in Christ?
Perhaps our temporary, enforced lockdown, our lack of shared presence, has created a yearning for an even more enhanced experience of corporate worship when we return – a desire, not merely to arrive at church and respond to what others have prepared for us (‘Come, for all things are now ready’), but to bring our own individual, pre-prepared offerings, to be shared with others. As Paul puts it: ‘What then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up’ (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Andrew D. Clarke
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. If you wish to engage in helpful dialogue with Andrew you can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org or with the College through social media if that’s where you see it!