A Pastoral Letter on the Practice of Holy Communion during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Dear Members and friends of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection,
We are surely living in unusual, unprecedented, and unnerving times. Our lives are turned upside down in many ways including what we have traditionally known as church and worship. In this time of virtual worship when we are limited in what we have traditionally offered as the liturgy, the work of the people, some of our members have been asking about the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is not only true of our own congregation, but of Christians in general. In this time of separation, anxiety, and suffering we have discerned that there is a heightened desire among some of our siblings for the Sacrament. The question has arisen, “Can we celebrate Holy Communion from the distance of our homes during our live stream worship?”
Under normal circumstances and in less unsettled times we would have had the luxury of taking time to consider this question and invite dialogue about it. But now, while people are dying, people are hurting, and we are waging “war,” we do not have that luxury. We feel an urgent need to console and comfort the faithful through the grace of God offered in the Word and in the Sacrament.
We have been in prayer, theological study, and conversation about this matter for several weeks. We have considered the counsel of our bishop and synodical theologians. The result of all of this is that we presented a proposal to the Church Council asking them to consider allowing us to offer Holy Communion from a distance that can be celebrated in your homes during our live stream worship services. The Church Council studied and deliberated over our proposal and they unanimously supported it while emphasizing that education of the congregation is paramount.
As noted, members of our congregation are not alone in wondering about Holy Communion during this time that the church cannot meet bodily. Many Christians are in dialogue and discernment about how to faithfully address this situation. There is not agreement within the ELCA and among our full communion partner denominations. What we are talking about is not a matter of doctrine, but of theological reflection, thus it serves as counsel, not a mandate to our congregation.
This communication will provide a summary of the theology and rationale supporting our decision. For those who want to delve more deeply into the matter, including the writings of the bishop and synodical theologians, we will provide additional resources. We are both available to answer your questions and for conversation with you if that will be helpful. After reading this summary and giving it your faithful consideration, we are aware that some of our members will not agree with this decision. Those members who do not agree will not have to take the Sacrament in their homes during our live stream worship. For them, it may feel faithful and spiritual to fast from Communion during this time of “exile.” Like other matters in the life of our church where there is not unanimity, we respect the bound convictions of each member while still holding them under the big tent of the ELCA and LCR that we call the Body of Christ.
In making our decision, we have relied heavily on The Use of the Means of Grace. This statement, adopted by the ELCA in 1997, is the most current theological guidance of our denomination on the subject of the Word of God and the Sacraments. At the end of this communication you will find excerpts from that Statement that we have most heavily relied on to come to our conclusion.
Word and Sacrament are intimately connected in Lutheran teaching and in the worship life of the Church. The very explanation of the Church, from Article VII of The Augsburg Confession, defines the Church with the characteristics that the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered. Our faith is one of grace that is communicated in Word and Sacrament. Additionally, in the ELCA, our “norm” is weekly Holy Communion.
The Church needs the Sacrament. That statement is particularly true of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and we may be a bit unique in that way. In our local context, this belief is affirmed in that we have celebrated the Sacrament at every weekly worship service since our founding. In addition, members of our congregation have been asking for the Sacrament during this time of “exile.” The longing for the efficacy (desired result) of the Sacrament is evident among our siblings. We perceive a need for the healing and sustenance of spirit that is provided by Holy Communion so, therefore, it should be offered.
In this unusual time, it is possible and necessary that we can administer the Sacrament with fundamental attention to care, fidelity, reverence, and good order. As those called by the congregation to this ministry, we alone, within the context of the live stream worship, will speak the words to consecrate the elements. Bread and wine, in a reverent setting, will be prepared in your homes. We will even offer a recipe and tutorial for those who desire to bake their own Communion bread. For “good order” in the church, this will only be done until we are able to gather again as the Body, in person, and then this practice will end. In other words, our church is not setting any precedent for future Communion practices, but only making a compassionate decision to address the needs of the faithful in the present moment. As we take this time to modify Communion practices that have been normative, and perhaps even rote, this temporary practice could and should provide for a teachable moment for our families. We will prepare a video tutorial to explain all of this in more detail. We will also offer rubrics (worship instructions) and explanations within the Communion liturgy. For children who are not communing, words of blessing will be offered.
While there are no teaching documents of the Lutheran church that were written specifically with the current situation in mind, we may consider that it has always been the practice of our Church to provide the Sacrament for those who can’t be part of the worshiping community; the sick, the homebound, and the imprisoned. Those words seem to describe some facet of what all of our members are experiencing at present.
Given the vocabulary of technology that permeates our culture, it should be understood that this decision presumes that there is nothing “virtual,” “live streamed,” magical or simulated about this administration of the Sacrament. It is happening for a church practicing responsible social distancing but it is presumed that the distance at this time is imaginatively a bit more than from the altar to the back of our sanctuary. We believe that Christ remains “really present; in, with, and under” the Sacrament and that our physical presence to each other from our homes is in and through the work of the Holy Spirit. Acknowledging that the community gathered to receive the Sacrament is best gathered bodily, we want to emphasize that in this unusual time it should not be understood that this is a private, family or household Communion, but that the Spirit gathers the family of Christ as it must be socially distant for this time.
Recognizing the polity (governance) of the ELCA and that our synod is not mandating any universal Communion practice for its member congregations during this time (unity without uniformity), we acknowledge that members of our own congregation are likely not of one mind on this decision either. Therefore, those who decide not to receive Holy Communion from a distance at this time will be honored and respected in their bound conscience.
Pastor Nicole and Pastor Zorn in consultation with the Church Council
April 7, 2020
The Tuesday of Holy Week
The following excerpts from The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, (with bold type added) inform decisions that we have made regarding the practice of Holy Communion at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection during the Coronavirus.
Preface: The Triune God and the Means of Grace
We have called this gift of Word and Sacrament by the name "the means of grace." The living heart of all these means is the presence of Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit as the gift of the Father.
God gives the Word and the sacraments to the Church and by the power of the Spirit thereby creates and sustains the Church among us. God establishes the sacraments "to awaken and confirm faith." God calls the Church to exercise care and fidelity in its use of the means of grace, so that all people may hear and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be gathered into God's own mission for the life of the world.
Either careless practice or rigid uniformity may distort the power of the gift.
It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel." (Augsburg Confession, Article VII, The Church)
The gift of Word and Sacrament is from God. This statement on sacramental practices seeks to encourage unity among us in the administration of the means of grace and to foster common understanding and practice. It does not seek to impose uniformity among us.
This statement grows out of this church's concern for healthy pastoral action and strong congregational mission. It does not address our practice of Word and Sacrament out of antiquarian or legalistic interests but rather to ground the practice of our church in the Gospel and to encourage good order within our church.
Part 3: Holy Communion and the Christian Assembly
The two principal parts of the liturgy of Holy Communion, the proclamation of the Word of God and the celebration of the sacramental meal, are so intimately connected as to form one act of worship.
According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, 'Lutheran congregations celebrate the Holy Communion every Sunday and festival. This confession remains the norm for our practice.
The Church celebrates the Holy Communion frequently because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church's fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained.'
The bread and wine of Communion are handled with care and reverence, out of a sense of the value both of what has been set apart by the Word as a bearer of the presence of Christ and of God's good creation.
Congregations provide for communion of the sick, homebound, and imprisoned.