As part of CEC’s monthly Theological Reflections series “Communion in Crisis: The Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic” read below reflections from Rev. Ruth Gee, Assistant Secretary of the Conference of the Methodist Church in Britain.
There can be no doubt that we are living in a time of crisis in Britain and globally. The crisis most often spoken about in the media at this time is that of the Covid-19 pandemic but it is only one of many crises facing us today, including global warming, national and global social inequalities, discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and age. It is important to maintain this wider perspective but, in this short reflection, I am focusing on the particular crisis of the global pandemic. We have been badly affected by the spread of the virus in Britain with the number of deaths exceeding that of other countries in Europe and, at the time of writing, we are beginning to emerge cautiously from a third period of lockdown. We try to plan for a future yet unknown, living with continuing uncertainty and forced into personal isolation even as we have isolated ourselves politically from our European neighbours.
During the first period of lockdown in the spring of 2020 churches had to close their buildings and so Methodists in Britain were unable to celebrate Holy Communion. In the second and third periods of lockdown, churches were permitted to remain open but many, including the majority of Methodist churches, closed their doors again believing that this best served the common good.
Historians have reminded us that times of plague or pandemic are characterised by the amplification of trends that are already present. It is not so much that new things begin but more that those things which are already happening develop faster. This has been our experience in relation to the debate we are having about the celebration of Holy Communion. As people have been unable to gather physically around the Lord’s Table, and as we have been worshipping together online or by telephone or through distribution of printed resources, questions that were already being asked about the possibility of Holy Communion being mediated through social media gained a greater urgency.
Holy Communion in the Methodist Church in Britain
The Methodist Conference is the governing body of the Methodist Church in Britain and has authority in questions of doctrine. In 2003 the Conference received and was commended for study a report entitled His Presence Makes The Feast. This report lists nine key themes in the theology of Holy Communion, drawn from the Bible and Christian Tradition. They are: thanksgiving; life in unity (koinonia); remembering (anamnesis); sacrifice; presence; the work of the Spirit (epiclesis); anticipation (eschatology); mission and justice; personal devotion. This report and the liturgy in the authorised Methodist Worship Book provide a good introduction to the belief and practice of the Methodist Church in Britain.
The Conference was first asked to consider the possibility of Holy Communion mediated through social media in 2011 and, since then, the Faith and Order Committee has worked with others reporting back in 2015 and 2018. In 2018, the Conference agreed on this resolution:
The Conference adopted the policy that presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are not permitted to use electronic means of communication, such as the internet or video-conferencing, in order to invite those not physically present with the presiding minister to receive the elements.
This remains the position of the Methodist Church in Britain and it can only be changed by a further resolution of the Conference.
Then came the pandemic and some Methodists began to argue strongly for an immediate change of the policy so that people would not be deprived of the sacrament of Holy Communion in these exceptional circumstances.
The Methodist Conference meets annually in June, it is legally obliged to do so, and had to meet online during the pandemic in 2020. When the foundational documents of the Methodist Church were written, there was no allowance made for pandemic so the Conference determined that only essential business could be conducted online. This was frustrating for those who had hoped that the Conference would consider the possibility of online communion but, after much consultation, a proposal was brought and the Conference directed the Faith and Order Committee to do two things: to produce guidance on how appropriate participation in services of Holy Communion by those attending online might be encouraged, and to bring a report and recommendations regarding ‘online communion’ to the 2021 Conference.
Guidance has been published on pastoral responses in the light of Covid-19. This includes reference to extended communion, spiritual communion and a reminder of the tradition of the Love Feast. It also addresses our response to deprivation and considers the Methodist understanding of Holy Communion recognising the diversity in practice and belief among Methodists.
When the Conference meets this year it will receive the report and recommendations of the Faith and Order Committee regarding ‘online communion’. This report has yet to be published.
A personal reflection
Methodists were already considering the arguments for and against ‘online communion’ and the deprivation from celebrating Holy Communion has hastened this process. We are not alone in considering these things and our ecumenical partners have taken a variety of decisions. Some have already authorised online communion, others seem unlikely to do so. My conversations with ecumenical partners indicate that they will watch what we do with interest and continue to work in partnership with us.
In the summer of 2020, when restrictions were relaxed for a time, I was able to attend church and receive communion and to preside at communion services in two churches. I was deeply moved on all three occasions: I have missed receiving the sacrament. There are occasions when I feel that this deprivation is one way in which I, a follower of Jesus, identify with the many other forms of deprivation being experienced by those who have suffered from Covid-19.
I have found comfort in sharing in and leading online worship, which includes the Love Feast, a part of the Methodist tradition which had not been important to me before now.
We have been deprived and we have been enriched as new forms of worship have developed and we wait to see how the future unfolds.
References and suggestions for further reading:
- His Presence Makes the Feast (The Methodist Conference 2003), https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-holy-communion-in-methodist-church-2003.pdf
- Holy Communion Mediated Through Social Media (The Methodist Conference 2015), https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-2018-31-Faith-and-Order-Committee.pdf
- The Faith and Order report to the Methodist Conference (2018) section 5.6, https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-2018-31-Faith-and-Order-Committee.pdf
- Holy Communion: Responding Pastorally in the light of Covid-19 (Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church in Britain 2020), https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/17977/f-and-o-holy-communion-responding-pastorally-covid-19-100720.pdf
- The Methodist Worship Book Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes (1999) pages 114-234 Methodist Publishing, https://www.methodistpublishing.org.uk/books/9781858521169/the-methodist-worship-book
About the Author
The Rev. Ruth Gee, BA, M.Litt is the Assistant Secretary of the Conference of the Methodist Church in Britain and the Connexional Ecumenical Officer. Before her ordination as a presbyter Ruth taught theology to students aged 11-18.
Disclaimer: The impressions expressed above are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the Conference of European Churches.