As part of CEC’s monthly Theological Reflections series titled “Communion in Crisis: The Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” read below reflections from Lea Schlenker, CEC Governing Board Member from the Evangelical Church in Germany.
From early 2020, COVID-19 has affected almost all levels of life, including church life. Government restrictions on public gatherings have posed new challenges to religious communities, leading to creative responses and formats, and also to intense discussions on what can be transferred to the virtual realm, and what cannot. While online sermons are hardly controversial, Protestants in Germany have different opinions about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper outside the traditional congregational context.
Different opinions among German Protestants
Controversies around the Lord’s Supper are nothing new to churches under the umbrella of the “Protestant Church in Germany” (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, EKD): Lutheran, Reformed, and United traditions have their own particular understanding. Only since the Leuenberg Concord in 1973 have Lutheran and Reformed churches in Europe officially enjoyed full communion, which includes the Lord’s Supper. Further, ecumenical dialogue, especially with Roman Catholics, is central in Germany. Some fear that any change in Protestant sacramental practice might jeopardise the achievements of years of joint efforts towards an ecumenical understanding in this regard. Hence, it is no surprise that discussion on online celebrations of the Lord’s Supper has been tense. Three principal views can be discerned:
- Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be postponed until regular gatherings are possible. Additionally, some suggest to have Agape meals, which do not have sacramental character.
- An online celebration of the Lord’s Supper is possible, using bread and wine at home.
- The notion of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ should be reinvigorated, allowing for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper with those at home.
Shortly before the celebration of Easter in 2020, EKD discouraged finding quick solutions and pointed to the need for more foundational theological reflection. At the same time, some churches within EKD celebrated the Lord’s Supper online, while others provided liturgies for the Lord’s Supper at home on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. This (typically Protestant, some might say) disparity of views results from a differing balance of theological arguments, on the one hand, and from a diversity of local pious traditions, on the other. In the following, I point to some arguments that I find especially important and propose a particular combined form of celebrating the Lord’s Supper in times of pandemic.
Theological foundations of the Lord’s Supper
Martin Luther describes the Lord’s Supper as a sign of Christ’s mercy to strengthen and comfort the believers in the face of sins and distress. The sacrament transforms the believers, as they share joy and pain with Christ, but also among each other. It renews them in their communion with Christ and with all believers, inciting them to works of love and mercy. In times of COVID-19, isolation and the lack of communion cause distress, and the ‘spiritual medicine’ of the Lord’s Supper might gain new importance here.
The healing dimension of the Lord’s Supper is founded in Christ’s promise to be truly present in the bread and the wine. In Lutheran understanding, Christ can be present everywhere. However, his promise on which the believer relies, is that he will be present in the bread and wine over which the words of institution are spoken. As Augustine says, when the Word is added to the element, it becomes a sacrament. In order to safeguard a correct administration of the sacraments, and the pure teaching of the Gospel, the Augsburg Confession binds these roles to an official vocation by the church, i.e., only pastors and officially recognised lay preachers can lead the Lord’s Supper. Consequently, the Lord’s Supper is not usually celebrated at home. Regarding online services, the question arises whether digitally transmitted words of institution, spoken by a pastor on the screen, actually are assigned to the bread and wine before the screen. Is then a valid celebration of the Lord’s Supper impossible in times of pandemic?
Proposal for a combined form in times of pandemic
Given that the pandemic has been part of our lives for a year, I suggest to consider a combined form of celebrating the Lord’s Supper while under the restrictions. While the Lord’s Supper is not celebrated every Sunday in German Protestant churches, but rather once a month, I miss it a lot – and I find it crucial for theological reasons. The Lord’s Supper is foundational for church life and practice, as the communion with Christ enables the church to be a communion itself. In my opinion, this communion can be realised if one simultaneously combines a live-streamed online celebration and a celebration at home. As part of an online service, a pastor can celebrate the Lord’s Supper with at least one physically present congregant and include the congregants at home into the sacrament. When the words of institution are spoken, the congregants join the pastor in saying them and in distributing and receiving bread and wine among themselves. In this constellation, it is important that those at home also form a congregation of at least two members, ideally inviting another congregant who lives alone. (In Germany, gatherings of one household and one additional person were allowed during most of the pandemic.) This combined form of an online celebration and a simultaneous celebration at home might offer a way for believers to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a valid and communal form, strengthening their bodies and spirits in times of isolation and distress.
Suggestions for further reading:
- The Augsburg Confession, esp. articles V–XIV.
- Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), Hinweise zum Umgang mit dem Abendmahl in der Corona-Krise,  3 Apr 2020 (accessed on 10 Feb 2021).
- Jenson, Robert W., Visible Words. The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments, Philadelphia PA: Fortress Press, 1978.
- Luther, Martin, Vom Sakrament des Leibes Christi, WA 2, 742–755.
- Schiefelbein-Guerrero, Kyle Kenneth, “Whether one may flee from digital worship: Reflections on sacramental ministry in a public health crisis”, Dialog 59/2 (2020), DOI: 10.1111/dial.125, 49–55.
About the author:
Lea Schlenker studied Protestant Theology in Tübingen, Germany. Currently, she pursues a second M.A. in “Islamic Theology in the European Context” and prepares her PhD. She serves as a member of CEC’s Governing Board and as its youth advisor.
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.