Holy Communion in times of digitalization

Holy Communion is currently a hot topic under discussion, specifically whether and in what way digital celebrations may be and should be enacted. At the Institute, Dr. Frank Zeeb (associate research professor since October 2020), is primarily concerned to investigate this question within the framework of a study project using methods of New Testament exegesis, dogmatics and communication sciences.

According to Augsburg Confession article VII, one of the fundamental characteristics of the Church is that in her the “sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” Therefore, it is always worthwhile to consider Holy Communion in light of the Gospel. It is certainly more than a coincidence that this sacrament is currently being discussed fiercely along two lines: On the one hand, in the Protestant-Catholic dialogue (in view of the question whether it is possible for Protestant and Catholic Christians to celebrate Holy Communion / Eucharist together), and on the other hand, whether digital celebrations of Holy Communion are permissible.

This question has arisen again and again in some German regional churches for several years, mainly on the occasion of individual pastors inviting people to participate “in front of your screen” in television services of smaller broadcasting companies or unofficial channels. This invitation is usually justified by the fact that the congregation in front of the screen is a congregation in the full sense of the term, and that the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper is a gift of God and the Holy Spirit, who is effective “when and where it pleases God,” i.e., potentially also on virtual media.

In view of the pandemic that emerged a few weeks before Easter last year, with its restrictions on in-person contact, the question became highly relevant in a new way. Many people demanded en masse that an appropriate celebration of the Passion should include a celebration of the Lord’s Supper; a “fast from the Lord’s Supper” was out of the question for them. Pastors not infrequently declared themselves willing for pastoral reasons to conduct, permit or at least tolerate a digital celebration of the Lord’s Supper. According to a representative survey by the Evangelische Arbeitsstelle für missionarische Kirchenentwicklung und diakonische Profilbildung (midi), digital communion was celebrated in 12% of the congregations. The attitude of the official pronouncements of church leaders was inconsistent.

What emerged under high time pressure during the Passion season a year ago now needs to be theologically considered and evaluated to develop a well-argued position. Several questions – among many others – seem paramount:

  • What does “in accordance with the institution” mean in this context?
  • Is there a definition of “emergency” that justifies new and deviant forms?
  • In what way is Christ present in bread and wine and what does this mean for a digital celebration?
  • How does the “communion that Christ Himself establishes” occur when it is gathered in different places and does not meet physically?
  • How can the gift character be preserved in virtual contexts?
  • Is it constitutive that communion guests receive the consecrated elements, or can the consecrating words be related to an “idea” of bread and wine that materializes in different places in the bread or wine present there respectively?
  • Under what circumstances can a “self-communion” be permissible?
  • Which media are suitable for such a celebration, which are not?
  • How can the temporal unity of the celebration be preserved?
  • How can we prevent communion celebrations from being led by persons who are not properly called to do so?

After an initial review of the discussion and the literature that has appeared since then, the questions should be examined under aspects of Biblical exegesis, Christology, and communication science. A careful and thoughtful debate seems urgently needed at the crucial core of ecclesiology, lest we rashly create facts and legal norms that may be theologically questionable.