As online worship becomes more common in some churches, leaders within the United Methodist Church are debating whether the denomination should condone online Communion.
Many churches have launched online options for church activities, including worship, seminary, ordination counseling and financial giving. Despite the growing availability of church resources online, participating in Communion has mostly remained a part of the physical act of worship in a congregation.
“The Methodist understanding of Communion arguably is more low church and less emphasis on the ‘real presence,’” Tooley said, when compared to denominations like the Episcopal Church.
With Methodists’ history of itinerant evangelism spread through circuit-riding preaching, online Communion fits with the denomination’s populist bent, said Stephen Gunter, associate dean for Methodist studies at Duke Divinity School.
“It’s always been about how we get the gospel to the next person,” he said.
But Methodists also have a history of accountability, checking on one another’s spiritual life, Gunter said. “I can’t see how someone (who’s) satisfied to be in front of a TV or computer screen would be interested in being held accountable to anything.”
Some worry that online communication is becoming an alternate form of community for Christians.
“Digital mediation is now preferred to the immediacy of embodied conversation,” wrote Brent Laytham, dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology and professor of theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University. “Like a hug or a kiss, like incarnation and resurrection, Communion requires bodies that touch.”