Can ministers bless the Lord’s Table over Zoom? The worldwide pandemic provides all-new context for this theologically untested—and for some unthinkable—question. It may be time to consider what we mean by “presence.”

National guidelines now limit gatherings to 10 people. Churches have transitioned to online services and Zoom meetings. The sermon livestream is no problem—we’re comfortable with the Word transferring digitally. A recent study from the Pew Research Center easily pulled together 50,000 online sermons from Pentecostal to Catholic. Eighty-three percent of American protestant pastors agree that viewing a livestream is an acceptable option for the sick.

The controversy is with the latter half of Word and Table. “This is my body”—Christ’s words make our faith explicitly physical. But COVID-19 has transformed our physical bodies and gatherings from blessed unity to social-distanced partitioning. Hugs and hands convey fear instead of love. The bread and the cup elicit worry of viral transmission.

With physical gatherings canceled, congregations with quarterly Communion may slide the schedule a bit. But many evangelical Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians celebrate with bread and wine weekly. The shared Table is ordered and integral to worship. What now? Do you have to be present to partake of the presence?

Some “low church” nondenominational churches like Saddleback have long offered instructions to follow along with your own grape juice and livestream. Never mind 1990s HTML wonders like eHolyCom. While the United Methodist Church wrote exploratory papers in 2013, most sacramental denominations have relegated online Holy Communion to an exotic theological issue—akin to “Can extraterrestrials be saved?” (or to virtual cathedrals in the immersive Second Life video game). John Dyer offers a recent and extensive John Dyer offers a recent and extensive survey.

For many, online Communion is untenable. The Westminster Confession 27.4 forbids it. A conservative reformed professor told me, “The situation you describe is essentially private Communion.”

Today’s situation forces a reconsideration. COVID-19 may be the spark, but the kindling fueling the fire burning isn’t theological discourse. It’s in that last “I love you” text message you sent your spouse. The white-on-blue bubble carries an instantaneous reality, a moment of intimacy and presence that moves our heart and mind more than any adjacent physical stranger in that coffee shop (or perhaps that pew).

The means of digital communication have become ordinary and invisible to our most meaningful relationships. We laugh and cry and express intimacy and frustration with a cross-cut of iMessage and emojis, FaceTime and Instagram stories. We challenge our best friend on workout apps and ask private medical questions via telehealth.

The essential word is presence—along with the dramatic and sustained cultural shift in our understanding of it. A daily digital culture has shaped our interactions to the point that human presence is not synonymous to physicality.

Communications scholars have long understood this. It’s our words, yes, but also the verified identity of our interlocutor—that photo and number so you “know it’s them.” It’s real-time interactive signals like those three dots that appear when your relation is typing a response. It’s both low-resolution icons like a thumbs up and high-resolution facial expressions when we switch to video—those incredibly important nonverbal eyebrow lifts!

This new normal has changed us. New technologies that first appear as toys (we play with them) soon turn into tools (we use them) and then become our technological terroir—that assumed background environment wherein something like “texting” becomes the conversation (or argument!). These “environmental” technologies shift the focus from the tech back to the substance of human presence. Being present doesn't require being in person.

Article continues below

What does this technological presence have to do with sacramental presence?

Sacramental controversies have bounced between the metaphysical and the practical. Wine or grape juice? Leavened or unleavened? But most central are the contentions around God’s real presence. The means of grace? A memorial? A millennium of Midrash expounds on “This is my body … do this in remembrance of me.”

Nearly all Christians agree: There is a holy mystery in how God is present to us at the Table. In the language of communications, I assert the presence of Jesus is mediated. Mediated in the bread and the wine, the Holy Spirit, and the people of God (the body of Christ). Mediated like the truth and intimacy of an “I love you” text message.

Imagine a video conference call with 40 faces in small squares across the screen, each with a cup and a piece of bread in view. We worship and pray and the pastor or priest consecrates with language from the Book of Common Prayer, “send your Spirit upon these gifts”—the non-physical, all-present Spirit of God. Then as one body we partake together. In unity. Not privately. Present to one another.

Arguments from a previous generation about digital Communion were binary: offline and online. The internet was seen as anonymous and individualistic. A cold keyboard couldn’t compare to warm shoulders.

Yet the imagined video conference call—not so much imagined anymore—is an extension of known relationships of the local body. Why can’t the signs of God’s presence—the bread and wine—and the signs of our presence—our smiles and voices—signify both the goodness of the embodied world and the reality of the spiritual one? There is nothing inherently Gnostic—disembodied—here. Real bodies. Real bread. And the real presence of the Triune God, on Zoom this weekend and joyfully gathered back together in person once this too has passed.

Cultural shifts have often been tectonic plates on which the church builds as we apply the unchanging Word to the changing world. The physical gifts of God for the present people of God.

Chris Ridgeway writes at the intersection of faith and technology. He is the cohost of the Device & Virtuepodcast about ethics and everyday tech and lives in Chicago.