Virtual Communion and Body of Christ: A Conversation with Dr. Deanna A. Thompson - Church Anew

Dr. Deanna A. Thompson, author of The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World and Director of The Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College, wrote her first post on the issue of whether or not to offer Holy Communion in the context of online worship on March 26, 2020. Viewed over 8,500 times in less than a week, Deanna’s second post responded to comments from a variety of perspectives as we continue to discern what it means to be the virtual body of Christ in a pandemic. This week Deanna talked to Pastor David Lillejord, Church Anew Executive Board Member, in her first personal interview about this topic.

Pastor Lillejord: How did the issue of communion during online worship become an important one for you?

Dr. Thompson: I used to be really skeptical about digital technology. I didn't own a cell phone and I was really proud of that fact. And my kids didn't own cell phones. I didn't participate in social media and felt really self-righteous about that too, because I really did not see being virtually connected as offering anything value added. And then eleven years ago, I got diagnosed with stage IV cancer, which kind of came out of the blue. And as my world became really small, I went from being very involved in my work, and my kids’ schools and in our church, and that whole world kind of went away. I had to resign from my full and wonderful life. What I started to realize is one of the few ways I could be connected to other people was through digital technology. That experience really transformed my understanding about how we can use digital technology to help us better live into the call of being the body of Christ for one another.

But the issue of having communion as part of virtual or online worship was an issue that once I started writing and speaking about the virtual body of Christ, everyone wanted me to weigh in on. I didn't quite get around to it. I knew it would be controversial and it didn't seem so pressing. When we had all these in-person options of communion, why share the sacrament virtually? But then with the pandemic, it suddenly became much more pressing. And while church leaders were encouraging people to fast or refrain from the practice, I started noticing how more and more congregations were actually venturing into this area. And I didn’t see anyone weighing in on what it means to do this theologically. I thought it would be important to try and think through some of the issues given this was a situation facing many congregations right now.

Pastor Lillejord: And how is your health now?

Dr. Thompson: I am in my third remission, and I'm doing about as well as humanly possible with incurable cancer. It could change at any point, but so far it’s been in remission for about six years. So it feels good. Thanks for asking.

Pastor Lillejord: So why do you think communion in virtual worship is such a controversial issue?

Dr. Thompson: I think the challenge for people is that many see virtual connectedness or being connected via digital technology as diametrically opposed to being related to each other in person. A lot of people don't want to use the term virtual, you know, it means “almost” or “barely,” so it doesn't really enhance the sense that this is meaningful or real. A lot of people see virtual interaction, virtual worship as disembodied because it's mediated through a screen. I think there's a sense that worshiping online, taking communion in the context of virtual worship doesn’t involve the body. A really important challenge though, and this comes from my kind of conversion experience of being quarantined by cancer, is that there's not an either/or when we're involved in virtual worship. Actually our bodies are involved. I have a friend who told me that she found herself on her knees in her living room in the middle of her church’s worship service. She was moved to get down on her knees and pray, which she doesn't do when she's there in person. One person said he cries through every hymn that we sing virtually. In other words, people are experiencing worship in embodied ways. It's not an either/or.

I think sometimes, too, we romanticize in-person interactions. I think all of us have been with people who are physically sitting next to us but are not really present with us. Right? Their minds are somewhere else. They could just be emotionally distant, preoccupied. And one of the things that happened when I was really sick was that virtual interaction became one of the main ways I communicated with others. And in some ways, virtual communication often allowed a kind of intimacy that wasn't there in in-person interactions.

I think part of what we need to say is not all in-person interactions are inherently good and positive and not all virtual interactions are inherently subpar. All of our communication is mediated in some way. Our ways of being in touch and interacting with each other are complex and don't fit neatly into these virtual versus embodied realities. So what I'm trying to do is help people nuance their understanding of the relationship between virtual and embodied interactions and not see them as diametrically opposed.

Pastor Lillejord: So it's not just a theological thing? In fact, many of the things you listed were kind of cultural about what you learned when you had cancer and had to communicate in quarantine virtually, and now many more of us are getting to learn them for the first time through the pandemic.

Dr. Thompson: I think you're right and I wouldn't have believed it had I not had cancer. I would not have guessed that sometimes virtual interaction could be superior to in-person interaction. So I do feel like having had this experience before, or really having to depend on virtual interaction as my one of my primary ways of being in touch, helped me realize the virtual Body of Christ is alive and well and offers healing and care and compassion and support. It's helped me blow up that sense that one is inherently superior to the other.

Pastor Lillejord: What are some cautions for churches who are offering or considering communion, the online version?

Dr. Thompson: There's been a lot of cautioning against it. I think some of the things they're saying make a lot of sense. It is important to reassure people that if they don't get to partake in communion their faith is not at risk. The practice of weekly communion has become more and more popular in the Lutheran Church, so it's assumed that communion is pretty central to being a worshipping Christian. And so I do think there is likely a sense from a number of people who worry about what they are missing out on. To emphasize that the Word comes to us through the reading of scripture, that it comes to us in absolution, that it comes to us through preaching, that it comes to us through the blessing is all really important. The Word of God comes to us and we're not being denied that Word if we don't have access to communion.

One of the biggest issues that has been lifted up is the issue of access. I think that's a really important issue. And the issue of who has access to the internet is a big one. We've got economic disparities that are really significant. I know some of our partner synods globally are really challenged right now by not being able to physically gather and not having the option of gathering virtually. I think that we want to take that seriously.

I think there are ways for us as congregations to find out who in our congregation does not have access and consider how might we offer them access to the sacraments. I think there are ways to get creative about that.

At the same time, I do think that this issue of access is way bigger than internet access. There are a lot of people who can't get to worship when it's in person. Many churches have provisions for bringing people the sacrament when they can’t get to church. But these visits don’t always happen. I was never brought the sacrament when I was sick, I imagine I'm not alone. I think that many people who are really sick, many people who care for people who are sick, many people who work during the times when worship is offered regularly miss out on worship and the sacrament. I think we actually have quite a significant access issue regarding in-person worship, maybe even bigger than the access issue of the internet.

One of the things I’m concerned about is when churches start having in-person worship again is that the most vulnerable among us are not going to be there, right? They're not going to risk that. And so when you've got, I don't know, 30% of your congregation 20% of your congregation coming to in person worship. What is the church going to do?

Pastor Lillejord: This issue of access is going to be with us for a while. I think it always has been with us, or maybe we are paying more attention to it now. It's going be an issue going forward for quite some time. Turning to another issue, what are we learning about the office of the pastor during the pandemic?

Dr. Thompson: One of the things that I started to notice about the way the body of Christ operates virtually beyond the confines of the local church is how many people share in the role of ministry. That's something that I’ve always known, but when I got sick, I saw a new level of shared ministry. Lutherans talk about the priesthood of all believers, the way in which all of us are called to be ministers. I really saw that happening when I was sick, and I see it happening now. All the people who are part of congregations who are really tech savvy, who’ve jumped in to make online worship happen and run smoothly; those who offer musical offering for worship, taping things in their houses, mixing different voices and instruments together. We’re sharing the ministry of contacting people in the congregation to check in on how they are doing. For a lot of churches, of course, shared ministry is not new. But I feel like I'm seeing a shared sense of ministry in a way that, to me is much more visible than when we're not in a pandemic. And I think it’s increased visibility helps us live into that vision that all of us are part of the body of Christ, and every part of the body has a function, and they're all important. So it's really pushing us to live into that polity that we have in the Lutheran Church and in many Protestant communities.

Pastor Lillejord: How will virtual communion affect our understanding of church and worship going forward?

Dr. Thompson: One of the things that I've heard people talk about is the concern that if you open the floodgates and do communion at home, people aren't going to see the need for the church anymore. People will think that they don't need to come to church because they can do worship and communion at home in their pajamas. When I talk to pastors, I'm hearing that attendance for online worship is two or three times larger compared to in-person attendance from this time last year.

We had our first virtual coffee hour after church and there were over 100 people. We don't usually get 100 people for a coffee hour for our in-person gatherings. So what does this tell us? What are we learning about what people need and what nourishes their faith? As we move someday out of this pandemic I hope we don’t go back to exactly how things were before but we learn from the ways that the church is now meeting people's needs virtually. A lot of churches have had to pivot and it's been hard and they're longing for the day this experiment is over. And I can relate to that. At the same time, I really hope that we're paying attention to what we're learning.

Pastor Lillejord: What has the overall reaction been to you and your thoughts on the issue of virtual communion?

Dr. Thompson: I've received a lot of really positive feedback. I heard from someone in Indonesia who wanted to translate my writing about it into local languages so that worshipping Christians there could learn how I was thinking about this. I've had a lot of people get in touch with me and be really supportive. There are a number of folks who are religion scholars and theologians who really disagree with the approach I'm taking. And some of the disagreement has to do with the conviction that on-line communion is a disembodied kind of experience. That real presence can't happen because it's virtual. That it's not truly the gathering of the body of Christ because it’s being mediated by digital technology.

And so there definitely are theological objections but also then there's been by some friends and colleagues, objections to me weighing in on this because the Presiding Bishop encouraged fasting from the sacrament. For some people it's been unfortunate that I would publicly want to disagree with that.

The thing that really pushed me into the conversation was actually hearing from a Lutheran Bishop who said, despite what the Presiding Bishop has said, half the congregations in his synod were going ahead with online communion. And at that point, I consider myself a theologian of the church, and this is a topic that I've thought a lot about, and it seemed to me that someone should lay out the theological rationale for virtual communion and how to do it well.

I find that most people who aren't professional theologians don't really have a problem with it. I've had a number of people ask me why others would oppose it. They see us worshiping online and do not understand why people would support worship but not communion being offered at this time of great anxiety and challenge.

Pastor Lillejord: Well, I want to personally thank you for addressing it. Thank you for the wisdom, but also for your personal story. I think the church always has to engage in these discussions and not always agree with one another. This includes discussions about worshipping in person and/or online—before, during, and after this pandemic.

Dr. Thompson: Yes, and this is where many of us have been thinking in an either/or kind of way. Either church is fully in person and that's the way it's meant to be or it's virtual, and we’re being co-opted by market forces and settling for a poor substitute of the real thing. The experience of being terribly ill made me realize that digital technology is a tool that we can use well to help us better be the body of Christ. Or we can ignore it or use it poorly. And I think that we should have some robust discussions about that rather than just assume it's a poor substitute for the real thing. So, yeah, I'm hoping that we're being kind of forced into a conversation that could have been going on for the last 10-15 years.

I hope we will continue the conversation about what it looks like to be the virtual body of Christ faithfully in a time of pandemic. And this is where I think Luther at his best was thinking about caring for and meeting the needs of those who are suffering around him. He writes about the deadly plague because he cares about people who are dying and he wants church leaders and government leaders to respond to that. This is where the image of the body of Christ from First Corinthians comes in. The members of the body who are suffering deserve the most attention. So for me the call of the gospel is to help others know that when you're suffering you're not alone, God is with you and that being the body of Christ together is to be with people in that suffering and hopefully to alleviate some of it. And it seems to me that allowing people to participate in something like communion can bring great comfort and sustenance for their faith right now.

Dr. Deanna A. Thompson is Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community and Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Before moving to St. Olaf, Thompson taught religion for over two decades at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Thompson is a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Martin Luther and feminism to the intersections of cancer, trauma, and faith, and what it means to be the church in the digital age. She is author of five books, including Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross; The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World; and most recently, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry.

Nourished by Lutheran tradition, the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community engages people of all backgrounds and beliefs in deep exploration of core commitments and life choices in ways that foster inclusive community, both within and beyond St. Olaf College.

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.