On Twitter over the past couple weeks of social distancing and Zoom churches, our fellow Christian siblings—ministers and laypeople alike—have been debating the use of communion. Should they offer communion virtually during this time, or should they wait until they are gathered together? They are wrestling with their theology, creeds, and what to do in this unprecedented moment: a time of physical distance yet still with potential to gather virtually. How do they come together during this time?
As a lifelong Quaker who attended a Presbyterian seminary, I have found these debates intriguing because I am fascinated with the theology of communion. I have found the richness of a truly gathered Quaker meeting for worship to be an inward form of communion. I have found Christ to be present in these meetings for worship, a confirmation of Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Also, I have discovered the warmth of community while participating in the outward form of communion (bread and wine), a witness to Jesus’s Last Supper with His disciples. These communion experiences are two powerful forms of bringing people together into deeper worship.
Quakers should grapple with the issues of communion, yet in ways different from those of previous times. Too often I hear Quakers say that we don’t have sacraments. Yet our early Quaker forebears were very clear about their beliefs in the sacraments: they believed that the sacraments were an inward experience, not an outward one. Early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay writes: “The Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ is inward and spiritual.” Barclay further states that the outward form of sacraments is not correct because it doesn’t appear at all in the Gospel of John, the gospel with which early Friends identified most.
Different understandings of communion among Friends can be attributed partly to the lack of the creeds or doctrinal statements that can be found in other denominations and faiths. Early Friends found their faith to be experimental and open to the promptings of the living Spirit, which does not lend itself to creeds or enforceable doctrinal statements (although there have been efforts to uphold doctrinal statements throughout Quaker history). These early Friends were very Bible-literate and would check their leadings with the Bible. Their writings have passages of the Bible interwoven with their own thoughts. We do not have unifying documents that clearly state our beliefs, so this history and theology surrounding inward communion have been lost to Friends over time. In a way, Quaker theology often is communicated like a game of telephone. We remember the pieces of theology that have stuck with us and pass them along.
It is hard not to be in the same physical space and to feel each other’s energy. Our communion requires us to be together. Can this really happen online and be authentic?
Another major issue among Quakers today is the wide range of our theology. Quakers within the United States hold various views of Christ and Christianity: from very devout Christian to very devout atheist, and everything in between. A Christian concept such as communion is not thought relevant to the practice of many contemporary Friends. Finding ways to talk about these issues in a welcoming and respectful way can be difficult for meetings, so oftentimes we do not talk about them at all. This is a shame because it keeps us from knowing each other’s journey more deeply. Our worship needs to be a communion of sorts; if it isn’t, why gather together in meetinghouses at all?
While understanding the breadth of theological diversity of Quakers, we need to consider how we come together and how we welcome each other into the community. I have heard some Friends say that virtual worship has been hard and does not feel real. And yes, it is hard not to be in the same physical space and to feel each other’s energy. I miss that feeling these days, too.
Our communion requires us to be together. Can this really happen online and be authentic?
What good can come out of this time when we are physically separated from our friends, family, meeting, and work? My hope is that we see this as an opportunity to find ways to stay better connected.
This is the perfect time to explore these issues about communion because this time is one of historic proportion. The institutional church within the United States is dying, and groups are experimenting with what it means to be a community—which often happens outside any faith group. A recent Cigna survey found that loneliness is on the rise. Where do we see Quakers filling this void? What resources can we share with the wider world about community?
Living through a global pandemic limits our being physically together. Many of us are in our homes. At the same time, we have amazing resources to connect: to be the church, to be the meeting. My three-year-old daughter “sees” her grandparents every week despite living more than 1,000 miles away. I can video chat with friends across the world, and it often feels like we are in the same room.
I have been hearing stories about people connecting again with their meetings despite physical distances. Some Friends haven’t been able to attend their meetings due to different circumstances, yet there were no virtual ways to be with the meeting until the whole community was affected. As our communities grow older and less able to physically attend, and as younger generations become more transient due to the economy and job stability, how can we be more mindful of including those who don’t have the luxury of being physically present? Are we not denying them the communion in the manner of Friends?
Are we excluding our fellow Quakers who are disabled, elderly, or living far away by not offering ways to join with the rest of the meeting? What is the effect on the community when these people cannot fully take part? How do we make our yearly meeting gatherings more accessible to people who can’t take off from work or travel long distances?
Over the past several weeks I have wondered how life will be different after the pandemic is over. Its impact will be felt for years, perhaps generations. What good can come out of this time when we are physically separated from our friends, family, meeting, and work? My hope is that we see this as an opportunity to find ways to stay better connected. We have the technology to bring two or three together; why don’t we use it more often?