The UMC has just had a rather interesting public debate: is it appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of communion online? While this is something that is being done in various churches, including some experimentation in United Methodist communities, this is the first time significant leadership of the church has gathered to discuss it. Many things are at issue:
- To what extent is online community real community?
- How do we balance the call to be missional with the call to liturgical and ecumenical integrity?
- How does the classical Christian rejection of Gnosticism and affirmation of Incarnation play into this discussion?
- How are the Eucharistic elements blessed, and can that blessing be extended via technological means?
Larry Hollon and other thoughtful folks have weighed in on this, but I want to offer my own reflection. This debate has been in my back yard, so to speak, as the precipitating event for this discussion was Central UMC Concord’s plan to celebrate communion as part of their new online campus. I have already spilled much ink on this (and if you want more, email me) but I just found something helpful in an unlikely place: Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Pollan is a renowned food journalist, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and an outspoken critic of pretty much everything about Western eating habits. Rule 59 reads,
“Americans are increasingly eating in solitude. Although there is some research to suggest that light eaters will eat more when they dine with others (perhaps because they spend more time at the table), for people prone to overeating, communal meals tend to limit consumption, if only because we’re less likely to stuff ourselves when others are watching. We also tend to eat more slowly, since there’s usually more going on at the table than ingestion. This is precisely why so much food marketing is designed to encourage us to eat in front of the TV or in the car: When we eat alone, we eat more. But regulating appetite is only part of the story: The shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.”
Like all good eating, the Eucharist is a ritual of family and community, a shared meal in which much more is going on than mere ingestion. Pollan is on to something when he says the marketers are driving us to eat alone for a reason: we eat badly when we eat alone, separate from a community of friends who would elevate our dining to something sacred.
Pollan is trying to help us recover something that is at the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality: the beauty of table fellowship.
Christians, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on the Burger King-ing of worship (your way, right away). When it comes to our own peculiar form of communal eating, in which Jesus is both host and offering, I pray we listen more to Pollan and less to Burger King.
Decades ago, Albert Outler put his finger on the origin of this debate within Methodism:
“One of the most obvious of Methodism’s paradoxes . . . is that we are the only major ‘church family’ in Christian history that began as an evangelical sect within a sacramental church and then evolved into a quasi-sacramental church . . . without an adequate self-understanding for doing so.”
The journey from “quasi-sacramental” back to our roots – and really, the deeper taproot of the wider Body of Christ – is really just beginning. For now, at least, the center holds.