From the Bishop’s Desk: Holy Communion and Other Updates

Dear Colleagues in Christ,

As you may have seen in my prayers online, I am deeply grateful for you and the leadership you’ve exhibited these last several days. I’m proud of the ways you are showing up and being church for one another and this world that God so loves. Last week, at the Conference of Bishops, bishops in Region 8 shared a meal and compared notes about the pastors in their synods. Some said, “They’re doing great. Sometimes they need some hand holding, but for the most part, they’re great!” Others lifted up a leader or two and thanked God for them, “I don’t know where we would be without them.” Still others raved, “I have the brightest and best in my synod.” I listened and observed. I said nothing. Instead, I simply thanked God for you.

I kept my thoughts to myself then, but you should know what I know. I have been called to serve as bishop of an “Awesome Synod.” It’s what I say almost every day at the office. I say it all the time because it’s true. This past week, all you’ve done is confirm that truth: You are awesome leaders of faith who love and care for your people in meaningful and authentic ways. Again, I thank God for you.

It has been well said, over and over that these are unprecedented times, and it looks as though it is going to get worse before it gets better. The Roman Catholic Church in Rockville Center (NY) has just shared that there is no possible way for the church to gather in person for Holy Week and Easter. My Episcopal colleague in Washington, D.C. has recently broken the hard news that in-person liturgies are suspended through May 16. Kansas has called off school for the rest of the academic year. The Governors of Delaware and Maryland have initiated strict public gathering restrictions. The White House has called on the National Guard to assist in keeping gatherings to less than ten people. Social distancing keeps us at least six feet apart. In the last week, I’ve spent more time at home – on Zoom, email, and on the phone – than I have in a month!

While the hardships are real, I have seen signs of tremendous hope. In my own sense of isolation, I have been nourished by online community, corporate prayer, thoughtful preaching, challenging questions and the blessing of watching us find new ways to accompany our communities. Yes! We are church even when we don’t gather in church buildings.

A few updates to share with you.

1. Conversations. Please join me via Zoom for an hour of conversation, discussion, and prayerful support as we navigate this innovative time of being church together. Each conference will have their own conversation time next week. If you can’t make your time, please contact Pr. Erin (erinsr@metrodcelca.org) so you can join one of the other conversations.

2. The Governors of Delaware and Maryland, as well as the White House, have ruled out the possibility of gathering for in-person worship. Please, out of love for your neighbor, create new and meaningful ways to worship virtually. The synod has created a list of the current online service offerings at http://tinyurl.com/DCOnlineWorship. To update your listing contact Katharyn (kwheeler@metrodcelca.org). 

3. Whether you worship online or not, please communicate with those in your charge. Take your directories, start from the beginning or end, and call everyone over the next days/weeks. Ask how they are, check-in about how they are feeling – and pray with/for them. While we are losing out on in-person interaction, we can continue to build relationships. 

4. Please, in your communications with your congregations and ministries, remind folks that the needs of the church continue, too. Encourage people in their generosity to support the church and those ministries that serve the neighbor in need. 

5. With weeks of not gathering for in-person worship, I am mindful that many of our congregations are going to be in a difficult place to meet payroll and benevolence commitments. Please have conversations with your leadership about how you are going to deal with this issue. Don’t wait until the crisis comes. If you have a mortgage obligation, please be in touch with the lender sooner, rather than later; many will work with you more generously than if you wait until the payment is due/missed.

6. Collaborate! Talk with neighbors about how they are “doing” and “being” church in these times. Encourage and bless one another. Share resources, rather than duplicate them. Accept the invitation to our new Facebook Group for Rostered Ministers in our synod, “Metro D.C. Synod Rostered Minister’s Group,” and share your learnings and resources there. We made a shared folder to compile resources you have been creating and finding throughout this time. You can find the folder here and add things to the folder by emailing Katharyn (kwheeler@metrodcelca.org) with Shared Folder in the subject.

7. Funerals. Please call the funeral homes and learn of the protocols they have in place given the circumstance. Consider open air graveside services for the immediate future and memorial services/celebration of life to be scheduled at a later date. 

8. Holy Communion. I have not received many questions about how we might be creative in sharing holy communion with those in our charge during times when we are not gathered for in-person worship. However, I have noticed some conversations and concerns online that should be addressed. Bishop Eaton is preparing thoughts on behalf of the church, but in the interim, I offer these thoughts.

  1. We hold a promise near: Jesus incarnates in Word and prayer, the mutual consolation we share, the ways we sacrifice for others, in the ways we serve God and neighbor – even in isolation.
  2. Let’s consider keeping these last weeks of Lent as a fast from the Table.
  3. Regarding online or virtual communion: I don’t see a confessional, biblical or theological way forward for consecrating remotely. I know some will land in a different place, but I would invite you in your discernment to take a longer view. What are the implications of doing something in extremis for long-term community? I learned from a fellow colleague that a pastor who used to serve in their synod did online worship and invited people to lift up bread and wine to join in the holy communion where they were. An astute layperson forwarded that video to their bishop, and asked three questions: Is this “legal?” and “If it is, does it ‘work’ on replay?” and “Can I play it on demand and have communion whenever I want to?” This plays into the epitome of poor theology, in my mind, making holy communion something magic to be done on demand; rather than a gift to be received in community. Virtual communion, in my mind, disembodies the very sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
  4. Regarding drive-thru communion: This still poses some real health concerns; the interaction of serving the holy communion violates the urgency for distancing. Again, I urge you to take a long view of what implications sharing communion outside of a worshipping community might have once the crisis has passed.
  5. I think, confessionally, we could make a case for a household to celebrate the holy communion together in their home. Even with ordained people, however, I can’t imagine why we would do this, rather than celebrate the Lord who is present to us in every meal shared. Our full-communion partners, The Moravian Church and the United Methodist Church suggest that this could/would take shape as a Love Feast.
  6. I am appending a note from Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, Professor Emeritus from the former Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, that offers his insights, as well, along with an addendum by Rev. Dr. Gordon Lathrop, Professor of Liturgy Emeritus. Click here to read these notes. These serve as a resource for discernment and conversation with your leadership and congregations as you make decisions for the weeks ahead.
  7. Ultimately, I want you to hear me: You are the minister in your context. If you draw conclusions about sharing the sacrament that are different from my own, I am not going to seek you out for prosecution or persecution. I trust you.

As I mentioned in a response to an inquiry about communion on Facebook, I am a member of this church in large part due to its sacramental theology. The sacraments save and feed me. The thought of not partaking of the Eucharist during Holy Week and Easter in-person worship weighs heavy on me. This may be true for you and your faith community.

Still, we hold near the truth that we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, even as we honor our neighbor by engaging in social distancing for a while and cannot gather in person as an assembly of believers. I am encouraged by how your partnership, prayer, support, and creativity is nourishing us all in new and unexpected ways. Thank you, dear friends; and thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, in us, with us, and incarnate through us.

En Cristo,

Rev. Leila M. Ortiz, Bishop                           

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