I met my husband in the winter of 2015, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Between then and summer 2017, when we got married, we were blessed to be able to visit each other three times. Between those times, we had Skype. We Skyped until we were sick of Skype. And what those countless hours of Skype taught me was that video calling, semi-miraculous gift that it is, is a pretty poor substitute for actually being together. Some things just don’t translate across a screen. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced us all to remain behind closed doors, many congregations are learning the same lesson. We want to be together. We want to worship. Zoom, live-streams, and pre-recorded videos are a blessing and better than nothing, but we’re learning, viscerally, that they’re no substitute for the body of Christ gathered in one place.
This situation reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said about margarine––that at the first taste, it’s practically indistinguishable from butter, but after months and months of margarine, you’ll never mistake it for butter again. The first week our congregation had worship online, we were all excited about it. We were so grateful to have a safe, responsible way to continue worship in the face of the pandemic. Maybe we even noticed some advantages online worship has over physical gatherings. I certainly heard people fret over whether anyone will want to return to physical worship once this time is over. But as the weeks have stretched on, I have learned that this is not a real threat, at least in my congregation. Everyone I speak to longs for the gathering of God’s people once again. Online worship, while still better than nothing, is no substitute for the real thing. In the end, it can’t compare with face-to-face presence.
And that presents a problem for those of us committed to a Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper. We believe that the Lord is present to us in the sacrament in a different way than he is at other times, but that presence is not primarily centered in the elements of bread and wine. Here is Calvin:
In the Lord’s Supper, Christ assures us of his love and grace towards us, and we are bound together with other believers into his body. The Lord’s Supper is about relationships: Christ’s love for and claim on us, and our place in his Church. Many churches that are practicing “online communion” during this crisis are making a good-faith effort to recognize that. They take videos, they attempt to ensure that everyone has the “same bread” by distributing recipes. I’ve even seen discussions on the virtues of live, streamed celebrations vs. pre-recorded ones, with the former being closer to real togetherness than the latter.
But the internet remains essentially an individual experience. I read articles, I scroll through social media, and I completely control my interactions with other people. If a friend messages me, I don’t have to respond until it’s convenient to me. If someone is impolite or aggressive, I don’t have to engage at all. If I so choose, I can block that person and never even see their name again. None of these conveniences are marks of true togetherness. Real communion is inherently inconvenient, because more wills, opinions, and desires are at play than just my own. The internet remains an individual, and even isolated, experience even when we attempt, out of necessity, online worship. We each sit at our computers, alone or with our immediate family, and watch a screen on which a pastor prays, reads Scripture, and preaches. You can see the pastor, but the pastor can’t see you and no one in the congregation can perceive the others. We’re all effectively alone.
Perhaps this isn’t such a problem for Scripture reading or preaching, which are, humanly speaking, primarily auditory experiences. But communion, like baptism, is physical and embodied. It’s about bread and wine, yes. But it’s also about the inconvenience of relationships, about being bound to God and to one another in Christ, even when being so bound is unpleasant or constricting. And that simply can’t be done over a livestream or even a video call, let alone over a pre-recorded video. At best, what we experience in such a case is private communion, which our tradition has always opposed. At best, it’s margarine: close enough to butter at first glance, but lacking the substance of the real thing.
This inherent isolation of the internet poses another problem as well. All bread and all wine are the good gifts of God. But in the Lord’s Supper, that “givenness” is amplified and emphasized. Our Roman Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters are right when they speak of “receiving” communion, rather than “taking” it. In typical Reformed practice, we receive the gift of the Lord’s Supper from the hands of elders and others in our congregation. It is not something we seize for ourselves. This, too, cannot really be replicated in online communion. The best case scenario is that family members are able to give it to one another. But many people in a typical congregation, especially the young and the elderly, live alone. Again, here we encounter the injunction against private communion in 1 Corinthians 11, as well as making unnecessary distinctions between families and singles.
As Reformed Christians, we believe that Christ is Lord even over a pandemic. COVID-19 does not threaten God’s sovereignty. In the deep and unknowable wisdom of God, we are prevented from gathering for worship in a way that makes the celebration of the sacraments possible. The lack of the Lord’s Supper is a real loss, but it isn’t a permanent one. The Lord will again restore what he has taken. Meanwhile, our life of faith continues. Rather than bending our theology and practice to meet this crisis in a way that can only disguise our loss, let’s take this opportunity to rediscover our practices of daily prayer and family worship, to find new and creative ways to love our neighbor, and retain our trust that God’s fatherly love will turn this, too, for our good.
 Lewis, C.S. “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” In Christian Reflections, 48. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014.